Delhi-based American textile designer Peter D’Ascoli says it’s the wedding sari that is aiding the preservation and revival of Indian textile traditions
As early as the 19th century, when the dehumanising consequences of machines were first felt, thinkers such as British textile designer and author William Morris looked to Indian craft as an example of an alternative to changing production methods. More than a century later, this struggle between hand and machine is still playing out, and nowhere are these tensions more apparent than in India, where ancient traditions, joint families and handicrafts have remained remarkably well preserved, set mostly in an agrarian context.
The Sari Saga
In India through the ages, there has been no family event as important as marriage, with celebrations lasting several days and including numerous ceremonies featuring special garments. And of these garments, none has been as important as the unstitched, handmade length of the sari. “Indian brides have always been traditional, and there is an emphasis on ritual and custom,” says designer Ashdeen Lilaowalia, who specialises in reviving Parsi embroidery. “Over the years, every community in the country patronised a certain craft or technique, which became part of a cultural identity.” But these old ways are under threat now, as more and more people leave their rural lifestyles to find jobs in cities, and regional handicrafts die as everyday products are increasingly mass-produced.
One bright spot is that, after years of rejecting tradition in favour of modern alternatives, brides are again embracing craft, and the country’s most talented design experts are leading them. “Indian brides are slowly moving towards a zone where they want to be deeply cultural and organic,” says Sabyasachi Mukherjee, one of India’s best-known fashion designers with a rich culture of heritage. “They want to have a sense of their native history at their wedding,” he adds.
In fact, it is the Indian bridal tradition that is the focus of the craft preservation, as wedding expenditures now replace the royal patronage that sustained the nation’s most exceptional textiles in the past.
An example of this is how Mukherjee employs a wide range of techniques, using embroidery forms such as zardozi, Kashmiri tilla, resham ka kaam, chikankari, numaish, crewelwork, as well as renowned handloom traditions from across the subcontinent such as from Varanasi, Kanchipuram, Chanderi, Kota and Bengal.
Another master helping preserve craft through bridal fashion is designer Tarun Tahiliani. “I am still an advocate of the sari for brides,” he says. “It is versatile, easy to wear, and easy to carry. The beauty of it is that it looks different on every person – loosely draped or moulded to the body it adds romance, cinched at the waist with a belt or cummerbund makes it chic. The possibilities are endless. Prestitched saris are also practical and easier for the younger generation to wear without worrying about it coming off. There is ease of movement and comfort. The sari screams Indian but has a universal appeal to it,” he explains.
So let’s thank the bride and the wedding sari for helping preserve an ancient tradition, the unsurpassed handcrafted textiles of India.
The rich Benarasi brocade and jewel-hued Kanjeevaram have been an Indian bride’s favourite for ages. While these traditional trousseau-musts were threatened by new-age, easy-to-wear options, they are now back on the bridal list, albeit with a few twists. Think Kanjeevaram with organza, Benarasi silk with Lucknowi chikan embroidery or a silk-satin nine-yard with an intricate Parsi gara pallu… And now think of a breed of young designers who have made this revival of weaves their passion.
Thanks to designer brands such as Raw Mango, Ekaya and Gaurang Shah, even lesser known traditional saris such as the jamdani, Paithani and mashru are beginning to grab a fair share of the wedding limelight. Says Sanjay Garg, the designer behind Raw Mango, the choice of celebrity brides such as Soha Ali Khan and Masaba Gupta, “There was a time when brides stuck to traditional colours and textiles such as the Benarasi, Kanjeevaram and the Patola.
But today, brides are exploring India’s rich textile legacy to play with colour and style, picking multi-hued, zari-woven bandhnis from Gujarat, Assam’s mekhelachadar in pat and muga silk, resplendent Pochampallis from Telangana or Kerala’s gorgeous kasavu sarees. We are contemporising traditional textiles in terms of colour and feel. It important to preserve heritage, yet update it to suit modern needs. Only then will heritage be relevant.”
Agrees Palak Shah from the brand Ekaya, which has become synonymous with reviving the Benarasi weave. “I am a purist and do not like tampering with traditional textiles. But to make them more attractive to young customers, we have had to play around with the fabric. The products in which Parsi embroidery was reinterpreted in Benarasi fabric have been popular. Then the range that we created with Play Clan, imprinting graphic motifs in a traditional Benarasi sari, has also found a lot of takers.”