A heritage textile exhibition in Delhi tells the tale of revitalising old and tradition patterns

This Sunday, viewers, especially those interested in cotton fabric, ranging from saris to dupattas to other clothing, will find a reason to be at Agha Khan Hall as it will host an exhibition of traditional Indian textiles — showcasing contemporary textures, designs, colours and patterns from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. 

Utsav is a 25-year-old initiative by Shashiv Chandran, a textile aficionado who works directly with weavers from almost all the States, especially the southern and northern ones. The weavers, some of whom work exclusively for him, recreate designs they had learnt from their grandfathers on new fabric; sometimes, they even blend two separate fabrics or patterns from two different States.

From the design point of view, for instance, custom-coloured saris woven specially in Kanchipuram have a plain block colour with a classical zari border and pallav. These are sent to Shantiniketan for kantha thread work with designs and colours as visualized by Mr. Chandran. Similarly, fine cotton weaves from Uppada in Andhra Pradesh are finished in Lucknow’s intricate chikan-kari embroidery or khadi saris woven in Andhra find their way to Bhuj for fine bandhej (tie and dye) patterns for which Gujarat is famous. Mr. Chandran says: “Sometimes one sari takes as many as six months to complete because of the amount of painstaking work it requires.”

“Also,” he adds, “I make them recollect the designs their grandfathers worked on, some of them do remember those patterns. We modernise them by giving the textile a contemporary look. Surprisingly, these weavers did not want to use old patterns in the face of demand for new designs by the new generation. They didn’t even think of setting up looms for the same reason but after they blended old patterns with new designs/fabric/embroidery, they found great results. This is helping them not only to revive the traditional designs which were on the verge of extinction but also learn contemporary patterns the new generation looks for. My customers include women who got married 25 years ago but still want to buy the same sari they wore, with some new designs for their daughters. I, therefore, take great care that I don’t forget to keep the traditional design as the crux of the textile.”

These heritage textiles are eco-friendly, safe, soft and subtle. Mr. Chandran says: “I work with vegetable dyes like kashish, indigo, haradanar chilka, alum and haldi.”

Having worked with them for quarter of a century now, he is not unaware of the problems the poor weavers face. He recalls: “Some of the weavers work in extreme conditions, especially those in Tamil Nadu. Once I went to a weaver’s house in Kanchivaram. There was no electricity and he had no fan either. He had a small window in his house which he had opened for some light and air. When I asked him about the government’s scheme to provide free electricity to weavers, his wife said ‘What’s the use of such free electricity when daily power cut is for 10 hours?’” Utsav has been endeavouring to participate in making a difference to the lives of traditional weavers, even though it is a drop in the ocean.