Weave Will Rock You


Weave Will Rock You

Wendell Rodricks reinvents the Kunbi tribal sari in muted colours and unusual silhouettes. The local weave now needs more than maudlin press statements to go global.

Just a little before his show at the recently concluded fashion week in Delhi,designer Wendell Rodricks escorted textile expert Jasleen Dhamija to the venue. Dhamija wore a cotton Kunbi sari in pale colours: an authentic piece of Bharat.

Even before she came to tell the audience about Rodricks’ revival of the traditional Goan Kunbi weave,some statements had already been made. Indian fashion is reviving its relationship with weavers. The sari is once again poised to be the protagonist of our clothing script. Fashion needs the Jasleen Dhamijas of India for a democratic appeal.

As one of the few senior designers looking at new directions (“new” being a return to the old),Rodricks blinked back tears as he took his bow,while the audience applauded generously. Rodricks’ romanticism should not be cured. Committed,obsessed about his style,steeped in research and quick to pain,fury or joy in his response to Indian fashion,he is Mr Diehard. Easy,unembellished,chic resort wear has been his signature so far,but perhaps he needed the revival of a Goan weave to complete the style arch.

“I always wanted Goa to have its own sari,” he says. “I was embarrassed that other states had their weaves or embroideries,and Goa had nothing.” A nine-year project,which saw the Kunbi sari make the difficult journey from rural weavers to the fashion ramp,was tied up with a grassroots campaign that began in 2009. It will focus on weaver and loom revival in Goa,hopefully with the aid of the state government.

Making the Goan sari fashionable is not as simple as beguiling an accidental tourist with a new recipe for fish vindaloo. It is an ethnographic rediscovery. The sari itself had been an outcast in Goa,banned by Portuguese rulers for 200 years. “The sari in Goa tells the story of a people being cajoled,compelled and lured away not only from a way of life,religion and culture,but also from what they wore and what it stood for,” writes textile historian Rta Kapur Chishti in her book Saris: Tradition and Beyond,documenting the ban on sari weaving to promote imported fabrics and a new dress culture.

Yet,a section of Kunbi tribals continued to weave their saris,clandestinely. Some later converted to Catholicism,and Chishti’s book talks about a textile segregation — the Hindu Kunbi sari and the Catholic Kunbi sari. These two were similar in their loud colours,popli (checks) and palo (stripes),but were slightly different in drape. Kunbi weaving,however,died down in Goa; instead it began to be done in Maharashtra. Till now,these saris have been brought from beyond Goa’s borders for dancers who perform in state festivals. That’s why one of Rodricks’ primary endeavours is to weave the sari in Goa on local looms.

Let me digress a bit. As someone who lived and worked in Goa for a few years,I reported a story on the Dhangar tribe for a local English daily in 1993. Accompanied by a keenly observant Amruta Patil,now an artist and author of the graphic novel Kari,I visited a village where the Dhangars lived in close proximity to the Kunbis. The Dhangars are a marginalised,nomadic tribe,which raises goats and grows millet. The saris of their women were coarse checked cottons with clear influences of the Kunbis,as I later found out.

Seeing those weaves on the catwalk in soft fabrics and muted colours of grey,rust red,white and black,as flowing trousers,easy dresses,kurtas with unending slits and sexy sarongs made me sit up. The sari in its basic drape came down the ramp too,worn with a black blouse,stunning the audience with its simplicity. Was this then the peak of Rodricks’ emotional relationship with his homeland?

The range is priced at Rs 2,000-4,000. Rodricks says there is a waiting list of customers as well as orders from popular stores. “This is not about commercial gain. Sometimes fashion needs to distance itself from finance that it feeds on so voraciously. When you see a Louis Vuitton or a Hermes Birkin bag,you think of money. When you see the Kunbi sari,you see a culture and a tribe,” he says.

Now that it has been mounted on fashion consciousness,the Kunbi sari will need more than poetic press releases. To begin with,it needs a commercial strategy that will make the project sustainable. Promoted so far by Dhamija and Nandita Das and beautifully modelled in stark symbolism by Lisa Ray,it will need clever marketing to make it an aspirational garment in high fashion.

Dear Wendell,your work may have just begun.