Style | The sari warriors15 min read . Updated: 14 Dec 2012, 06:03 PM IST
Reviving forgotten weaves and experimenting with warps and weftsthe sari has a saviour for every letter of the alphabet
In her 2010 book, Saris: Tradition and Beyond (Roli Books), Rta Kapur Chishti says that though the sari is a fast-disappearing garment for daily use, it will survive as occasion wear. A fact that Purnima Rai, president, Delhi Crafts Council, agrees with. “When I started working with the council in the 1980s, it was a common practice for women to wear cotton saris all day long. But in the last decade, at least in the north, that practice has vanished and with it cotton saris for daily wear have disappeared too."
According to Rai, while it is great to see designers and revivalists working with the weavers and helping them by introducing new yarns and designs, so that the sari does not die out completely, she is not entirely sure that design interventions always work. “It is not always necessary to modernize or contemporize a weave or design patterns. Too many design changes can completely kill the creativity of the weaver."
Kolkata-based designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee understands this, and for his Save the Saree project, he tends to keep his design inputs to a minimum. “I only curate or give inputs into aspects such as colour, etc., and not more. The idea is to keep it authentic and traditional. There is a lot of cross-pollination of weaves taking place due to commercial pressures and fusion has slowly started to overtake purity. I want to make tradition more important than fusion once again, and provide longevity to traditional weaving practices."
Whichever way you look at it, “the pleasure of draping this unstitched, fluid garment over and around the body" is unmatched, according to Chishti. We agree and went hunting for designers who are working with weavers to create new saris and preserve old ones. Now you can do your bit to save the sari.
Leena Das of Village Art started working in Bhagalpur, Bihar, in 2008 after completing her graduation in fashion and textile design from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift), Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Das, who showcases her collections mostly through exhibitions, recently worked on a range of about 40 saris, which were woven from Ahimsa silk yarn, also known as the “peace yarn". “There is a way to extract yarn from the (silkworm) cocoons without killing the pupae. You wait for the cocoon to crack open on its own without putting it in boiling water, facilitate the pupa to leave the cocoon and then hand-spin the yarn." Das admits the saris made from this yarn have a coarse finish and currently she is working with her husband, Avishek Manav, a handloom technologist, to find ways to make this yarn softer so that the final weave can make the sari drape more free-flowing.
Ahimsa silk saris start at ₹ 4,500. Contact Das at email@example.com.
The texture of these cotton saris from Orissa is so thick that they look and feel like bedspreads. Yet, Gunjan Jain of Vriksh hopes she will be able to create interest in the weave before it dies out completely. “The sari was originally woven very thick, necessary because of the humidity and atmospheric salinity in the air. The so-called Bomkai saris you find in the market nowadays are heavy silks and thin cottons with jacquard work, which are produced in another weaving district of Orissa, and are completely different from the original weave. The Bomkai weave is woven on a basic pit loom and at present there are only four weavers left in the Bomkai village, from where this weave originated," says Bhubaneswar-based Jain who studied fashion design at Pearl Academy, New Delhi, and moved to Orissa in 2007.
Jain says the weavers have inherited the colour and design sense from their ancestors who were inspired by their immediate environment. Hence you are likely to find motifs like kanthi phoola (small flower), mayura (peacock), rui machha (carp fish), koinchha (tortoise), padma (lotus) and daanti (teeth) on the anchal or pallu.
Bomkai saris start at ₹ 3,500. Contact Jain at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Winner of the Unesco Award of Excellence for Handicrafts (South-East Asia & South Asia) 2012 for her work with chikankari, Delhi-based Malavika Chatterjee says she has been focusing on introducing this embroidery on saris and fabrics made from natural yarns such as khadi, matka silk and tussar since 2002. “Traditionally, chikankari is done on muslin, chiffon or georgette saris—these are lighter fabrics and easier to embroider than tussar or matka silk," explains Chatterjee. However, when Chatterjee approached women in rural areas around Lucknow, she found she was able to convince them to work with silk and khadi because she was happy to pay extra and also because the work included reviving some of the older, not-so-prevalent stitches. “There are 36 stitches in chikankari, out of which only about 12—such as shadow work and tabchi—are commonly used today. The women were keen to try phanda, ghasspati, baalda and kaante stitches too." Chatterjee works out the patterns, threads, colours and stitches to be used in each sari, and makes a block pattern on the sari with sample stitches which the women then follow. “Of late, we are working on introducing chikankari embroidery on saris with hand-block prints, with kalamkari and with bandhani too," she says.
