“India is the only country today that has skills of hand spinning. It is the most unique resource in the world today” – Mayank Mansingh Kaul
Against the background of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi this year – whose call for Khadi led to the Indian freedom movement – Ahalya Matthan of the Registry of Sarees, and designer Mayank Mansingh Kaul – held the third iteration of Meanings and Metaphors in Bangalore. In a free flowing conversation they spoke about handmade textiles, the identities they impart as well as their place in contemporary design.
The sarees displayed at Meanings and Metaphors only hinted at the diversity of textiles that exist in India. A diversity that goes far beyond the textiles themselves.
Ahalya Matthan Director and Founder of the Registry of Sarees, a Research and Study Centre in Bangalore of handspun and handwoven textiles, is trying to create cultural capsules to find commonalities and communicate that using textiles. “I personally feel in India we have nothing in common – not food, not religion, politics, language, geography, music history, etc. And in this diverseness, it is difficult to find common ground except for in our textiles, There is a love for textiles in all of us,” says Ahalya.
Take for instance the Bundi saree, which the Registry’s site says is a ‘modern day response to a young nation’s identity’. It merges skill and craft sets from two entirely different regions, Kancheepuram and Rajasthan. The pure cotton saree with the silk borders specially woven using the three-shuttle ‘temple’ technique synonymous with Kancheepuram was combined with the highly skilled block printing technique using blocks developed from inspirations at the Bundi Fort, Rajasthan. They were merged onto the sarees, thereby linking Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. “A rich colour pallet that is appreciated in both states was used to bring forth a similarity of appreciation and culture,” says the Registry.
For Mayank Mansingh Kaul, a textile and fashion designer, and Founder-Director of The Design Project India, the most attractive thing is that India is the only country today that has skills of hand spinning. “It is the most unique resource in the world today. Apart from that, the thing that hits people the most about our textiles when they come from outside is that it is so diverse. It is the quality of cotton, the quality of natural dyeing that does not exist elsewhere in the world. It has such an amazing variety of motifs where everything has a meaning. What draws people from outside and within it is endless, but the first thing is the sheer diversity.” With textiles changing even as one moves from one part of Tamil Nadu to another.
A lot of this fascination is articulated through the stories from foreigners, friends of Mayank. “The Japanese are more attracted to the material quality. They are very interested in the structure, the materiality. Whereas in the West, people are interested in the stories. Today we think of the Kota Doria as being synonymous with Rajasthan, but it was originally the Mysoria Doria. It goes from the Royal Court of Mysore to Kota. I think these are the stories that are very appealing to the West.”
Mayank has researched these stories and his writings talk about the recent history of Indian textiles. “You have to talk about textiles not just as a product but as a confluence of the political and the social. Khadi was political. In the 60s and 70s when everyone wanted to wear imported chiffon, Indira Gandhi started wearing handloom. She even had rules, we believe, that all government offices had to buy only handloom furnishings –curtains and sofa covers and other things. To make that shift when people wanted to look at western references, was something,” says Mayank.
When Ahalya and Mayank thought about collaborating, they found there was a lot of misinformation about textile history. “Suddenly people were selling Hindru sarees. There was never anything called the Hindru saree. Hindru was a fabric woven for shervanis among the Mughal or aristocratic class,” says Mayank.
A graduate of the National Institute of Design, Mayank says it is only in the last 10-12 years there has been an interest in the study of contemporary Indian textile. “NID is one of the oldest design institutions in the world and until my batch in 2001 we were still taught by some of the founders of the NID. NID was formed with international linkages to movements like the Bauhaus (learning by doing rather than the traditional transmission of traditional knowledge) in Europe. So we knew what happened 200 or 300 years back but we had very little understanding of what happened 100 years back or 60 years or post-Independence. I felt those histories were not in books and exhibitions. So over a period of time, my own practice looked at design, fashion and textiles in the modern period and my argument is that we have not sufficiently understood this period.”
