On the last page of the brochure for Ritu Kumar’s new collection, there is a photograph of a vermilion Benarasi brocade with the trademark curvilinear motif woven in gold and silver thread—or, at least, half of it is. The crease of a fold runs exactly down the middle of this picture. On the other half is a mirror image faded to a dull beige. Trapped under the glass case of some neglectful museum and exposed to years of sunlight, parts of this 200-year-old relic have been bled dry of colour and life. It’s such an obvious symbol of how urgently Indian craft needs a transfusion that you wonder if it’s doctored.
Kumar assures me it isn’t. This photograph is part of her personal Benaras archive, which has been curated over the course of her career and forms the source of the recent Revivalist collection. To create this line, Kumar and her team spent two years making frequent trips to Varanasi, visiting its community of pattern-makers or nakshbandhs and weavers, many of whom had not laid eyes on a vintage Benarasi textile in a very long time. So long, in fact, that they’d forgotten what they were even capable of.
“I don’t think we’ve had a more couture story in this country [than with Benaras],” says Kumar, who is writing a book on her experiences with this collection. “With the exception, perhaps, of jamawar shawls, Benarasi textiles represent the highest form of weaving. They have a hugely sophisticated vocabulary that none of us have the ability to translate.”
Unlike legacy design houses of the first world who maintain an archive of their work, early Indian couturiers rarely got to hold on to samples of their craft. Under the patronage of the country’s wealthiest royal families, they wove precious material like silk, gold and silver into garments to be worn at coronations, weddings and festivals. Over the years, these pieces have scattered to the wind; some are personal heirlooms, some end up under the inadequate care of state-run museums and others moulder in the back of some sentimental textile dealer’s shop. The artisan didn’t get to keep the art.
Long before she had any idea of what she would do with these samples—and decades before Make In India was a gleam in the eye of Prime Minister and Varanasi MP Narendra Modi—Kumar took a special interest in the region’s textiles. “Every time a weaver brought me a collection, if there was an old sari from Benaras in there, I would buy it for our archive. This was a great help [for the revival project] because there are not that many of these saris left today.” Like this, Kumar created a bank of references for the weavers and nakshbandhs to dip into.
It’s a curious role for a fashion designer to play—more facilitator, less creator. But Kumar says it’s hard to improve upon a classic. Take the Benarasi sari: “The old paisleys and butas have a certain balance to them that has slipped from our consciousness over time. It was amazing just to be able to recreate this in the present-day context.” The Revivalist collection is almost completely classical in style, with the exception of an occasional bolt of fuchsia or a jacket with straight, spare lines.
The palette is uniformly rich, all skin of plum and throat of peacock, and a shade of red that can only be described as nuptial. A Benarasi sari was de rigueur for Bengali child brides of a certain era, so the colours are festive and the fabric is malleable enough to lend grace to gangly pre-adolescent limbs. The iridescence of these saris, a result of the warp and weft using different colours, is straight out of a Raja Ravi Varma painting.
But for a moment, let’s forget how it looks. Let’s talk about what Benarasi brocade feels like. That’s the real miracle of it anyway, that a fabric teeming with so much metallic shine can be as pliant as a cotton tee. You hear brocade and you think of something stiff and rough against the skin, and we have our neighbour to the east and the realities of the free market to thank for that. As an alternative to the popular Chinese mercerised yarn used to make modern Benarasi saris, the team at Kumar’s studio created an untwisted yarn that was as close to the historic raw material as they could get it. Cloth woven from this has all the cosiness of a treasured heirloom grown soft with wear. This is why contemporary brides with a soft corner for tradition and a good bargain still prefer to invest in a Benarasi sari or lehenga for their wedding ceremonies; it barely ages and is unlikely to go out of style—although it once came pretty close.
In the years following India’s independence, Benarasi textiles lost a lot of their sheen. Kumar believes there are two reasons for this. First, years of colonisation gave the Indian market a taste for ‘English designs’; the earthy or ethereal motifs that a Jaipur maharaja or a Hyderabadi nizam was partial to fell out of favour. The second reason was the decline of the nakshbandh. “Benaras had, for some reason, eliminated the designer from the whole process. This was a big mistake because the textiles then lost most of their aesthetic appeal,” says Kumar. The designer wasn’t sure about the future of her own revival project until she secured the interest of these original pattern-makers, who were not so much trained as they were born into the trade. “When we showed [the old pieces] to a family of nakshbandhs, there was immediate recognition—like, ‘Oh, I remember my grandfather used to do this.’ And what was amazing was that the skills were still there.”
Despite their enthusiasm and the influence of an experienced revivalist like Kumar, this was a tough project to pull off. It takes more than good intentions to restart a stalled loom. In a note accompanying the collection, Kumar reveals that it required a diverse set of skills, that of “a highly skilled mathematician, a textile technologist, an aesthetically sensitive art historian and a designer who understands the needs of a vast market.”
The Revivalist was one of the brand’s corporate social responsibility initiatives and that gave them the breathing room to commission this work without needing to rush the craftspeople. “You can’t put this type of work into a commercial slot or make it fit a timeline. These are very high couture pieces of textiles; they are not fashion items.”
If anyone appreciates the pleasures of slow fashion, it’s Kumar. In nearly five decades, she has restored all manner of Indian prints, embroideries and weaves to their former glory. Something about this form of time-travel ignites her imagination and moves her to poetry. Sample this line from an otherwise impassive account of her Benaras experience, from the press material: “Nothing contemporary comes anywhere close to the sheer glamour of the way old saris were conceived: rich silks against the gold and silver woven into the warp and weft of a six-yard length of cloth [to produce] the dhoop-chhaon [effect]—threads aimed to shoot through shadows and light to catch the essence of the Ganga-Jamuna.” She credits all the eloquence to the 600-year-old weaves. “If I had to write about a polka-dotted lycra dress, I don’t think I could get beyond one sentence.”
Benaras may be Kumar’s preoccupation of the present, but it’s not the only one. The Revivalist line also features chikankari and ikat, which the designer says can be as complicated and grand as any vintage brocade, if it’s done right. “When I started out in my career, what I wanted was for India to develop its own organic fashion handwriting. To a large extent, that is happening now. A lot of craft originates from our part of the world.” Thanks, in no small part, to the work of this besotted historian-archivist-designer.
Photographs: Manasi Sawant; Styling: Surbhi Shukla; Hair and Make-up: Kritika Gill; Model: Suzanne Baker / Anima Creative Management.