“Loom to Luxury’s” Jitendra Kumar is working in village communities on the outskirts of Varanasi with about 70 weavers closely and on a regular basis - depending on the number of orders. We visited the village of Ayadhopur to film our documentary, however they also work with a large group of weavers in a nearby village called Kotwa.
These are the two major villages producing these stunning textiles for the international fashion market. The master weaver we met with is named Bhaiylal Ji who works closely with Jitendra and NGO Nest to develop the necessary processes and infrastructure to meet the specific international market damands, as well as provide young weavers the opportunity to develop the skills required for a sustainable career in the “new” hand loom sector.
The luxurious hand-loomed textiles created in these village weaving communities; with the help of Nest and Jitendra Kumar have hit the international runways through New York based fashion house, MAIYET. With their second Paris runway show a resounding success, things are looking up for the initiative and the weaving communities involved in this collaborative approach.
See the stunning collection from MAIYET’s recent show in Paris.
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We head to Shantipur and Phulia, 90km’s from Kolkata and home to nearly 110 different weaver communities. We arrive in Gobar Char, a weaving village in Shantipur to meet Bimal Bairagi - a marginal handloom weaver.
Bairagi comes from Gobar Char (pronounced gaw-bar chawr) in Shantipur – the ancient handloom hub steeped in the highest traditions of weaving exquisite Bengal handloom sarees. Gobar Char is a low lying settlement at the southernmost tip of Shantipur by the side of River Bhagirathi (Ganga). Life here can be a cesspool of adversity, literally and otherwise. The weavers’ workshops in Gobar Char are built on raised platforms to escape oncoming flood waters during the monsoon. This weaving hub is on the verge of extinction.
Despite the extraordinary skills of the weavers, the average earning of a weaver family is in the range of only Rs. 1500 – Rs. 2000 (US $20 - $30) per month which is not enough to make ends meet. Migration to Kolkata and other cities is taking place for a better living opportunity – working as unskilled labour on building sites or rickshaw drivers. Almost 40% of the 70,000 looms have closed over the past few years. Weaving a full length saree takes almost 8-10 hours involving extreme physical exertion of the hands and feet, in return the Mahajans or traders give the wages of merely Rs. 70-100 (US$1.40 - $2.00) per saree. The Mahajans subsequently sell the sarees to the city merchants making 5 to 10 times profit.
Bimal is currently working on a project for the Shantipur Integrated Handloom Cluster under the aegis of Ministry of Textiles, Government of India to help create a sustainable business for his weaving village. Market demand and an appreciation of the extraordinary craft is what is required to support the 7,000 weavers and their families in this village.
Despite the adversity the weaving families face, the village atmosphere is abuzz with laughter and friendly banter as the children show off in front of the camera, jumping into the river to escape the relentless 48 degree temperature, whilst others peacefully carry out their daily routines.
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One of my favorite cities, Kolkata is soulful, with its rich history and friendly people this cultural hub is home to the Bengal Renaissance and continues to spawn generations of poets, writers and film directors. Kolkata’s history is intimately related to the British East India Company, which first arrived in 1690, and to British India, of which Calcutta became the capital in 1772. As a result of the East India Company’s trade sanctions (among other more recent influences), many of the cotton farmers, spinners and weavers are suffering economically. (For more on this see our upcoming blog on Malkha)
Rightly called the city of joy for the exuberance and vitality it exudes. The city of joy is a bustling, colorful metropolis with a treasured history and rich heritage evident in the way the city still retains the glory of its age old culture in it’s Victorian bookstores, clubs like the Tollygunge, the charming trams and the passion in it’s people - be it life, the intensely sweet mishti doi (a sweetened set curd)or the cricket!! (With thanks to Wikitravel, Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor)
Arriving from Banaras, we meet with young contemporary designer Nupur Kanoi who among others including world-renowned Indian fashion designer to the stars, Sabyasachi Mukherjee espouses the virtues of her cultural heritage – the textile artisans in rural India.
Kanoi recently showcased her contemporary, totally wearable collection at fashion week with great success. We arrive in her bustling studio/workshop where there is a hive of activity producing the exquisite garments, hand loomed silk and cotton, organically dyed, printed and adorned with beautiful detail from “french knots” to intricate embroidery and appliqué – all done by artisans across India.
Also based in Kolkata, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, whose collections showcase the beauty and diversity of Indian artisans believes the revival of interest in Bengal handloom is a social phenomenon and is happening because, over the last couple of years, tastes have become more refined. “Bengal saris are simple and sophisticated. I have been using saris from Phulia and Kalna and the luxurious fabric Jamdani in all of my collections.” Says Mukherjee.
