Many ancient Indian crafts and textile techniques are endangered due to the onset of industrialisation and machine production.
Sujata Kershavan is finding new patrons, new markets, and a new relevance for these crafts. She has created a conduit for this. “We’ve been working with artisans from across the country, from pashmina and cashmere in the Himalayan mountains, to handloom silk weaving in Bengal, to wood block printing and resist-dyeing in Gujarat and Rajasthan,” she says.
Sujata, a celebrated designer, is recognised as one of India’s most powerful women in business by the India Economic Times, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and Fortune India. When she sold her branding business to WPP, Sujata decided it was time to turn away from the commercial world and follow her passion. She created her own brand, Varana in the heart of Mayfair that would become a showcase. The aim is restore the pride of Indian craftspeople by packaging their work as contemporary artisanal luxury items. “Some of our printing and weaving techniques go back to the Indus Valley civilisation, practiced within families for generations. It was these beautiful fabrics that were compelling for the East India company, making them travel across the world to take back treasured silks and cottons from India to Europe,” explains Sujata Kershavan.
Sujata loves the hand-crafted fabric techniques found in saris and discovered where they were being practiced ages ago.
“While handmade still exists, standards are not as good as they were a hundred years ago. Skilled master craftspeople are declining, and their children may not pursue the trade.
Young people are attracted to modernity and find the old complex techniques tedious and difficult. The first crafts to die out are those easily replicated by machines. The complex hand weaving of brocades, ikat and complex printing techniques that cannot be created by machines, will continue to have patronage,” she notes. To keep the items modern but linked to the past, Sujata draws upon annual themes to inspire her range.
“For example, for our first collection called Eternal Love, we used the Taj Mahal as inspiration. We re-interpreted the motifs and patterns used in the Taj in contemporary ways. I then chose crafts that were appropriate to the theme: for example wood-block printing, Jamdani weaving and Ari embroidery which were popularised by the emperor Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal.
Our textile designers then worked with the weavers, printers and embroiderers to create fabrics for the collection. The weavers were from Bengal, the printers from Rajasthan. The Ari work was done in our own workshop in Bangalore. Our fashion designers, who are from Europe, created the silhouettes for the collection working along with the artisans for the motifs and placement.”
Providing a sustainable living for craftspeople
The designers and the team have on-going relationships with the craft clusters. Sujata says, “our team is never exploitative and is mindful about paying good wages to its artisans while ensuring excellent working conditions. We inculcate pride in the artisans for their craft, explaining how their work is appreciated by discerning people from faraway lands.
Since we only have one showcase outlet, our garments are tailored in-house in our own air-conditioned workshop in Bangalore. The garments are made on hand operated sewing machines in small batches in the way of seamstresses. We are know all the people who work on our products.”
Some of the items are extra precious. For instance, it takes two artisans working ten hours a day, one to five years to weave a Kani shawl. There are very few practitioners of Kani left in Kashmir.
By finding new patrons for these crafts, Sujata, who has a home in London, hopes to encourage the weavers to continue with the practice of this extraordinary craft.
What is new about this work?
Sujata says, “Until now, hand crafted garments had a visual appearance that is characteristic of the process used. My approach is to innovate and create hybrid versions of the garments by cross pollinating weaving and printing techniques.
For example, in the Kutch collection, we’ve used the visual vocabulary of bandhani but had it woven in jacquard. This has never been done before.
We did the same with Ajrakh where we replicated the designs and motifs characterised by Ajrakh by weaving them. This is a unique and original approach. Coming from graphic design, I approach fabric from new perspectives that textile designers, who have been schooled and are steeped in tradition, cannot visualise. For a taste of Diwali, Especially for Asian Voice readers, from November 3-7th 2018 there will be a VIP welcome with a Diwali cocktail and sweets at 14 Dover St, Mayfair, London W1S 4LW.
It takes two artisans working ten hours a day, one to five years to weave a Kani shawl.