Khadi chikankari saris start at ₹ 4,500, and matka silk chikankari saris at ₹ 9,000. Contact Chatterjee at email@example.com.
Bappaditya Biswas, founder of the Byloom store in Kolkata, has been working with weavers in Bengal to revive some forgotten practices. This year, he worked with weavers from the Hooghly district who used to weave dhotis to create the dhoti-sari. “The people who weave dhotis in Bengal are used to weaving fine cotton yardage but there are not as many takers for dhotis today. Hence we decided to help these weavers find work by creating a dhoti-sari," explains Biswas. To begin with, most of the weavers were not used to the idea of weaving six yards since most dhotis are about four yards. “Also, most did not know how to use dyes, since dhotis are kora (a shade between white and off-white). We had to change the structure of their loom so that they could weave these saris. We have also taught them to make an inch-thick border in shades of red, purple and orange. Now, we are working on teaching the weavers how to create pallus for these saris," says Biswas, who showed a few of these saris for the first time at Sarees 2012, an exhibition held by the Delhi Crafts Council in October in New Delhi.
The dhoti-sari range starts at ₹ 1,150. For more information, go to www.bailou.net or visit Byloom, Hindusthan Park, Kalighat, Kolkata (033-24198727).
The father-daughter duo of Bharat and Palak Shah decided to bring the “best of Banaras" to Delhi when they opened Ekaya, a 2,000 sq. ft sari boutique in Delhi’s Defence Colony, late September. With the parent company based out of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, the store has access to over 10,000 weavers and craftsmen; the Shah family has been in the business of manufacturing and distributing Banarasi saris for three generations now. “The idea with Ekaya was to promote all types of handwoven and hand-embroidered saris of India," says Palak. Tussar silks, crepes, khadi, chikankari, vibrant pop-coloured tanchois and, of course, the rich Banarasi brocade. “When it comes to design, colours, the aesthetic, we don’t restrict ourselves by the traditional, or the modern for that matter. The sari is timeless," says Palak.
The Banarasi range at Ekaya starts at ₹ 10,000. Ekaya, D-7, Defence Colony, New Delhi.
Biswas, of Byloom, has been working with Basak weavers (weavers from Bangladesh who settled in Fulia in West Bengal’s Nadia district, after Partition) to revive the jacquard borders used on Tangail saris. “We like to retain old motifs such as chasme bulbul (dove’s eye), fish scales, old herringbone, but we have changed the colour palette."
Saris with jacquard borders start at ₹ 950. For more information, go to www.bailou.net or visit Byloom, Kolkata.
Ashdeen Z. Lilaowala, the designer behind the label Ashdeen, has been working at contemporizing the gara, or Parsi sari as they are commonly known, for five years. “While we still have the traditional kors (garas with an embroidered border only), we are also doing garas with embroidery all over," says Lilaowala who works out of Delhi and has been training craftsmen from Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and even Delhi to work on the embroideries for these saris. “The motifs are drawn from Chinese, Persian, British and Indian patterns. Hence you will see cranes, butterflies, roosters, paisleys, bows, baskets. We still use silk yarn for all embroideries but instead of gajji silk (manufactured in Surat), we now use jacquard silk for yardage." He says all saris are hand-embroidered.
Gara saris start at ₹ 22,000. Contact Lilaowala at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarita Ganeriwala set up Karomi Crafts ‘n’ Textiles in Kolkata in 2007. As a student of art (bachelors in fine arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda) and a postgraduate in textile design and development from Nift, New Delhi, Ganeriwala decided to marry the techniques of graphics arts (screen-printing, woodcuts, etching) to hand-block print techniques used in textiles. Ganeriwala’s hand-block printing is characterized by the unique method of “print over print" or layering. “In this technique, a piece of fabric that would ordinarily be printed once over is sometimes printed as many as four-six times in order for it to be complete. The end result is a very fine ‘texture’ effect; an almost translucent base effect wherein several layers of print are visible, one on top of the other." Most of these saris are in silk, and the dyes used are acid-based.
Hand-block printed saris start at ₹ 5,600. Contact Ganeriwala at email@example.com.
