A tale of six yards

threads of tradition Vijai Singh Katiyar  

Vijai Singh Katiyar speaks about his coffee table book on the saris of India and the need to keep the drape alive

To Vijai Singh Katiyar, the sari is more than just an enduring symbol of India's tradition and heritage. It is, he says, a cultural wealth, a design resource that we need to harness as we move ahead into the future. “The sari is an iconic product – people around the world look at the sari, and they think of India,” says Katiyar, a senior faculty member at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, and the founder of the International Centre for Indian Crafts.

The Indian influence

“We need to think about how to take the sari into the 22nd Century, not just for commercial benefit, but to spread India's influence, its ‘soft power' internationally.”

That is the essence of Katiyar's recently launched coffee table book, Indian Saris: Traditions – Perspective – Design, a large, glossy celebration of the handloom sari, complete with 892 beautiful photographs.

The gloss, he says, is to attract youngsters, who are losing touch with this exquisite and quintessentially Indian product. “I've worked with weaver communities for 20 years, and they've always faced a lot of problems. Now, their product is too, because of waning interest among the younger generation. I felt I must communicate with these young people, so I've tried to talk in their visual language of fashion and style.”

But, his central message is deeply pragmatic. “After the knowledge economy will come the creative economy, with the industry being propelled by creative ideas, by design and aesthetics,” says Katiyar earnestly. “India's resource is its heritage, its handlooms, traditional architecture, etc.”

For instance, the brochure of a company, he says, could draw inspiration from Kanjeevaram sari, or the banner at a trade fair could be inspired by a Venkatagiri sari. “There are over a thousand types of saris, each with its own material, drape, and visual language – we already have a complete palette,” he comments. “It's about transferring the concept of the sari to other sectors, about celebrating it as Indian.”

In the book, Katiyar discusses 18 different sari traditions from across India. But once again, his is more than a starry-eyed love affair with gorgeous weaves — he's keenly concerned with practical issues such as distribution and investment. “If I want to buy an Ilkal sari from Karnataka in Ahmedabad, it's simply not available, or showrooms fail to display these vibrant products properly,” he comments. “Better distribution and promotional networks, visual merchandising — that is the call of the hour.”

And, more than anything else, he says, more collaboration between weavers and designers is a must. “The Government spends so much on technical upgrades, but the loom is really a very simple machine — creativity is what drives the design,” he points out. “Yet, Government textile departments don't have full-time qualified designers.”

His passion evident in every syllable, Katiyar says, “Even the most modern lady would be moved by a beautiful sari put before her — that is its power. We need to ensure its continued evolution.”