Mayank quotes historical inaccuracies, emphasising the need to learn more about our textiles in contemporary times. For instance, the Telia Rumal of Andhra Pradesh was never the saree which it is today. It was a rumal that was exported to the Arab world. “These are more contemporary histories. Another example is the Ikat sarees which people believe have always been made in Ikat in Andhra Pradesh. Whereas it is a much more recent phenomenon. It is only in the 1950s and 60s that the tradition of the Ikat saree emerged. My interest is to look at the more recent history and fill in the gaps through that between the present and the historical.”
Mayank’s previous major exhibition at the Jawahar Kala Kendra was an exhibition on the history of 70 years of Indian textiles since Independence told through 70 textiles using textiles that were both art and fashion.
“Often, we don’t see the story behind these textiles, it stops with buying and wearing them. My efforts are to do non-commercial curated exhibitions. These collections are not about buying, it’s about being aware of the textile, or enjoying the pleasure of looking at it – it’s an educational process.”
At the first exhibition of Meanings and Metaphors at Chirala in Andhra Pradesh, 5000 weavers attended the event. The exhibitions serve as repository of the best work of weavers. In their research Ahalya and Mayank noticed that weavers often sell the best of what they have made. “If they cannot retain the best examples of what they make, how can their future generations replicate that quality? So when you take an exhibition like this they are reminded of the quality that they have made, but that they have not been able to hold on to. In an environment where textiles and fashion are so over articulated, we try to provide non-commercial platforms to view and understand these traditions,” says Mayank.
Another collection that will be exhibited by them in 2020 – Sarees of India – will feature sarees from the late 19th century to the 1980s. Whenever the duo gets access to a collection they store it at the Study and Research Centre at the Registry of Sarees and anyone can access it for research or viewing. The center has over 108 variety of fabrics and 108 sarees of which only 51 have been exhibited.
Mayank and Ahalya see textiles as an inheritance that needs to be cherished. Every saree for them has a story as it passes through atleast twenty hands before becoming what it is. At the time when there was a move to remove reservations and subsidies for the handloom sector, Ahalya became a part of the 100 sarees pact. She and her colleagues decided to become proactive and wear more handloom sarees in order to get people to wear handloom and support weavers.
Speaking about identity and the saree, Ahalya says the Registry has seen a lot of interest from expats who are ‘interested to interact with the drape and even to know about the pieces.’ “Expats in cities like Bangalore, Gurugoan, Bombay, not so much traditional hubs like Delhi and Calcutta are adopting the saree to be able to fit into the cultural environment. It gives them an inroad not just into a new ritual or experience like going to a temple or eating from a plaintain leaf, experiences you have as someone coming to a new country, but it also gives them a sense of bonding and community and that I think is very important,” says Ahalya.
Pamela Kaplan, who headed IBM at Bangalore for two years was an American with red hair, and so was very conspicuous among her staff. Ahalya says she started wearing sarees to work every day. “The norm and trend in IBM was western wear and even formals were gowns – Indo Western gowns. And suddenly, she said, in two to three months the culture of the organisation changed. Young women and men started feeling awkward that she was coming in sarees and they started wearing Indian clothes. It is just conditioning.”
“Indians are not Brand oriented but Product Oriented”
Mayank did a project last year on 50 years of Ritu Kumar, the brand and the person. Today, Kumar owns a multi-crore company with over 80 stores in India as well as branches Paris, London and New. Mayank is working on a personal memoir of hers, bringing together her notes made over the years. “Ritu says ‘what Chennai wants is fundamentally different from what Ludhiana wants’.”
Mayank says this is not the same as big luxury brands which have over 500 stores around the world with all their shop windows looking the same, and all the products are the same. “We laugh because these stores have outlets in Delhi and other places and in August they have the woollen collection because in the West, winter starts in August. Here we still have four months of summer left. Ritu was also telling us, it is not just about handloom policy, the diversity is so much that even large companies like these who would love to have a standard format, cannot function optimally here. Sizes are different, body types are different from region to region, cultural buying is different.”
