The richness of a Benarasi silk sari, and the intricacy of its embroidery, make for an endearing memory for many Indians. Over the years, the timelessness and value of this silk and its creations have become even more pronounced. But few are aware of the fact that the creators of this awe-inspiring material might soon not be able to produce such wonders anymore.
"The handloom industry is dying with every passing day, and some of our best craftsmen, who have been weaving this magic for years, are giving up on this craft altogether," says designer Anita Dongre.
In an effort to change this exact scenario, Dongre and several other top Indian designers have joined a campaign launched by designer-turned-politician Shaina NC. This initiative aims to save the traditional textiles of India, starting with that of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. The other designers supporting this cause are Ritu Kumar, Manish Malhotra, Shruti Sancheti, Rina Dhaka and Varun Bahl, among others. "This initiative is an effort to revive the traditional handloom industry to make it more organised," says Bahl.
Eventually, the campaign plans to move to other parts of the country, including Odisha (to help the handloom weavers there) and Maharashtra (to aid the Paithani weavers).
Kumar - who received the Padma Shri in 2013 for her contribution to the fields of fashion and textile -says she hopes to revive ancient designs that have lost their original charm, due to the dipping quality of the yarn and colour. "A serious effort needs to be made to bring them back to their original classicism," says Kumar.
Clockwise from L: Vikas Bahl, Anita Dongre, Ritu Kumar, Shruti Sancheti.
Bahl elaborates, "We want to try and reach out to these weavers, gain their trust, and also help them work as a team. They should be made to feel like artistes. They need to realise that they are not just doing mere handwork and weaving. They need to know that their craft is being appreciated, and requires revival."
*Starting line: While a few designers are yet to start work on the campaign, others like Kumar and Dongre have already initiated the process. Currently, they are busy "working independently with the weavers". They plan to mentor the weavers and also guide them to create contemporary creations.
They are also looking for more government support, so that it can add credibility to the campaign, and also invite funding.
"Today, the children of these weavers are switching to more rewarding professions. They do not see monetary value in this art form," says Dongre.
Sancheti says "it is too early to reveal what her contribution will be". However, she does say, "What I have understood so far is that we (the designers) are going to patronise a cluster in Varanasi, develop fabrics at their handlooms, and present a collection and also provide the weavers with continuous employment opportunities."
*Hurdles galore: Even though the designers' plan on paper is a noble one, they admit that achieving what they want will not be a cakewalk. "The challenge is to find old vintage pieces to use as references for the master weavers to create beautiful saris," says Kumar. In addition to that, Sancheti lists coordination with various official bodies and lack of infrastructure in the industries as other hurdles.
Summing up the ethos of the campaign, Dongre says that their intention is to make sure the weavers come out as the heroes of this project. "If we get the grant from the government, we will make sure we spend it intelligently and judiciously. The challenge right now is to make this happen as soon as possible," she says.