A bridal outfit from a vintage Benares, an extinct weave from a Mayavaram loom or presenting our organic silks in Paris — the city’s textile aficionados breathe new life into the forgotten arts.
By Sharmistha Maji
EVEN as the ancient technique of nakshabandi has vanished for want of artisans, we have others like parsi gara, kodali karuppur and telia rumal being revived and restored. While Hyderabad-based designer Gaurang Shah has transformed the humble khadi fabric courtesy saris woven with colourful peacock and floral motifs, closer home, the city’s younger designers have joined the movement — like Gina Joseph and her jewellery line Zola, that features ikat fabrics and dokra art. Meanwhile, 85-year-old Nalli Silks has been promoting the ancient korvai weaving technique and vaira oosi design in their Kanjeevaram saris, with contemporary geometric motifs and neon colours. The idea is to reinterpret old techniques in a modern format. We speak to those who have made a difference:
Chamiers: A store that retails handcrafted apparel, jewellery, games and more, by different brands from across India
Mathangi Srinivasamurti’s connect with tradition and heritage in the city is well established. Housed in an old bungalow with its original flooring and antique wooden staircase intact, Srinivasamurti, along with her partner Kiran Rao, insist that Chamiers is about their passion for all things old. “We have to do our bit to save the work of traditional craftsmen. And reinventing what’s traditional to India is very important,” she says. Even if the duo cannot be called revivalists themselves, they have been instrumental in bringing many brands that revive traditions in new and modern ways. Starting from Jaipur-based brand Anokhi, that revitalised the craft of traditional hand-block printing, to the brand Kreeda, which revives old games like pallanguzhi, and Maya Bazaar, which does chanakam (hand knotted jewellery) in funky designs.
“I’m a graduate of fine arts and I was aware of the kind of work artisans put in. This is our way of supporting them,” Srinivasamurti says. The store also offers traditional leather puppets from Andhra Pradesh and stoles featuring traditional Kutch and aari embroidery. On the textile brand Anokhi, Srinivasamurti adds, “They have formed their own village in Jaipur and have a haveli where they’re supporting all the artisans working for them—right from sending their children to school to giving them employment benefits.” She and Rao are also members of the Crafts Council of India and had been involved in the successful exhibition, Craftepreneur, which was held in the city recently. They now plan to rope in some of the brands that were shown there, like Coppre, Anantaya and Zola, for the store. Details: 24311496
Nalini Sriram (54) & Simrat Chadha (41)
Shilpi: A 24-year-old store that houses traditional weaves and prints sourced from all over India
Synonymous with the resurrection of dying crafts and textiles from all over India, brand Shilpi today offers western silhouettes, besides their trademark saris. Director Simrat Chadha says, “Although we would like to sell old textiles just the way they are, we do try incorporating contemporary twists, because if we don’t nobody will buy them.” Having taken over the store with her partner Nalini Sriram (a former costume designer for Tamil films), from Arundhati Menon in November 2011, Chadha says, “We were sure we wanted to work with handlooms for the next 50 years. Today, we can proudly say that we are the only store in the city that’s providing a platform to almost every state.” She adds that they are looking at exploring the North East section too.