In the West, identities come from brands, because they don’t have close family ties, says Mayank. “In India we have so many identities, we have religious identities, geographical identities, cultural identities, you have an identity from your father’s side, an identity from your mother’s side, where you grew up, then your college, your professional environment. In the West you don’t have these identities. So brands give you identities ‘I only buy Gucci or Aesop or Forest Essentials’. In India we go for the product. Only here, we will buy the blouse from one designer and the saree from another,” says Mayank.
He speaks about his great grandmother who was a child widow, and was sent by her father-in-law, to do a PhD in Cambridge and wore only sarees. “From then onwards if you look at the history of women and clothing, somehow the lure of the saree hasn’t gone. There is something about the saree that provides a kind of identity which is fascinating. Even in Indian fashion, fashion designers are always making new versions of the saree. It’s a dress saree or a Chota saree, or a saree with Churidhars. It is something that has consistently been observed to have given Indian women an identity and there is no other equivalent that has given them the same kind of identity.”
Modernity versus tradition
Traditionally, the weaver in India was the designer, but in the modern context city-based designers have become the face of our textiles, putting the weaver lower in the ecosystem.
Mayank has expressed his objections to the designer being perceived as the value addition and the weaving and craft as labour. “That is a western referenced idea. We have to remember that design came up in the West in the Post-World War when they had to use machines. Design came up in an environment where you didn’t have crafts people left. In the Indian context unfortunately we have looked at design from these perspectives where the designer is the intermediary. In the traditional systems, there’s a person who designs, person who cuts the cloth and everybody worked together. I have a problem with the designer being the face because in pictures you will see the hands of the craftsman, and the face of the artist and designer. A lot of my curatorial work challenges that. I always show art, design, textiles, craft together.”
Mayank addressed these concerns in his exhibition ‘Fracture: Indian textiles new Conversations.’ While normally the ideas are those of the designer, with the craftspersons producing them, but here they projected the work as collaborations. “So the name of the craftsperson was mentioned alongside the designer. So curatorially, we could provide them that equality. Unless they have social status, they are producing things that someone else is claiming credit for. I think we need to move into a creative era where anyone who is involved in a creative and manufacturing process has equal credit.”
Earlier people would source the sarees from the weaver directly. “Families that would buy from Benaras would go to the weaver’s family directly. There was that contact. Designers have changed that because we have given them the responsibility of training the weavers, giving them new ideas. It’s a two way thing. Weavers are being informed by designers because they are in a different context, cut off from things.”
However, things have improved for the weavers, says Mayank. In the last 5-10 years many of the master weavers have done well for themselves, so much so that their children have gone to design schools.
“In Andhra we visited two Master weavers, and now they don’t sell their best pieces because now they want to keep a creative museum of their own best works. There’s new found pride and there’s financial success. But some would say that no matter how wealthy you are nobody wants to marry a weaver’s son because of the caste and social status implications. It is a very complex situation but I think the first step is to give them a face and a name.”
“Every state needs its own handloom policy”
The diversity in textiles is so huge that it is not possible to have a single marketing strategy for the whole country, believes Mayank.
What may work in Kutch may not work in Orissa. Kutch has been an entrepreneurial community for the last 1000 years and so their crafts are thriving. “The whole world is in Kutch, from Japan to America. But if you take Orissa or Bengal, they are not entrepreneurial communities traditionally. In Sambalpur in Orissa, all the uniforms in colleges and schools are compulsorily handloom. So State government intervention has helped.”
In Kutch, where the problem is not product development or marketing, or design, the government may have to have a different kind of role. The Government role has to be sensitive to these individual contexts, adds Mayank.
“The role of the government should be to provide an ecology where workers can work with pride and have working conditions that are human.”