The Banaras bandwagon


The Banaras bandwagon

Banaras is in fashion. On the ramp, in new weaving projects, in “modern” commissions for master weavers, in ready-to-wear brocades, in painstakingly crafted press releases, in exhibitions planned in India and abroad.

Varanasi, as it is now called, is also where the Union textile ministry would like to see fashion designers making their first “stop” on corporate social responsibility (CSR) engagements. In May, select fashion designers and some well-known names in the handloom industry were called for an exploratory meeting by the ministry. It was suggested that Banaras-inspired fashion garments could be displayed in Davos, Switzerland. And that later, the exhibition could be taken to other parts of the world.

Varanasi, one of the oldest continually inhabited Indian cities, is famous for its trousseau saris, which are treated as prized heirlooms. Now Banaras is not just a trend, it is also the most politically correct word in the handloom industry.

The reasons are new. As the parliamentary constituency of the prime minister, Varanasi is of interest to different stakeholders. Curiously enough, there’s reason both for cheer and pessimism. On the one hand is the dominance of the powerloom industry and the blatant disregard for the Geographical Indication (GI) status given to “Banaras saris and brocades” in 2009. On the other, the city’s fascinating fabrics, including the traditional gold and silver woven brocades, are now being fashioned into “Western” and “fusion” clothes to attract new markets.

The last bit is not necessarily good news for what textile historian, designer and curator Rahul Jain describes as “India’s oldest, medieval and painstakingly slow weaving tradition”. Jain, who has been working in the field for 20 years, explains, “The reinvention of Banaras to create younger, fashionable, quick turnaround products is in complete contrast to what the 200-year-old centre of silk-weaving in India stood for.” Banaras is known for its saris and fabrics, its authentic gold and silver zari, weaves which do not always sit well on stitched garments.

Numerous questions pop up. Can fashion help the textile ministry reach its goals of boosting employment, garnering popularity for handlooms and validating this commercially? Wasn’t designer clothing overlaid with embroidery (rather than weaving), with easy-to-drape, synthetic fabrics and ready-made clothes, precisely why consumers moved away from traditionally woven clothes in the first place?

Handloom and craft experts are sceptical. The association with the fashion industry hasn’t changed Varanasi’s fortunes as a textile hub.

Everyone just uses the word “revive”, says Laila Tyabji, chairperson of Dastkar, a society for crafts and craftspeople. “The knee-jerk association with fashion has done a lot of harm,” she says. “The emphasis on ‘new design’, also a part of the new (draft) textile policy of India, often leads to a few weeks of work by designers without enough research. Craftspeople do not have the confidence to say no to urban designers, nor do they archive their old designs, so they go along, but what we get in the end may not be what must be sustained,” adds Tyabji.

The fashion industry, however, isn’t daunted by any of this. This week, before starting its ongoing Winter/Festive 2015 edition, the Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW), along with the textile ministry, launched an exhibition, Woven Wonders Of Varanasi. Mounted at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, it has been curated by Bharatiya Janata Party member and designer Shaina N.C. to showcase garments from India’s most-known designers and was inaugurated by Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. “Revival”, the oldest new word in India’s enervated handloom vocabulary, was generously used by all.

The ritualistic Indian Handloom and Textile Day that the LFW observes every season also celebrated “Varanasi” this once, on Thursday. On the menu: special fashion shows, including an applauded one by Ritu Kumar, a display of Banaras-created garments by some of the top names in fashion, a Banaras store, and a discussion on “Banaras In Indian Fashion”.

Certainly, some of the most technically innovative and beautiful garments seen in the last few fashion seasons have been made in Banaras. From Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s many fabulous experiments with these old weaves—he was the first to bring them to the ramp, long before Banaras became a buzzword in mainstream Indian fashion—to Abraham and Thakore’s woven experiments to create modern patterns for saris and prêt; from Sanjay Garg’s technically stunning ready-to-wear collection made from woven Banarasi Kadhua fabrics, shown at last year’s LFW, to Rohit Bal’s less talked about Banarasi saris; from Anupamaa Dayal’s body-conscious crepes for sari store Ekaya to designer Shruti Sancheti’s Kashi To Kyoto collection for the LFW this week, there has been a deluge. For couturiers, Varanasi is almost a fall-back option.

Banaras in fashion, then, is replete with experimentation. Tunics, jackets, tube tops, cigarette trousers, fitted kurtas, sarong-skirts, flared blouses, bridal lehngas and saris of course, stoles in imaginative colours, and short and long tops are all being made there. Ritu Kumar’s collection Varanasi Weaves includes white-on-white Banarasi cutwork that would leave many a style connoisseur spellbound.

Yet experts believe fashion is not the route to restoring the dignity of the handloom industry, providing both employment and recognition. “It shows a narrow, limited attitude towards handlooms,” says Jaya Jaitly, founder and president of the Dastkari Haat Samiti and one of the country’s leading handloom virtuosos. “Many designers visit Varanasi, work on small collections and bring temporary intervention. But we tend to get carried away by celebrity names. It is like up-marketing Banaras without worrying about the mass base.”

Jaitly, who has written a book titled Woven Textiles Of Varanasi, says, “The clusters remain pathetic, where weavers still live and work on the fringes, even selling blood to make two ends meet whereas all the well-to-do people or designers go for work to a select-known group of well-established master weavers.”

But it’s not just weavers who make up the handloom team, says Tyabji—there are carders, spinners, yarn makers, dyers, people who punch patterns on looms and those who set the looms. She believes the focus should be on sophisticated sericulture to counteract Chinese and other imported yarn now used in weaving. “Until Weavers’ Service Centres are put in order and given technical knowhow, the association with fashion is very cosmetic,” adds Tyabji.

Designers like Ritu Kumar are aware of the complexities. So when India’s seniormost designer says, “It has been very intense, very dedicated and very long work and I have never found anything so challenging,” you have to sit up and listen. Kumar returned to Banaras last year in a CSR effort for her company, but says that after working for a full year, with 50 looms and a fully focused team, they’ve only now begun to get the first few saris and materials in the authentic style. For a century or so, she says, no one had really revisited the tradition, its historical richness, its weaves in silk and the white cutwork fabrics woven for monasteries in Buddhist countries such as Nepal and Bhutan. There was a “disconnect”. “So yes, to bring all that back into ‘fashion’ is a far cry,” says Kumar.

Younger designers have their own concerns. “I hope that working with the ministry of textiles will mean protection from local plagiarists,” says Sancheti, adding that her previous work with weavers in Varanasi was replicated by local traders for stores from Varanasi to Mumbai even before her collection walked the ramp.

Her current LFW collection, sponsored by the development commissioner for handlooms, is a minimalist Japanese-inspired range made from Banarasi fabric. Going by Jain’s logic, of course, this is the antithesis of Banaras’ weaving strength.

For Varanasi-based textile designer Hemang Agrawal, born into a family of silk and sari traders, the renewed interest in Banaras for couture, bridal, semi-formal and prêt is a big opportunity. Better marketing and promotion is the need of the hour, says Agrawal, who now designs for local and international fashion houses.

Ritu Kumar is convinced that the current Banaras rush will stoke a small movement. “Then the whole of India will want it. Fashion or not,” she says.

Shefalee Vasudev moderated the “Banaras In Indian Fashion” discussion at the LFW.