Rta Kapur Chishti, whose book documents India’s handloom tradition, takes up the cause of the weaves and their works

Rta Kapur Chishti, an expert on handloom textiles, argues that weaving is a highly specialised skill, and India is the only country in the world that has a large base of such skills. Kapur Chishti has documented India’s handloom textile industry in her book Saris of India: Tradition and Beyond (2010), which was commissioned by the Government of India, and has co-authored several other books revolving around a similar theme. When asked about her 35-year career in the handloom industry, Kapur Chishti says that her learning came from the weavers and her association with the best in the industry, such as Martand Singh.

She is presently conducting workshops across different Indian cities and small towns, in which she helps the participants re-discover the “magic of the unstitched garment.” The immediate association with the term “unstitched garment” is with the sari, but it also includes a range of other Indian attire from shawls and dhotis to stoles and pagdis.

Having conducted a workshop in Bangalore too in association with FabIndia, Kapur Chishti says that the creative possibilities of an unstitched garment are endless. “At the workshops, which I have been conducting from 2009, I teach traditional wearing styles and what goes into making the garment itself.” The process of recreation takes place during the workshop.”

Kapur Chishti believes that traditional techniques ought to be used with a contemporary sensibility. She also argues for limiting excess in design. “I prefer the ornamentation and design elements to be quieter, as it were. Design is not about adding on, the textile should not be hidden under ornamentation and there must be a balance between weaving and design elements. Bangalore and Mysore silks and even Kancheepurams are heavily embellished, which was not the case earlier.”

Kapur Chishti ascribes the “shouting element” that dominates much of contemporary Indian designs to the evolution of hierarchies. “It is largely due to the ‘democratisation process’. The processes of hierarchies are constantly being created and re-created, which affects design too. Earlier, there was an up-to-down sensibility when embellishments were used sparingly, today there has been a reversal of this trend. Hence, an understated style, because it is so rare, is highly appreciated these days.”

Although traditional weaving techniques are slowly dying, Chishti doesn’t believe that the Government cannot solely be blamed for this. “Patronage alone cannot ensure better production. In contemporary India, grants by the government are often seen as freebies. Other forces are at play in society, the distance between those who have benefited from Globalisation and those who haven’t have increased. We need to humanise the space between them.”

Weavers are moving away from their family business and taking up work at construction sites and building roads. Some consider this to be a practical solution to their problems for at least they will be able to earn a regular income, but Kapur Chishti doesn’t agree. “It is better to have a weaver work under the shade of a home and earn 80 rupees without the interference of middle-men.”

More In: Metroplus | Features