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Old warp, new weft

When weaving traditions are skilfully blended, the result is unbeatable, believes textile visualiser Shashiv Chandran.

Shashiv Chandran: in pursuit of excellence in handlooms.

ONE'S MOTHER can be a scientist, father a journalist, and one's degree, English Honours. But if one has been putting together relatives' and cousins' trousseaus right from an early age, there's simply no confusion about which profession to choose.

"My mother had an astounding collection of saris. She had this friend who would bring saris from Kanchi. She would also buy material and get them printed according to her likes," says Shashiv Chandran, who describes himself as a textile visualiser. "I was so much a part of this process and all this has nothing to do with today and me."

It also helped to have an extremely well turned out aunt, working for an ad agency to boot. "She had this outstanding collection of cottons."

The 40-year-old Chandran says his non-technical background has helped him in his pursuit of excellence in handloom traditions. His outfit, Utsav, is a little over a decade old. It started as a garage affair in Delhi, after he had done with a two-year stint sourcing material from all over the country for Khazana, the Taj group's handloom and handicrafts outlet. Fortunately, he did not have to face the usual pressures to go the conventional way from his family. In fact, his parents helped him start his little shop.

"I had two Godrej almirahs of textiles initially. I never expected my venture to be such a success. Everything was through word-of-mouth and soon I moved to a proper commercial complex. I now do two really big shows in Delhi, besides taking them elsewhere."

Mr. Chandran, who came down for an exhibition in town recently where he focused on vegetable colours, says he helps weavers find a larger audience. His weavers span the length and breadth of the country, looking to fuse different traditions in prints, colours, and weaving.

He is in no way dictating terms to weavers. "The dictionary is already there. All I do is to incorporate flexibility into tradition." This flexibility can be marrying Machilipattanam traditions with Bagru prints, or imprinting Dabu designs on Mangalagiri cottons. Or removing a certain element from a traditional set of motifs — like veludhari, for example — and simplifying the effect to suit urban tastes.

Which begs the question — is he not diluting tradition? Why should one improve on a classic? He puts it this way: "Today's woman looks for something unique. She wants something others don't have. Look, I have seen awful work where weavers have been given computer-generated designs by government designers. And then the government is forced to buy what the weavers produce. It is not as if the weavers have stuck to pure tradition. I have seen Bengal saris that are a complete copy of Kanchi's thousand-butta design. What I am saying is that often there is no direction when it comes to design. Moreover, weavers also experience the pressure of competition."

For example, Venkatagiri was very fashionable for three years and then the North Indian shopkeepers wouldn't touch them. Those saris once had pure zaris, but now weavers use what is called `tested' zaris. Thus, he says, weavers are also buffeted by market forces.

"We have a moral responsibility in helping them sustain themselves," he says, adding that designers like him ensure proper returns to them. Never one to be patronising towards them, he adds: "They don't go so wrong, after all." What pains him is the "thoughtless transfer of design from one region to another".

He also points out that weavers themselves are not above diluting tradition. "Ask them to do a difficult design and they say, `Yeh badi mushqil hai. Bahut der lagega.' Often they want to take it easy."

He agrees that the textiles he designs are elitist. He has big plans. One area he has not touched is the North-East. He now wants to explore designs from there and experiment with their possibilities.

Mr Chandran can be contacted on 011-26518124 or 011-26531172.


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