The story of Gyaser

Revival routine: Designers Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan and their creations.  

Picture this: It’s the 1800s and in in the the by-lanes of Varanasi, weavers sit at pit looms and meticulously create fabric with exquisite zari (pure gold threads). The textile features auspicious Chinese and Buddhist motifs like lotuses and dragons. From Varanasi, the fabric travels to the snow-clad regions of Tibet and Ladakh where it appears in the Buddhist thangkas (scroll paintings), festive robes of the Lamas (teachers) and as adornments in monasteries.

This is the story of Gyaser — a variety of silk-brocade fabric that linked the Far East and the Himalayas to the Gangetic Plains via the Silk Route. But it’s lost its sheen with time. Today, it has been transformed into saris by Kolkata-based designers and textile revivalists Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan. The duo is bringing their collection to the city in a show titled Between Land And The Sky: Woven Gold from Gyaser Tradition. Presented by art patron Czaee Shah, the collection includes 12 to 15 historical pieces that trace the development of the Gyaser tradition from China to Varanasi from the late 19th century until the 1980s. These will be accompanied by contemporary, single-edition Gyaser saris created by the designers. “I was impressed with Swati and Sunaina’s grit to revive and reinterpret India’s textile heritage. The idea of this exhibition was to introduce their repertoire to Mumbai,” says Shah.

Curated by Monisha Ahmed — an independent researcher and writer, with a focus on the histories, practices and material culture of Ladakh — the works also include scenography by Mayank Mansingh Kaul.

The aim was to create a visual experience of the Himalayan landscape and Buddhist monasteries. Ahmed reasons, “Through the selected textiles and the images, we wanted to show how the richness of the Gyaser fabric plays out against the backdrop of barren mountains and its transformation from a devotional fabric to one of fashion.”

Retrace the history

The luxurious, intricate zari-woven saris, with vibrant floral designs, are the result of year-long research undertaken by the designers, who launched their label Swati & Sunaina in 2007 to revive India’s forgotten handloom weaves. “Initially, we were drawn to the rich patterns that the use of zari allows in the Gyaser. As we learnt more about its history, we were fascinated to know that these textiles were originally inspired by Chinese brocades,” says Agarwal who along with Jalan has previously worked with Jamdani and Rangkaat weaves. The process of transforming the traditional, heavy Gyaser textile into a softer weave that could be draped as a sari was a challenge. “Originally, the textile was woven on a 23-inch-wide loom. To create a sari drape, we increased its width to 45 inches and modified the textile construction to make it lighter and more supple,” says Jalan.

In pure gold

Through their label, the designers have sought to re-introduce pure zari in their renditions of classic designs from Varanasi. “Weavers have stopped working with pure zari because it’s expensive and hand-weaving with it is slower than with its synthetic substitutes,” says says Agarwal. “We’ve had to develop special relationships with master weavers who are willing to go the extra mile once assured that they will have sustained orders from our end.” To weave the Gyaser saris in gold, the two revivalists created a 98.5% silver zari plated with 24-carat gold. “This helped us achieve the bright tone required in a Gyaser textile,” she adds. The saris are presented to the buyers with a spindle of the zari that has been used in the creation, the name of the master weaver who has woven it and details of the techniques and yarns used.

Between Land And The Sky: Woven Gold from Gyaser Tradition is on till April 20, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Gallery Maskara, Colaba. Prices start at ₹6 lakhs.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 10:08:48 AM |

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