Our next stop is Ritu’s boutique & showroom where she pulls out what seems like hundred’s of meters of hand loomed fabrics from across India. From the famed Ikaat to the finely woven Bengali silks in a riot of gorgeous colours. Brimming with passion for her work Ritu takes us on a journey across the vast number of textile regions where she has travelled and created fabrics with village artisans on behalf of some of India’s fashion elite over the past 20 years.
We leave Kolkata for the famous weaving villages in Shantipur & Phulia
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Weavers, weaving at break of day,
Why do you weave a garment so gay?
Blue as the wing of a halcyon wild,
We weave the robes of a new born child. Weavers, weaving at fall of night,
Why do you weave a garment so bright?
Like the plumes of a peacock, purple and green, We weave the marriage-veils of a queen.
Weavers, weaving solemn and still,
What do you weave in the moonlight chill?
White as a feather and white as a cloud, We weave a dead man’s funeral shroud.
Artisans of Fashion explores the rich textile heritage of Banaras, also known as Varanasi. Resting on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, Varanasi is regarded as a holy city by Hindus Buddhist and Jains alike. More than one million pilgrims visit the city every year, at least 3000 years old, Varanasi is also one of the world’s oldest living cities.
Varanasi has long attracted pilgrims, traders, conquerors and craftsmen and is famous for the meticulously handcrafted Banaras Sari - the ultimate sign of luxury.
The sari weaving tradition is almost 800 years old and this exact weaving technique is still carried out today having been handed down through the generations.
Over the past decade, the situation for weavers in Varanasi has declined. Cheap imports and industrialisation is now threatening the Varanasi weaver’s craft, driving the artisans to alternative employment and a life-sentence of extreme poverty.
Our journey begins in this timeless city, where we meet with weaver’s, master weavers and traders, an NGO working in partnership with a social enterprise and a contemporary textile designer working with the highly skilled artisan’s techniques to create stunning hand loomed textiles for the high end local and international luxury market.
We discover the complexities and challenges that arise through the integration of these ancient techniques within the constantly varying pulse of global fashion; and also the extraordinary possibilities of such a collaboration given an environment of cultural understanding and mutual respect. Access to market and production management systems are the two key areas of focus for Loom to Luxury, a social enterprise established to provide the village weavers with the opportunity to keep their craft alive and build sustainable businesses. Loom to Luxury in partnership with NGO Nest is providing suitable working environments along with the resources and facilities for new product development, training programs for the next generation of weavers and paid work opportunities for women. Already working closely with NY based fashion label Maiyet, this exciting initiative has a positive and viable future with significant mutual benefits.
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Artisans of Fashion explores the rich history and lives of India’s marginalised textile artisans. We unveil the secret to working with these extraordinary craftspeople, while exploring the integration of their ancient techniques within the constantly varying pulse of global fashion. And then we uncover the balance of mutual benefit for both parties.
We are grateful for the support we have from a number of people & organisations - without their help this journey would not be possible. SilkAir, Tourism India, Consulate General of India, AIC and my dear friends Amit Dasgupta & Demetra Allen.
Our first stop is Varanasi - home of the magical weavers of the Banares sari; which is known to be among the finest saris in India. We look forward to sharing their stories…
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It’s 12 months since we journeyed back to where many of Australia’s fashion elite source their beautiful hand beading, embroidery and silk weaves. This beautiful collection of photographs shot by renowned Australian photographer, Robyn Beeche showcases some of the intricate detail & craftsmanship that the Indian textile artisans have mastered over many generations. With special thanks to Louise Van Der Vorst, Peter Simon Phillips, Natasha Severino, Julie Lantry, Demetra Allen & Lorin Askill for their commitment to the cause.
The journey for Artisans of Fashion continues… join us as we explore the rich history and lives of some of the world’s most marginalized people, namely India’s textile artisans; in the context of contemporary fashion. We aim to unveil the secret to working with India’s extraordinary craftspeople by exploring the integration of these ancient techniques with the constantly varying pulse of fashion’s runways. Our mission is to help close the gap between these highly skilled craftspeople and the top of the value chain for mutual benefit.
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Working with the Panchachuli Women Weavers, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, AOF, with Australian cricket legend Brett Lee, will design and produce a range of hand woven scarves.
With the generous support of Australian Wool Innovations, the beautifully woven scarves will be made from pure Australian Merino wool.
We are looking to launch the scarves into the UK, Australian and Indian markets to help build a sustainable, long term business opportunity for these extraordinary women weavers.
The scarves will be photographed with Brett on a sheep farm in Australia’s Merino country; outside Goulburn in the NSW Southern Tablelands.
Stay posted for the behind the scenes & a sneak peak of the scarves.
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