Khadi Luxury


Khadi Luxury

New Delhi : Why a limited edition line of hand-spun khadi saris stands out in a bling-driven market.

Fashion may be defined as an essential expression of freedom but it is still a slavish pursuit in modern India. It is held captive by bling and brands. They determine the politics of consumption as they unambiguously spell wealth. Wearing wealth is, after all, the biggest trend. It needs no social analyst to deduce why Swarovski and Louis Vuitton are the most successful global entrants in our fashion market. One sparkles, the other screams with its logo.

This equation ripples out in many ways. It pushes up the value of blingy, designer-made bridal wear and pushes down hand-woven textiles, which neither shine nor are designers interested in draping them over Bollywood divas for magazine covers. That’s why it was surprising to see hand-spun khadi saris, including slightly coarse ones in natural hues like almond and white, sell at a recent sari exhibition in Delhi organised by the Crafts Council of India. They weren’t cheap either, each cost around or upwards of Rs 10,000. Their simplicity was arresting and when I traced some of them back to noted textile researcher and sari expert Rta Kapur Chishti’s studio, a modest basement workspace, a story unfurled.

Chishti, with a small team of assistants, has been trying to popularise her version of sustainable luxury— “hand-woven, non-embroidered, unstitched” textiles. What started with a book, Saris: Tradition and Beyond, perhaps the most exhaustive tome on draping and weaving, led to the Sari School two years ago. She organises three-hour sari workshops in various cities, with audiovisual presentations and draping lessons, which run alongside an exhibition of hand-woven textiles — low twill silk and hand-spun cotton. Now sold under the name of Taanbaan, they include stoles and dupattas too. Her most recent presentations have been at the Artisans Gallery in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai, and at Bandhej, Ahmedabad. In Delhi, the workshops are held at her studio on weekends. “I teach at least four sari styles, one each from the north, south, east and west, to explain essential differences in sari traditions,” she says.

Chishti works with weaver clusters in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh — three states robust with cotton produce. They only use organic cotton and don’t touch hybrid varieties. But it is not as if large consignments of khadi saris and dupattas arrive at her studio. Instead, only a few pieces come at a time, as hand-weaving is a slow and painstaking process. Precisely why, it is pure luxury. “When people ask me why these saris are so expensive despite being cotton, I tell them they are entirely handmade and the whole process — cleaning, combing, carding and spinning of the yarn — has been done by hand,” she says.

You can’t blame Chishti if impatience clouds her face while she talks. She is forced to market India’s most precious weaving tradition which, she says, if saved and supported through weaver welfare and proper wages, can make us the only country with a sustainable model of organic fashion. “Skilled khadi spinners are being turned into unskilled workers under NREGA,” she says, anxious that soon, there will be no spinners left to make hand-woven textiles.

While these are heirloom pieces that could be passed down generations, Chishti and team know too well that without band, baaja, baraat support, they are not easily marketable. Pitched against brands and bridal wear, selling unembellished hand-spun is like fighting a losing battle. Stores like Good Earth, for instance, which offer an appropriate selling environment, are located in prime markets. This means steep overheads that push prices up. On the other hand, Taanbaan can hardly be sold from malls. The product would be lost amidst industrial, fast fashion. “You have no idea how we survive amidst all the bling,” says Pallavi Varma, one of Chishti’s textile designer assistants. A trial is on to test if it would be viable to sell from Neemrana stores in Delhi and Mumbai, and some saris have been placed at Kamla, a handloom and handicraft store in Delhi, but it is not as if people are tripping over themselves to buy hand-spun cotton.

Chishti is not discounting her competitors. Even Kanjeevaram weavers are being converted into Swarovski foot soldiers by giving them gallons of crystals to paste on their weaves. Befuddled she may be by marketing and sale logistics, but she has optimistically initiated a Heritage Collection. It is a line of limited-edition, made-to-order bridal saris spun by chosen weavers in Varanasi. “I can’t allow you to photograph these,” she says guardedly, showing me a stunning, red Benarasi tissue sari coaxed out of a protective muslin cover. “The whole point is to keep these private and unseen till the client takes it away for the wedding.” It takes more than six months to make a sari like this and may be rare enough to eclipse any Tarun Tahiliani or Sabyasachi bridal garment. The Hermes sari? It stands no chance.