Ikat within ikat
Ikat (locally called bandha) means “to tie". It is a resist technique where the yarns are tied and dyed before weaving into motifs and patterns in different colours. Nuapatna village in the Cuttack district of Orissa is known for its khandua ikat—saris and fabrics woven in ikat in mainly three colours, red, yellow and green, and which are offered to the deities at Jagannath Temple. Jain works with the weavers in Nuapatna and is experimenting with different ikat techniques and fabric structures. “The kadam sari is our most innovative cocktail silk sari this year. We went one step beyond the traditional ikat technique, where we incorporated fine jharna ikat design in vivid colours inside bold curvilinear ikat motifs reflecting water and blooming flowers on a jet black sari! That is why it is now known as ikat within ikat," she explains. “We are trying to revive natural dyeing practices in this village and are using natural dyes like lac, catechu, jackfruit bark, palash flower," she adds.
Ikat within ikat saris start at ₹ 6,500, and transparent silk ikats at ₹ 6,490. Contact Jain at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jamdani in silk
The jamdani (extra weft) weaving technique is widely used in Bengal. “It is literally hand embroidery on loom and the work is so exquisite that I feel it is wasted on cotton yarns. Jamdani, because of its intricate pattern, has always been a highly expensive weaving technique. I was always enamoured by matka silk and wanted to try using these yarns to create jamdani saris, which I felt would be more value for money," says Ganeriwala. Her basic challenge has been to ensure the use of the finest quality of matka silk, so that the sari does not become heavy and also to encourage the artisans to move away from the traditional earth tones and fewer shades in the weave. “We use as many as 14-15 coloured yarns in one sari sometimes and try to contemporize the traditional motifs like tree of life, paisley, etc., by modernizing their form," she says.
Jamdani in silk saris start at ₹ 9,500. Contact Ganeriwala at email@example.com.
Traditional kalamkari, a hand-painted textile from Andhra Pradesh, is in subdued, earthy colours. Hyderabad-based designer Gaurang Shah decided to give it a splash of colour by introducing vibrant pinks, reds and oranges. Launched at the Lakmé Fashion Week Winter-Festive 2012, Shah’s collection of kalamkaris was created using reverse hand-painting technique. “Usually kalamkari is done on white or cream fabrics. We took bright fabrics to start with and painted with contrasting colours inside as well as outside lines," explains Shah. While most woven saris have a 2-3 inch border, Shah does a 6m sari with the rare, much wider 12-18-inch border, depending on the design. His Panchatantra theme of kalamkaris with animal motifs and bold patterns and colours at the Lakmé Fashion Week 2012 won him the best designer award for working with Indian weaves.
The kalamkari range starts at ₹ 18,000. Gaurang Shah, 36, Jubilee Hills, Hyderabad, or order at www.indianemporium.in.
Mumbai-based Anavila Misra graduated in knitwear design from Nift, New Delhi, in 2000 and started working on linen saris in 2009. “I was always keen to work with the linen yarn. I tried to work with weavers in Bengal to make a linen sari but it did not work. Then I sought out some weavers near Varanasi who were willing to experiment." Misra explains that if linen yarn is loosely woven, it gives the fabric better drape and also has fewer wrinkles, making it a good material for saris. “Of course, we also do enzyme washes and use fabric softeners on the sari after it is woven." It was only by the end of 2011 that the first linen sari really worked out in accordance with Misra’s specifications. “By October this year, my first collection of pure linen saris was showcased at the Sarees 2012 exhibition." Currently, she is working on silk-linen saris, with a warp of silk yarn and a weft of linen yarn, and saris made from khadi and linen yarns twisted together.
Pure linen saris start at ₹ 8,500, and khadi and linen twisted yarn saris start at ₹ 9,500. Contact Misra at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At a Madhu Jain retrospective in October held in Mumbai, on the designer completing 25 years in the industry, she pointed out a single kalamkari sari: “It has four techniques on it: the weaving of the Kota, the chikankari, the tie and die and the applique work." In another, she interweaves kalamkari with pita taar (thin wire beaten with a hammer). Interweaving varying techniques has been Jain’s signature, and her saris reflect more than one restored craft leaning on each other for support. A Thai ikat sari, woven in India, bears Thai motifs of the mandala surrounded by animals, taking off from Buddhist imagery. For her famous Raja Ravi Varma-inspired hand-painted saris, Jain soaks cloth in buffalo milk and gobar (cow dung), and once it dries, draws the outline on it with charcoal. Then, she fills in the design with laterite, alum, indigo flower, etc. It is then boiled and set to dry. “If you have to revive craft, and if the sari has to survive, it has to be old wine in new bottle" she says.
