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Weaving the change with Banarasi

Handloom Banarasi with elaborate shikargarh (hunting) motifs; Image: Supriya Aggarwal
Handloom Banarasi with elaborate shikargarh (hunting) motifs; Image: Supriya Aggarwal

In April 2016, when I attended the exhibition of Banarasi sarees titled “Atoot Dor – Unbroken Thread: Banarasi Brocade Sarees at Home and in the World”, at the National Museum, Rajpath that showcased their origin, repertoire and contemporary expressions, it took me back to my childhood visit to Banaras, where my mother bought a royal blue brocade saree by a local artisan for INR 2,500. I still remember he justified the cost saying, “It takes me anywhere from two weeks to six months to complete one saree that I weave along with my wife and sister.” In the 21st century, this might sound unrealistic, but that’s the shine of lustrous gold threads that lost its shine 20 years back is now back with a contemporary twist.

According to fashion experts and historians, the original silk work traces its past to the Vedic times. And there’s no doubt that Banaras plays a key in the existence of silk and zari work (embroidery in pure gold). Many may not be aware that Mughal Emperor Akbar gave the weaving industry a shot in the arm, as he loved zari work and made his wives wear sarees with zari work. And this is how Banarasi silk gained popularity and slowly became a landmark in the history of Indian fashion.

Handloom Banarasi with Golden Zari Work
Handloom Banarasi with Golden Zari Work

During my recent visit to Banaras, I was glad to see the way the market has revived and the smile on the face of artisans speaks it all. They feel that Sheher ke log (city folks) have made their life easier. According to Arun Ahuja, owner, Mehraab, “For the younger generation of artisans, there is no dearth of work, as every piece of craft is first created on paper and then later brought to life with a series of steps. While motifs are crafted out of zari threads, the rest saree is usually made of silk that is dyed in a variety of colours.” “The natural dyes have gained popularity in recent years, due to concerns of the sacred river Ganga being polluted from chemical dyes,” adds Arun. On the other side of the spectrum, the revived face of Banarasi has raised eyebrows, as people feel that the twist has ruined the essence of decades-old heritage.

Banarasi Brocade fabric used to make a jacket for Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh
Brocade fabric used to make a jacket for Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh

Celebrity stylist Hitendra Kapopara feels that the magic of Banarasi never faded. He states, “In the present time, it has become comfort wear in form of salwar-suits, kurtis and skirts.” He adds, “Redefining Banarasi in the form of a cocktail gown or a party dress speaks of the versatility of the fabric that is available in four distinct varieties, namely pure silk (katan), organza (kora) with zari and silk, georgette and shatter.”

Ahmedabad-based stylist and designer Hardik Gandhi, who recently designed a Banarasi brocade tuxedo for a client, says, “It is all about experimentation and comfort that totally depends on an individual.” He warns, “There are market players who might cheat you with sub-standard Banarasi fabric, to avoid that always look for the GI (Geographical Indication) tag.” Subhashish Mandal, a Bengaluru-based interior design architect, who often plays with the fabric says, “The change in time has made the fabric very gender fluid and the contemporary twist in terms of colours like fuchsia, silver, beige and forest green have made the fabric versatile.” He states, “The most understated yet classy way of using Banarasi is as a lining of jackets, bandies and suits.” He recommends using the fabric as a tie, bow-tie and even pocket square.  As an interior expert, Subhashish loves playing with the fabric in the form of runners, blinds and table mats too.

Text by R. Raaj
Images by Supriya Aggarwal

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