At the store, expect some old-world prints and fabrics in modern silhouettes, like mangalgiri jackets featuring ikat prints, shorts made out of Orissa fabric (thick cotton), chic palazzo pants with ajrak block printing and more. “We are doing ajrakh on Kanjeevaram saris since we found a weaving community in a village near Mayavaram that had lost its market and closed its looms because they were not selling. We have got them to reopen their looms for us,” shares Chadha, an economics graduate. Recently launched in Delhi, they offer Kanjeevaram saris mixed with the Gujarati mashru silk—their big story for the year. “The weaver is revisiting this sari himself after a good two decades. It could’ve been extinct and buried. And like this, there are so many things that we don’t know about,” she sighs. A collector’s delight, find the extinct royal print called kodali karuppur (a laborious and complicated process due to its highly intricate motifs) back on their shelves. Details: 24997526
Ahalya S (38)
Kanakavalli: A new Kanjeevaram sari brand started by the designer
Known for her fascination with vintage saris and antique jewellery, Ahalya S launched her own brand, Kanakavalli, recently, offering authentic Kanjeevaram saris in contemporary prints and colours. “I’ve always been drawn to antiques, be it furniture, artefacts or jewellery, because I think they speak so much of our culture and traditions. Through my new brand, I’m trying to innovate new colours and patterns, but I don’t meddle with the original weaves,” begins Ahalya. She uses temple borders, checks, three-part saris (muppagam) in pastel colours, and plays with the size of motifs by either making them very small or very big.
Using ancient handcrafting techniques from the past, her jewellery brand Alchemy offers intricate contemporary designs, crafted by artisans from West Bengal. “Authentic temple jewellery cannot be worn by everyone, everywhere. So we use a mix of rubies and uncut diamonds to recreate them in a scale and size that people will be comfortable wearing. It’s very important for the designs to be relevant to today’s time, otherwise they’ll be museum pieces, not saleable,” she explains. As far as her personal style is concerned, you’ll always find this Chennaiite in a sari with contemporary seven-stone earrings or an offbeat blouse. She doesn’t intend to explore any other weaves or fabrics as of now. “Kanjeevarams are something I identify with strongly and it is so vast that I’m happy doing justice to that,” she says. Her favourite from her latest collection is the necklace featuring East India coins. She will be launching a new store in Nungambakkam, called Kanakavalli, by November. Details: facebook.com/kanakavallikanjivarams
Ashwin Rajagopalan (34)
Beads of India: A blog that documents the origin of beads
juggling many hats, Ashwin Rajagopalan is known for his fusion vegetarian restaurant and bistro (where he is executive chef), and fine living store—all under the name Ashvita—apart from being the director at Piramal Art Foundation, Mumbai. A lesser known passion of his is collecting ancient beads, coins and terracotta artefacts. Including beads of quartz, amethyst and the rare carnelian, he has collected more than 1,000 beads till date and coins as old as the 16th century belonging to Tanjore Marathas and Madurai Nayaks.
“My interest is mainly beads and coins native to South India. Fishermen, when they fish in places like Kodumanal and Kumbakonam, where the Pallavas and Cholas lived, find terracotta artefacts, beads, and even gold. When I saw them, I realised their significance and got into researching their origin,” says Rajagopalan, who uses sources like the Beads Study Trust, UK, and the International Bead Conference, Borneo, for his research. He also documents the beads and coins on his blog. Recalling an unforgettable experience during his visits to archeological sites like Thanjavur and Sirudavoor, he says, “Thousand-year-old pots and artefacts were being broken and sacred sites were being ripped apart by companies, just to get truckloads of sand for `800. So we tried to educate the village kids to report such incidents. Unfortunately, ASI (Archeological Society of India) doesn’t have the manpower to monitor such activities. It was disheartening to see our Tamil Nadu history being
destroyed like that.”
Setting up a museum someday is this fine arts graduate’s ultimate dream. “Three years from now I should have a space,” he reveals. Details: beadsofindia.blogspot.in
Sujata Pai (47)
Ambi: A brand that restores old outfits and gives them a new life
If you have your mother’s or grandmother’s silk saris languishing at the back of your wardrobe, take them to Sujata Pai and you might just come away with a trendy palazzo and tank top. Known for repurposing any old piece of cloth, you will find Pai’s brand, Ambi, regularly participating in exhibitions held by the Crafts Council of India. Initially started to transform her old saris, Pai received a great response when she took the idea to her clients. They include wives of Tamil superstars and politicians. Since starting the brand in 2012, she has designed palazzos, gowns, skirts, tank tops and lehengas from old saris, and presents hand woven, block-printed maheshwari and chanderi saris with vegetable dyes.
