On a bright winter day last December, when Bollywood actor Vidya Balan stepped out in a red and gold Kanjeevaram sari after her temple wedding to beau Siddharth Roy Kapur, many couldn't help but notice the simplistic charm of her traditional silk sari fromTamil Nadu. The sari, despite its puffiness, stood out for its classic appeal.
Fashion watchers, who have watched the rise and rise of the designer sari even as the essence of the handlooms, weaves and textiles that define an original classic got left out somewhere, saw this as an important moment. The sex symbol's endorsement of the traditional sari is yet more proof that consumers across age-groups are once again exploring traditional weaves, and works such as Baluchari, Ikat, Muga silk, Patolas, Maheswari and Pochampally, which lost out to sequins and swarovskis that arrived post the designer and mall culture boom.
Experts say this is the sign of a maturing fashion sensibility. Padamshri recipient and culture expert Shobha Deepak Singh says, "Since the end of 80s, we had been looking at West for inspirations in terms of clothing and lifestyle, but today we are beginning to take an inward journey into our own traditions and are ready to invest in them."
While Nalli, an 85 - year old sari brand which has become synonymous with South Indian silk saris, has reached its current annual revenue of approx Rs. 550 crores, which is noticeable but not excellent as per apparel industry standards, many hope that the new interest may also revive the flagging sericulture and handloom industry. M Srinivas, store manager, Nalli, Connaught Place says, "In North India, till few years ago young women would ask for chiffons and crepes. Now they are asking for Kanjeevarams. But still, if we sell 20-40 silk saris in a day, the chiffon sale is double of that."
According to the National Fiber Policy report, 2012, India saw a continued decline in production of mulberry raw silk till 2008-09. Due to low demand the weavers continue to suffer. The National Handloom Census, 2009-10, put about 60% of Indian weavers below poverty line. The weavers are demanding that government implements the Handloom Reservation Act and are also asking for higher allocation in the central budget. This is when India has the largest handloom industry in the world, with about 65 lakh people involved in weaving and associated activities. As per the book Textile resurgence published by ministry of textiles (2009-2010), there are about 32,88556 household looms and 1,97,752 non-household looms in the country.
"As powerloom-manufactured saris made foray into party dressing, fashion became like a uniform. It's the new confident Indian woman who is leading the way for the traditional sari. It can be called the organic fashion movement," says fashion expert Harmeet Bajaj. Kolkata-based sari revivalist Bappaditya Biswas of Byloom says, "It was 80's onwards that the dip in demand for traditional saris started. But the blame can't be shifted alone on consumers. For a long time, the handloom crafts remained stagnant. The weavers continued churning out same colours, patterns that were not relevant to changing times."
Sanjay Garg, founder, Raw Mango, a brand of handwoven textile sarees, says, "In the past couple of years we have had youngsters asking for Chanderi, Mushroo and Benarasi saris." Garg feels the term 'designer' sari too has done more harm than good to the industry. He says, "Designer is an exploited term in Indian context, why should a sari on the runway be only termed designer. A craftsman who makes bootis is a designer, the thread maker is a designer. Unless we respect our craftsmen we will not understand its worth. That's why we are ready to pay astronomical sums for an Italian handmade bag but not for an Indian sari."
Bharat Shah, founder Ekaya, says "There is a renewed interest but it has to go beyond. Government has to take active measures like certifying the weavers so that there is dignity of labour."
Gaurav Rai, promoter, Raisons gives another reason. He says, "It worked well that some Indian designers used words like Kosis, Sambalpuris, Benarasis in their collections. So when it became a nomenclature in 'designer' creations, the interest of youngsters also got evoked." Biswas agrees, "We participate annually in the crafts council exhibition in Delhi. Till two years ago we got 150 saris from Kolkata, now we are getting 500." Designer Anupama Dayal thinks that the trend of adding that single handloom sari in a wardrobe will not make a difference. "We have to go mainstream with traditional saris. Synthetic Chinese silks got precedence as we became obsessed with thinness.Every woman wanted to look thin so the machine made fabrics got chosen over our traditionally puffy silks."
'Chiffon saris look so ordinary in front of classic silks'
Annie Munjal (16), Student
"I look forward to the Teacher's day function in our school as that is when I get to wear a sari. Though the first time for the occassion I wore a chiffon sari, as it was easy to move in, somehow I kept thinking of saris in my grandmother's wardrobe that were Benarsis and Kanjeevarams. I have worn saris only a few times during family functions and recently during my uncle's wedding. I raided my grandmother's sari trunk and found an ocean blue kanjeevaram which I wore for the wedding. I like classic saris as they are different from the usual machine made stuff. Also they come in such diverse shades and every boota and border is carefully crafted. When I went with my mom to Benaras few years ago I was charmed by beautiful woven saris that are auctioned in the traditional phool bazaar. My mom has a few saris that have original gold thread running through them. For me this rich culture is so much more fascinating than collecting countless high street LBDs that end up looking the same."
'I wore my Benarasi saris to college fests in London'
Palak Shah (21), Entrepreneur
"The first time I ever wore a sari was during my school farewell four years back. Unlike my classmates who opted for chiffon saris that have a super slimming effect, I went with my gut instinct and wore a rich Benarasi sari instead. My choice was unusual but I got more compliments than ever in my life. Since then during weddings and festivals I have always worn a classic handloom silk sari. During my graduation years in London I chose to wear a jamdaani sari during college festivals. Looking at my sari choices my friends have now started asking me to help them buy classic saris. It's a great feeling to pick something that has so much history and elegance attached to it. Since we are originally from Benaras I think subconsciously I always imbibed that love for a traditional sari. A classic sari is unparalleled in beauty to a power loom sari, the idea is how you choose it. If you are young you can go for spunky colours and more subtle bootis instead of a heavy duty jamavaar work."
'Net saris on runways are the worst designs possible'
Sreemoyee Kundu (35), Author
"I grew up in Kolkata marvelling at the vast collection of handcrafted saris in my grandmother's wardrobe. For me, a fat kid, those Kanthas and Benarasis defined beauty. When I began working, I rewarded myself with a gamcha sari with my first pay cheque. Though I keenly follow fashion but the saris on the runways never caught my fancy, for me they were too shimmery and too synthetic to be called saris. Though I reserve my saris for special occasions and love wearing westerns day in and day out, I keep on buying newer handloom saris directly from weavers in every corner of the country I visit. I lived briefly in Bangalore where we used to visit villages in Kancheepuram and get our saris made in front of our eyes with local craftsmen dyeing it in the colours we wanted. Though there are times when people advise me to wear a dress instead of a heavy silk sari on my book readings but a woman who has understood the magic of batiks and handlooms knows that there can be no better substitute."
'I prefer buying saris directly from the local weavers'
Divita Kanoria (42), Wellness expert
"Since I am in wellness industry one would think that the easiest outfit for me is to slip into a pair of track pants; however whenever I get a chance I do wear a classic sari as I think it suits me the best. Over the years because of my love for saris I have gone through various phases of collecting net, chiffon and designer saris but nothing has got more attention ever than a classic Indian weave. My favourite is saris that I buy from the local shops in Rajasthan. I have totally grown out of the label sari phase and much rather prefer a sari brought directly from the place of its origin. Also the thing with designer saris is that they can be replicated and it's easy to look like each other's clone. A hand woven sari is like couture piece. I also have a few heirloom pieces in my wardrobe like a 40- year-old Benarasi that still looks new. I also like to gift saris to my friends on occasions as a classic sari can be a treasured gift besides it can never go out of fashion."