Textile revivalists Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan overcame the challenges of the pandemic to bring out a collection of heirloom Benarasi saris
“Such saris are heirloom pieces to be handed down generations. They are on a par with jewellery and their worth should be known and cherished.” Swati Agarwal is speaking about re-branding the Benarasi sari. Along with her partner Sunaina Jalan, she has brought a collection, which is currently on show at Cult Modern, a high fashion and lifestyle store in Fort Kochi. “Our 40 looms have restarted and we are almost back to a normal life,” says Swati about overcoming the challenges of the pandemic.
The duo has been recreating lost and forgotten weaves and motifs on Benarsi silk since 2015. Their distinctive ensemble is made with 98.5 % pure silver yarn and 24-carat electroplated gold. Each of these single/limited-edition saris comes with a certificate that establishes purity, weave, maker, and Geographical Indication (GI).
At the store in Kochi, a royal blue Benarasi lights up a window with its surface embellishments. A shocking pink sari is draped dramatically over a bronze stand. A rangkaat with pied shades of blue and green hangs amid the rich ensemble, while a muted gold with delicate silver work falls majestically on a corner stand. Booti blouses in empire cuts, or with retro long sleeves, transport one to riversides of Varanasi (also known as Banaras) where the looms, open to the elements, are now operating.
“All these were made while the Coronavirus raged,” says Swati. She recalls how the 40 dedicated looms had to stop work midway when the lockdown was announced. The textile looms in Varanasi lie close to the banks of the Ganges. Under normal conditions, this proximity to the water helps the yarn remain supple and contributes to the final drape of the material. But with the looms shuttered and three months of heavy rain, there was damage both to the wood and the fabric, resulting in heavy termite infestation in the wood and moisture stains on the material.
“We function on pit looms, which are two-and-a-half feet below the ground. The weaver sits at the ground level with his feet hanging to where the foundation of the loom is. In normal circumstances, moisture is a plus point, but this became the largest single adversity for us. In the three months that the looms remained shut, moisture ate into the wooden parts, which had to be reconstructed. We could salvage the steel portions but the saris had been stained and had to be rejected,” explains Swati.
The weaving industry in Varanasi also faces other challenges like temporary, order-based work and work on credit. “As the industry works on credit, some advance is extended and full payment is made only after delivery. This time, the regular retailers cancelled their orders. Money that was due to weavers from the winter sales did not come. To restart, they needed to reconstruct and restructure according to current health rules, and rehab their looms. They were short of cash. So, weavers were facing a double whammy,” says Swati.
Finally, 10 looms began work in July. “The entire industry in Benaras runs due to certain designers who keep the work going non-stop. We don’t stop production, irrespective of demand. That is our responsibility to the weavers,” says Swati, adding that another lot of weavers depend on dealers who come to Varanasi to place orders for a season only.
The looms that normally work with 20 weavers at a time began operations with just two. “We had to ensure social distancing and sanitisation. The work was slow but it was there; in case one worker fell ill, the work stopped. But we managed. Things are looking up now, she says, with some demand coming during the festive season.
Creating An Oriental weave
- In April 2019, Swati and Sunaina presented Between Land & Sky: Woven Gold from the Gyaser Tradition, at Gallery Maskara in Mumbai. Curated by renowned textile scholar and author Dr Monisha Ahmed, the exhibition traced the history of Gyaser, the metallic brocades woven in Benaras for Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.
Designer Archana Nandal, founder and design director, Cult Modern, wanted to launch the collection as a symbol of reclaiming life. “We want to shed the COVID-19 baggage and reclaim our lives. Family occasions and ceremonies are the best; we are taking gentle steps towards this,” she says. The saris are priced between ₹2 lakh and ₹4 lakh, and each is packaged in a wooden box that carries with it the details of its provenance and value.
So, when you wear one, you are perhaps the only one in the world wearing a Benarasi with a resurrected 18th Century French lace and bow motif; a collector’s delight and definitely a work of art.
(Check the collection at www.shopcultmodern.com, on show till November 3; Instagram:@shopcultmodern)