It’s heartening to know that perhaps all is not lost for Indian handloom and with the right kind of design intervention Indian textile is finding its footing again and hopefully soon will have its rightful place in the sun that it did even 200 years ago. This is the story of two looms and a kalam that are doing things right.

India was the place for finely spun cotton cloth and brilliantly dyed color-fast textile so brilliant that it threatened the very existence of the colonial economy till they flooded our markets with mill-produced textiles from Manchester; and our slower hand-powered looms were no match for the faster machine-made fabrics and hence, died a silent death without a whimper. Getting over the hangover of colonialism in post-independent India took a while. Not that we are completely over it – but around the early 1980’s an important development occurred− the Vishwakarma exhibitions. A series of expositions across cities of India from 1982-87 showcased varied samples of traditional Indian textile painstakingly recreated as per old designs with utmost care for authenticity. The exhibition created quite a furor, reviving an interest in Indian handloom that had been lost under the insurgence of synthetic fabrics. It opened one’s eyes, to our rich textile heritage and the dexterity of our weavers.

This was only the beginning. The rich vista of our traditional weave opened out to our textile and fashion designers, Rohit Bal intervened with Khadi and brought out a series of eye catching clothes and suddenly it was fashionable to wear handloom, the trend really catching on. Recently three units caught my attention.

Sripal Shah the force behind ‘Asal’, - from the word ‘asli’ meaning genuine – is almost spiritual in his approach to work. Deeply influenced by his Jain satvik guru he likes to narrate how before he learnt to write he learnt the technique of ink making. To go to the root is his motto and this is reflected in the textiles he creates.

‘Asal’ runs under his aegis and has been developing slow textiles in the truest sense of the word. Naturally produced cotton, (Sripal abhors the word ‘organic’ saying it is coined by the Chemical Industries) hand-woven and hand spun, dyed by piece or yarn, using herbal dye in rich indigo blue, turmeric yellow and madder red, sometimes block-printed, oozing with character and personality. Sarees, dupattas, stoles and yardage in 100% natural cotton and peace silk – like Eri, Bulkal, and Matka − woven from strands after the cocoon has hatched - are available under Asal’s roof.

Tanchoi and Kalamkari

Each piece at Asal under goes several laborious processes, crisscrossing the country before it is rack ready. The mulberry cocoon from Karnataka is sent to West Bengal where the yarn is hand spun on the thakli (spindle); from there to Varanasi for the zari, reviving a 200 years old technique of coating hand spun mulberry yarn with zari. Dyeing happens in Ahmedabad then back to West Bengal for the weaving. And then you pay a paltry Rs. 5000 for a dupatta!

This was only part of Asal’s story, there’s more; but we move on to Varanasi and WeaverStory for now. A group of youngster from varied backgrounds got together few months ago to plunge headlong into reviving old Benarasi designs and bringing them back in the form of sarees, dupattas, and yardage. Hunting in the archives of museums and gallis of Varanasi they have identified old designs and weavers who are confident of weaving these old master pieces with the same skill and complexity as they were done in times gone by. Shikargah depicting hunting scenes of the maharajas, Jangla depicting jaal of bel patti (floral mesh) with delicate meenakari work, Tanchoi with tree motif, alfee pauri meaning double toned zari and tilfi, three toned in lustrous pure and katan silk and tissues spellbind you. WeaverStory intends to do away with meddling middlemen and act as an interface for the artisans, creating a platform where buyers and sellers can interact directly.

If the fabrics take your breath away, the anecdotes associated with these age old textiles will only enthrall you further. Here goes… the Shikargah sarees are woven only by Hindus, as the Muslims by faith cannot depict living creatures in any form, presently there remain only 5% of them. The konia buti (corner paisley) is woven by getting into the pit of the pit-loom. Earlier adolescents would fit themselves into the small space, but with a strict ban on child labor, the job has been passed onto men under 5ft, making it difficult to find skilled weavers matching such stringent physical specifications. The stories continue….

And now the kalam story… In the Srikalahasti kalamkari style of hand-painted textile blossomed under the patronage of the temples of Srikalahasti of Chittur district of Andhra Pradesh and was mainly narrative art for religious purposes - scrolls, pichwais, temple wall hangings, chariot banners depicting Hindu deities, scenes from religious texts, and mythologies. The art has been adapted to wearable textiles and one can now find flowing panels of Gods and Goddesses, elaborate raj-hans (swans), peacocks, parrots, elephants and floral motifs on sarees, dupattas, yardage and of course the ever popular wall hangings.

A kalamkari piece whether a wall hanging or a saree is completely hand painted using the kalam (wooden or bamboo reed pen). The fabric is first immersed in Harda (myrobalan) and goat or buffalo milk which acts as the mordant (fixing agent). So, to test the authenticity of your Kalkamkari just smell it, if it has the odd sweet smell of buffalo milk you are dot on! The contours are then drawn with the kalam (wooden or bamboo reed pen) in black, made from a mixture of fermented gur (jaggery), iron-filing and alum, locally known as kasim-karam. Color is applied one at a time, after the application of each color, the fabric is washed. In this manner, a  piece of fabric can undergo up to 20 washes for over 40 days, depending on the number of colors.

The three textile approaches from different ends of the country are only representational of our immensely rich textile heritage. Thousands of years of old, time-tested techniques are still practiced. Skills and knowledge passed down from generation to generation. It is a mind- boggling and humbling experience to hold a piece of handloom fabric, for you realize what you are holding is not just a piece of fabric, it is sheer unmatched skill, it is art refined and perfected over generations – a legacy of Indian textile tradition, a part of history.

This article was possible with the help of Madhu Sood, Concern India Foundation, Sripal Shah, Asal,, WeaversStory, and S.Narasimhulu, Sri Sai Kalamkari, Chittur, AP

Save Save