Madhu Jain saris start at ₹ 25,000, at Ensemble outlets in Mumbai and New Delhi; 85 Lansdowne, Sarat Bose Road, Kolkata (www.85lansdowne.com); and Amethyst, Royapettah, Chennai (www.amethystchennai.com).
A 1999 graduate in fashion design from Nift, New Delhi, Pradeep Pillai started working with saris in 2009, after he had worked on a project involving weavers in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. Among the artisan clusters he worked with, the ones in Nepura, Nalanda, in Bihar, specialize in different forms of the supplementary weft-weaving technique in tussar silks. “My collection of saris uses the same weave but the use of fine desi tussar yarn gives it a classic yet contemporary twist. Also, I have been trying to give a fresh impetus to the bawan booti sari—the traditional sari of this Buddhist belt which had 52 bootis (florets) in its body by introducing newer motifs," says Pillai. “I work with about 8-10 artisans in this area, and of late, I have been training them to work with graphic asymmetric patterns." Pillai, who is influenced by Germany’s Bauhaus School of design, says the saris are designed in such a way that they cannot be reproduced on power looms, thus making it a unique feature of his collection.
Nalanda saris start at ₹ 7,000. Contact Pillai at email@example.com.
Ethicus, a brand based in Pollachi, near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, believes it isn’t enough to just eat organic, one must also wear organic. “About 65% of the pesticides produced in India are used on the cotton crop," says Vijayalakshmi Nachiar, partner at Appachi Cotton, the parent company.
While Appachi Cotton works with communities of farmers and helps them grow cotton without the use of any chemicals and pesticides, Ethicus is the retail arm. “We believe in being ethical at every step of the way—from farmers, to weavers, designers, retailers as well as the customer," says Nachiar. There is no compromise on quality, though. Produced on handlooms in Pollachi, Ethicus saris are made with no-bleed international Pantone colour systems and certified organic dyes.
Organic cotton saris from Ethicus start at ₹ 3,500, at Kalpana in New Delhi; Benzer and Anita Dongre Timeless in Mumbai; Paduka in Chennai; and Prasiddhi Silks in Bangalore.
While Ghanashyam Sarode is best known for his pioneering efforts to revive the Uppada sari, the jewel in his portfolio remains the restored interlocking, brocade Paithani. The Paithani, a traditional Maharashtrian royal weave worn today at weddings, is typically floral, drawing from the imagery of swans and peacocks of Mughal, Bengali architecture and motifs of Ajanta as well as latter-day Nizami influences to form exquisite tapestries. Sarode explains that he uses an interlocking Paithani weave—two wefts on different shuttles, where the colour changes, is a technique known as kadiyal and leaves the reverse of the design so seamless as to make it nearly reversible.
The Paithani range starts at ₹ 7,000. Ghanshyam Sarode, B-63, First floor, Shivam Road, Hyderabad, and KR Towers, Third floor, Road No. 12, Banjara Hills, Hyderabad (27425666). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Queen of Burlesque
In November, designers Shivan and Narresh were chosen to dress the famous American burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese for her first visit to India. Teese is Cointreau’s brand ambassador. During her three-day visit, Teese wore three lace saris designed by Shivan and Narresh; the duo are better known for their luxury swimwear. The saris are a reflection of Teese’s love for lingerie and corsetry and brings out her personal style of being fun, irreverent and elegant, all at once.
Limited editions of the three saris, ₹ 30,000 onwards, at the Shivan & Narresh stores in Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi; and Bandra (West), Mumbai.
Rta Kapur Chishti’s Sari School
Chishti has spent the last 20 years exploring the sari across the length and breadth of the country—the 108 ways of draping it—and she says she can teach you any drape you want. A session at The Sari School, Jangpura (Extension), New Delhi, includes an audio-visual introduction to the sari, discussions on regional variations, spinning and weaving techniques and a chance to learn at least four draping styles.
A 3-hour class is ₹ 1,500. Contact Chishti at email@example.com.