text: Richa Prakash
It has been mentioned in the Rig Veda as Hiranya Vastra or the golden cloth; it was once woven exclusively with cotton yarn and real gold and silver threads and it is still one of the most prized possessions in a woman’s wardrobe…stored in soft muslin, brought out only on special occasions and gifted with pride to daughters and granddaughters. The Benarasi fabric, that regal silk brocade, the kimkhwab or “little dream” is like a living, breathing organism, which has evolved over time.
Influenced by different cultures, by persuasions of kings and merchants alike, incorporating the fashions of the moment and motifs borrowed from the abundant nature, the Benarasi fabric speaks its own elite design language. Complex combinations of floral motifs like the bel (running creeper) and kairi or ambi buttis (paisley) makes up the phulwar–a dense, floral lattice made with gold or silver yarn that covers up the whole fabric and take months to complete. Other floral motifs also include the kalga and bel on borders, a feature that the Benarasi saree is known for; jhallar (festoons of upright leaves), namavali (indigenous scripts), Barfi jaal (a traditional diamond shaped geometric motif), the ever-popular Kadhaua buti and damru jaal.
But once where the craft flourished under the generous patronage of the royalty and connoisseurs, the Benarasi has in the recent times faced seemingly insurmountable challenges. Madhura Dutta of AIACA tells us, “The major challenge faced by the handloom industry in Benaras is mass production by power loom that is passed on to consumers as handloom. A lot of power loom is sold as handloom thus the actual handloom weaver finds it difficult to command the price for intricate work done by them”. Other issues like counterfeit fabric and changing consumer tastes are also responsible for snatching away artisanal skills and livelihoods.
Given this scenario it is a surprise that the Benarasi saree, one of the most popular forms of the fabric, is still in vogue with demand on the rise especially around the festive and wedding seasons. But to flourish and thrive, the looms of Benaras need a new kind of patronage. And there is ample help all around…from being showcased heavily by Indian and global designers, being pushed into focus by revivalists to AIACA’s Varanasi Weavers and Artisans Society that promotes authentic Benarasi textiles and provides sustainable market linkages.
Ultimately, though, the fillip to this wonderful craft will come from us, the consumers, and are we getting spoiled for choice in how we experience this magnificent weave. Diverse styles and contemporary translations of the Benarasi fabric pop at us in the form of apparel, dupattas and sarees with a new flavor. A case in point is the ‘Nritya’ saree collection–a collaboration between Ekaya, a prominent curator and retailer of Benarasi sarees and Play Clan, one of India’s most creative design agencies. Re-interpreting Ekaya’s traditional Benarasi weave by infusing it with Play Clan’s illustrative whimsical style, the collaboration has resulted in sarees that are an embodiment of the modern woman who wants to celebrate her heritage, in a novel, authentic voice.
The Mughal courts were huge supporters of the Benarasi silk and infused the weave with motifs like the jaali or lattice, inspired by Persian style architecture. Similarly, when the British took over, subtle changes in design appeared and you had more floral bouquets, baskets and ribbons in a Benarasi. And today design interventions and translations to contemporary silhouettes like jackets and palazzos, kurtas and dupattas, are breathing new life into the age old treasure of the Benarasi weave. Easy accessibility to these fabulous innovations through online retailers is not only making it available to everybody with a refined aesthetic, anywhere on the globe but also giving the artisans and organizations that are working toward promoting the textile, a convenient new platform.
For view Benarasi sarees and other apparel,please visit www.jaypore.com.