Working on a bridal outfit right now, this psychology graduate says, “The mother of the bride had a beautiful Benares sari. The entire body of the sari was giving way, but the border was so beautiful that I decided to put it on a net gold dupatta, which is to be used as the odhna (head veil) for her daughter’s wedding. When I showed it to her, she was ecstatic because instead of having a random odhna from the market, a piece of fabric that had such sentimental value to her is going to be part of her daughter’s wedding.” Similarly, she has started making cholis, dupattas and men’s kurtas as well. Her new collection is a range of Kanjeevaram saris combined with the Rajput patola fabric. “Recently, I’d combined an old Kanjeevaram sari of a client with ikat and shibori pallu, and gave her a crushed bandhini blouse with intricate hand embroidery. And I must say, both she and I were proud of the outcome,” she shares. Pai also plans to make cushion covers and bed spreads out of old saris. Details: 9840778558
Neesha Amrish (37)
Aeshane: A retail outlet that houses organic silk, funky jewellery and home décor
Known for her bold hand block prints on ahimsa (organic) silks, Neesha Amrish enjoys a following among clients like Suhasini Manirathnam, model Feroze Gujral and TV host Mini Mathur. The National School of Design alumnus and owner of the store Aeshane, says, “The best thing about organic silk is that it drapes around you very well and is not heavy like Kanjeevaram. And I’ve tried to make hand woven organic silk as contemporary as possible, so that the younger generation does not shy away from it and can wear it easily. I do a lot of modern geometrical prints on them in bright colours like orange
Being a member of the Handloom Promotion Council, Amrish has been doing a lot of shows abroad and is actively involved in promoting Indian fabrics overseas. “The west is embracing organic in a big way. My biggest market is Europe and the US. And I really think we must spread awareness, because only after I explain the whole process of making the fabric to the foreigners do they get excited to buy them,” she reveals. Amrish, who recently participated in Who’s Next, an exhibition in Paris, is gearing up to take part in the Hong Kong Fashion Week next January. She is also eyeing the New York Fashion Week scheduled for next year and is hoping to make the fabric big in the international market, through the shows. Her personal style is very unconventional as you’ll catch her wearing saris with tees or trousers. Embellishments are something she detests, because she believes in keeping traditional textile in its real form. She will soon be launching a line for kids at her store and plans to work with organic cotton as well in the future. Details: 9884034516
Mridulika Menon (35)
Samasta: A boutique offering handwoven tunics, accessories and more
No stranger to ancient weaves and textile techniques, Mridulika Menon is carrying forward the legacy of her mother, Arundhati Menon, who had brought traditional weaves and embroidery from all over India to Chennai for 32 years (as the former owner of the boutique Shilpi). Through her store, Samasta, started in 2009, Mridulika supports artisans from around the country—from stoles produced by an organisation for the handicapped in the tea plantations of Munnar and an NGO promoting disaster relief in Uttarkhand, to hand painted kantha embroidered stoles that are providing livelihoods to women in the villages of West Bengal.
“My mother’s passion for supporting Indian heritage was instilled in us from a very young age. My sister and I grew up playing with fabrics and trying our hand at block printing and giving colour inputs. I was lucky to get educated by visiting block printers in Jaipur and karigars in Kolkata to name just a few,” the communications graduate reveals.
Apart from offering kimono tops and tunics made of handwoven eri silk and matka silk featuring dori (chord) and kantha embroidery, you can also find phulkari, Lucknowi and kantha saris, from Mridulika’s mother’s brand Abha, at the store. “I believe that in the future it will be very rare to get hand woven saris. Already, the next generation of handloom weavers are opting to work in more lucrative professions like the IT industry, rather than continue to work in the labour intensive handloom industry. So we should cherish the existing handwoven textiles we have,” she concludes. Details: 42721110