Shravan Kumar retraces his 20-year journey in fashion, of times spent in understanding the weft and the warp and most importantly, the mindset of a clientele that keeps him on his toes.
Fashion is my religion, says Shravan Kumar, as he takes in the unruffled environs of Aalayam, his temple of weaves in Jubilee Hills modelled after the famous Guruvayur temple. The Aalayam society supports master weavers specialising in Kanchi, Benaras, Mangalagiri, Vekatagiri and Narayanpet weaves, under whom several other weavers are employed.
In the last 20 years he’s been in the fashion industry, Shravan has worked with weavers across the country closely. Shravan’s studio at Lakdi ka Pul caters to a younger clientele that prefers dresses and coordinated sets. Aalayam is his pet project devoted to saris.
“If a young woman asks me what she should choose between half-saris and saris, I would suggest saris. Indian women look graceful and beautiful in a sari and in-turn, a weaver stands to benefit,” he says.
Remember the ‘mera wala pink’ paint commercial? Shravan has young brides coming to him with even tougher demands. He sights an example where a bride wanted a sari in ‘frosted purple; the kind of colour you’d get with a thin layer of ice if you freeze a block of purple’.
“We’ve managed to do that,” he smiles. Brides and mothers come to him with colour cards and zari cards and discuss the quantity of zari they want in each sari and detail the colour of sari each family member wants to wear.
Shravan’s own learning and experience in colour psychology (his M.Phil study) holds him in good stead in such situations. Shravan and his team can delineate which zari motif would suit a particular colour of the sari. “Some motifs look good on fire colours — mango yellow, sunset orange and red while others look good only on white,” he says.
The motifs are not the ones you’d see on saris sold in the retail sector. Designs are inspired from different texts such as Amar Chitra Katha and Panchatantra or concept-based like Nandanavanam and Chitavanam and then re-interpreted to place them in a modern idiom. Shravan has often looked into the wardrobes of 80 or 90-year-olds who treasure their old weaves. “We look at heritage weaves and techniques. But everything has to be re-interpreted. There will be very few takers for a complete double ikat sari today. So we tell weavers to weave a sari in single ikat and have a block of double ikat on the pallu,” he explains.
Similarly, the motifs go through a redesign. “We ideate, do the background sketch, draw the motif and re-interpret. If I feel the annapakshi’s face needs to be redone and a gomukha (face of a cow) would look better, I change it accordingly. Then, we do the surface ornamentation to make the weave look grand. The checks may have small rudraksha designs and so on. A lot of work goes into designing a motif,” he says. In all this, there is room for error. “I do go wrong at times,” he shrugs. But those instances are rare. Shravan knows what his clients like and particularly what they don’t. “Working with a Nandanavanam concept is tricky because women don’t want to wear saris with animal motifs for a wedding,” he says.
In the last couple of seasons, he is tired of telling women not to drown themselves in silver or gold saris and instead return to the good old maroons that will make them look brighter.
Shravan was 17 when he took his first steps into designing. “I got a seat for Medicine. I could have been a doctor but my heart was in fashion. I began designing with the help of two tailors and a master weaver when I turned 17,” he recounts. A formal training at JD Institute of Fashion Technology and National Institute of Fashion Designing later, he pursued higher studies in London where he was exposed to colour psychology. Like many national designers, he too credits his sense of aesthetics to his mother who took pride in wearing hand-woven saris. “My mom feels my saris are expensive. She is happy in her simple Mangalagiris and Venkatagiris,” he smiles.
As Shravan describes the minute differences between hand-woven saris from different regions (“the colour, quantity and quality of zari varies from Salem to Madurai to Coimbatore”; “the small checks of a Madurai sari are different from that of a Coimbatore cotton sari”), you get an idea of the work he has done with weavers in the last 20 years. Yet, he took his own time to showcase to bask under the spotlight of the Lakme Fashion Week. “They’ve been inviting me for a long time now. At that time, they didn’t have a dedicated day for Indian textiles. I believe fashion has to serve a purpose,” he says, talking about the woven collection of saris, lehangas and ensembles he presented as part of the Lakme Fashion Week recently. “I was touched when Sabyasachi said he didn’t mind standing and watching the show. Though I offered to gift Rohit Bal an outfit from my menswear line, he insisted on purchasing since he wanted the proceeds to go to the weavers. What more can I ask for?” says Shravan.
The Aalayam society, he says, wouldn’t have been possible but for his weavers. “Earlier, weavers wouldn’t work between Deepavali and Sankranti. With changing times, they understand the need to cater to a growing market and hardly take 10-15 days off. We have some extremely talented weavers adept at the needle or ‘oosi’ zari stitch. The younger lot is willing to be trained in heritage weaves from master weavers. The young weavers have the technical know of different weaves and know how to match motifs with colours,” says Shravan.
Just then, a client walks in admiring the bird nests on one of the trees and Shravan gets back to work.