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Varanasi warriors

Three design soldiers out to protect the Benarasi weave, chart out a fight plan

When you are a designer-turned MP, fashion is bound to make it to national headlines. In June this year, a delegation of top Indian designers, led by BJP’s Maharashtra treasurer Shaina NC, travelled to Varanasi to meet master weavers and manufacturers to discuss a plan that could breathe life into a dying market for Benarasi products, including its once famed sarees. The germ of the idea occurred to her last October, but Shaina waited to collect support from over 40 designers before she approached Union MoS (Independent Charge) for Textile Santosh Gangwar.

The number has grown to 100, including prominent names Ritu Kumar, Anita Dongre and Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla. The idea — mooted under the PM’s Make in India campaign — is simple. Strengthen the position of the weaver, and bring back those who have ditched the loom for call center jobs, by riding on the exposure that top names in Indian fashion enjoy worldwide.
The ensembles created in collaboration will carry labels that credit the weaver just as they would the designer.

Design interpreter: Ritu Kumar

pic/Shadab Khan
Pic/Shadab Khan

Specialises in: The Padma Shri awardee is known for ethnic designs that draws heavily from India’s textile and embroidery heritage.  Anatomy of an ensemble: For the rani pink saree, I’ve reached out to weavers from Bhagalpur and Jharkhand. The dyes used remind you of those used in traditional bridal Benarasi sarees. The design stays quiet to allow the rich fabric its time in the spotlight. The pattern on it is inspired by one that I found on a 120-year-old saree.

The showcase: I will showcase Varanasi Weaves at the upcoming Lakmé Fashion Week — Winter Festive 2015 on August 27. It’s an ancient weave that even finds mention in the Vedas, and received patronage from riyasats across the country. This was before its systematic killing began about a century ago by the British. They wanted to ‘replicate’ Benarasi sarees in England and export them to the world, including India. Gradually, the sarees went through an ugly metamorphosis. The delicate bootis, badaams and kairis were replaced by rosettes typical of English tapestry. Benarasi loyalists began to distance themselves from this new and funny ‘wallpaper’ fabric. The Industrial Revolution brought in machine-spun yarn that was stiff. Gold and silver thread were replaced by cheap lurex.My goal is to revive its original glory. Even a collection of just a handful of sarees will see the market react with spontaneity. We have an urgent challenge on our hands. Do nothing for five years, and Varanasi will be wiped of its weavers.

The sustainability plan: The immediate plan is to create 11 sarees. That’s not ambitious, but given the ground reality, it will be a task. In my team, I have one of the best weaving technicians from India, Rahul Jain, who won the Padma Shri this year. Our next task is to land the right reference material for weavers to use. They have moved so far away from the original idea, that it will be a challenge for them to retrace their steps. I love the romance behind the idea of refashioning a motif but I doubt I can recreate the ambi (paisley) better than it already has been.

Design interpreter: Anita Dongre

Design interpreter: Anita Dongre

Specialises in: Juggling three labels, the Mumbai resident is the go-to designer for young Indians.
Anatomy of an ensemble: Belonging to the Wedding Diaries collection, the Benarasi handwoven maroon jacket carries Mughal flowers and is worn with a handcrafted ink blue crop top and skirt with a flamingo motif.
The showcase: My Benaras-inspired collection will walk the ramp at Lakmé Fashion Week Winter — Festive 2015 on August 27. This is a festive collection that uses traditional motifs with a modern twist. The fabric enhances my signature gota patti work, and you’ll see more of it here.
The sustainability plan: Instead of a one-off show, the plan is to work with Varanasi weavers over time, especially when I am conceiving a festive or party line. The first of these collections you can hope to see in store by next summer.

Design interpreter: Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla

Design interpreter: Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla
Pics/Nimesh Dave

Specialises in: ‘The Boys’ enjoy the honour of making Chikankari couture-worthy. Anatomy of an ensemble: The antique Benarasi brocade multi-panel sherwani is finished off with zardozi borders, paired with a brocade dupatta with a velvet zardozi border. The red Benarasi net ghagra is hand embroidered with gota and zardozi, and is worn with an antique brocade half-saree and bejeweled jadau blouse.
The showcase:
Varanasi, the new collection we will unveil at the BMW India Bridal Fashion Week in Delhi on August 7, uses the holy city as inspiration — its ghaats, rituals and colours are reflected in snatches. Along with Benarasi weaves, we have used georgette and khadi. Lavish resham and zardozi work is scattered over pinks, reds, oranges and yellows.
The sustainability plan: While Benarasi sarees are integral to the Indian trousseau, Benarsi fabrics available today are diluted versions of the original. The idea is to work at bringing the authentic weave back to the drawing board and cast it in a contemporary mould. Before we embraced Chikankari, Abu and I worked with Benarasi. We plan to return to the weavers to customise fabrics that we can cast in structured garments. We are planning to launch a Benarasi line soon. 

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