With a focus on reviving India’s near-forgotten textiles and a knack for putting interesting spins to traditional weaves, fashion designer and textile revivalist Gaurang Shah has been working relentlessly towards sewing new chapters of a forgotten story into his collections, one creation at a time.
The designer, who firmly believes that handloom should be timeless, had embarked on this journey some 20-odd years ago and created designs and fabrics that were lost to time. But the journey has not been one without challenges.
In an interview to indianexpress.com, Shah takes us through his journey of pulling out fabrics and designs from the past, bringing it into the present and finding a way to sustain it in the future. Excerpts from the interview:
You have come up with a gorgeous collection of antique saris for the movie Mahanati after which there was a popular demand for these saris. What inspired the designs?
The costumes of Mahanati, a biopic on legendary actor Savitri, took 100 artisans, over a year and tremendous amount of research to make. I, along with my team, explored and recreated textiles to weave into Savitri’s journey of life right from her childhood to her last breath. For instance, we selected Mangalgiris and Kota with prints for her teenage days, fabrics like heavy brocades, silks, organza, handwoven satins, and chiffons to portray her golden era and a relatively subtle rendition of colours and textile for her later life.
To ensure perfection, we travelled to museums and recreated the textiles of that time. Not only that, we sourced heavy silk fabrics from different parts of India like Kanchipuram, Benares, Kota, Mangalgiri. I studied every detail of the textile — its design, texture, and colour — and guided the artisans to recreate it. It was a meticulous and enriching experience at the same time.
You are a textile revivalist. What are some unique weaves you have revived? Was it challenging to bring it back?
Our recent collection ANJALI paid tribute to weavers in Kanchi, Tamil Nadu. Two decades ago, weavers were festered with boring floral designs, colours, and yarns. So, I consciously brought back the Korvai weaving technique in pure zari, and introduced elaborate temple designs and traditional designs with borders as huge as 20 inches that gave a look of exuberance and broke the monotony in designs. In the process, ANJALI displayed the interrelationship of textiles, techniques, weavers, looms, and the weaving eco-system. It brought back near-forgotten motifs, the warmth of creating a fabric together and critical design aesthetics back among the weavers. I feel like it touched every part of the waving ecosystem — the textiles, weavers, looms and techniques — in some way or the other. The purpose was to encourage its social, cultural and economic fabric.
At the Lakme Fashion Week, we were the first designer in India to showcase Kanjeevarams at a national level following which the fashion industry witnessed a strong ‘trend’ for draping handlooms.
We also introduced Kanchi-Kalamkari, Organza-Kanch, Khadi-Kanchi and Tussar-Kanchi fusion. In this collection called Chitravali, some of the ensembles required 17 stages of procession across cities. In the Indian Jamdani art weaving process, we have brought alteration of technique and process that gives it a diverse pattern.
Handloom is something that is special. But before power loom took over, handloom was also something that was regular and accessible. How do you plan on taking handloom back to the masses?
They are back in vogue. The heartening fact is that designers have begun to experiment with handloom. Twists like big border saris became a rage when we introduced them in our stores and during fashion weeks. The khadi line using an 80-100 count yarn presented the consumers with a whole new khadi appeal with its freshly infused malleability, colour, and vibrancy.
Imagine this, decades ago the jamdani weaving form was fading into oblivion, with only a handful of them practising the art. Today, our own network has grown from a humble 20 artisans to 800 and counting. This is a testimony to its growing love and demand in the fashion marketplace.
Is there a trick to tell a real handloom piece from a powerloom one? Any hacks/tips for people out there who go to buy handloom saris?
The fundamental hack is to notice the texture, stiffness, and evenness in the piece. Powerloom pieces have starch (stiffness) and the texture and tones are even. Handloom, on the other hand, is soft, with an uneven texture and an uneven tone. That’s the fundamental characteristic of a hand-woven sari or any other assemblage.
When it comes to fashion, sustainability is a widely discussed topic. How does handloom fare when it comes to sustainability?
Handloom is original and timeless. They are not mass produced. For instance, every element that goes into making a Jamdani handwoven piece is natural, whether it is the yarn, texture or colour. It has a pure hand touch to it. That’s the reason why you would find handwoven saris or dresses having far more longevity than the other ones. They are heirlooms even today.
I believe, as the discussion and debate among people grow for making a shift to a more carbon and environment-friendly society, the love and demand for handlooms will grow by quite a measure.
There is a thin line between being commercially viable and critically acclaimed. How do you walk the line and where do you find your balance?
My work is driven by the Indian jamdani weaving technique. Every piece takes months, some even take several years to make. What makes it unique is that I don’t mass produce them. For most pieces, I try to ensure that they are in tune with the customer profiles, and their shopping taste. The chances of criticism are less as most of my customers wait for them to arrive at the stores.
Many designers are now using the ramp to spread a variety of social messages — from body positivity to inclusivity. Do you think fashion can be used as a platform for change?
The big takeaway from the Lakme Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2016 was supermodel Carol Gracias walking the ramp with a baby bump. The showstopper for our Calico line was a throwback to the 1920s in its styling, motifs, and colours. Carol brought in the 21st century feel by breaking stereotypes and ushering modern thinking on the ramp. So yes, fashion is not only for the eye but also for the mind.
We have heard you are working on recreating Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings into jamdani weaves. Do you think it is going to be challenging to recreate his paintings? Also, is there a special reason for choosing jamdani?
Indian Jamdani is the most versatile weaving form. It helped me break many creative challenges I faced. The technique gives you a tremendous edge and a latitude to design intricate designs, textures and also incorporate a varied tone of colours, which is otherwise impossible in other forms of textile design or fashion clothing.
This project aims to recreate 54 paintings of Raja Ravi Varma on sari pallus through weaving, with all the light and shade from the painting translated on the fabric. Nearly 800 shades of yarn and natural dye specialists are required to materialise this project.
The paintings chosen are in three categories: women in Raja Ravi Varma paintings, gods and goddesses, and stories. God figures will be recreated in kalamkari, paintings of women will be done in jamdani, and the stories through Aari embroidery.
The younger generation is what defines the future. Do you think there is demand for handloom from the younger generation? If not, how to make it appealing to them?
Going organic or natural is the buzz. Every designer and maker of handloom knows about this growing trend amongst youth. While there is still a lean towards western wear, the handloom creators have already taken strong steps towards making handloom appealing and trendy.
The sari appeal continues to grow. It is an integral part of every woman, young or old. Intricate, vibrant handloom dress have become appealing more than ever. If we take Khadi, we have come up with off-shoulder flowy dresses featuring Anarkali cuts, layered tunics, and short tops teamed up with dhoti-style pants to make it appealing to the younger lot. We also came up with a Khadi jumpsuit with floral patterns that caught the eye of national and international shoppers.
What’s the one trend to look out for in 2019?
Fresh appeal in Dhakai, Kota, Paithani, Kanchi, Benarasi, and a new hybrid genre with complex patterns and designs never attempted on the Jamdani loom are in the horizon.