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April 15, 2016

The Weaves Worth Saving

Text by Tanisha Choudhury. Images courtesy of Madhu Jain and Instagram

Craft revivalist and textile conservationist Madhu Jain talks about the techniques and weaves worth saving

India is known around the world for the beauty and diversity of its handicrafts and textiles. Designer, craft revivalist and textile conservationist Madhu Jain had been championing this cause for over two decades now. We sat down with her for a chat, to learn more about our country’s heritage. Some indigenous textiles and techniques that she thinks you should take note of are:

Nakshi kantha: “Bangladesh’s iconic centuries-old ‘double’ running stitch (on layers of fabric) is quite different from the kantha embroidery of West Bengal.” Jain collaborated with BRAC in Bangladesh, one of the largest NGOs in the world, to revive this exquisite art form.

Muslin: Especially Bangladeshi muslin has today become a staple of the Indian fashion industry. “Muslin (a cotton textile of plain weave) was handwoven in India in the state of Bengal, particularly in what is now known as Bangladesh. Traditionally, it was made from incredibly delicate hand-spun yarn, and required finesse and expertise to weave.”

Srikalahasti kalamkariSrikalahasti kalamkari uses a pen (kalam) to draw and colour motifs freehand. “This kalamkari style is entirely handworked, as opposed to the Machilipatnam kalamkari, which is block-printed using vegetable dyes.”

Bamboo: This works most effectively today as the world, including the fashion industry, has become more environmentally conscious. “Very few people know that India is the second-largest producer of bamboo in the world, so it is available in plenty. This eco-friendly, biodegradable textile is also known as the poor man’s linen because of its natural softness and silky look and feel. Not just that, but because of its UV-protective and anti-bacterial properties, bamboo emerges as the perfect textile for the 21st century!”

Some weaves every Indian woman should have in her wardrobe:

Jain recommends traditional but distinct choices – Baluchari, Mangalagiri, Kota, kanjivaram, Uppada, and Kalakshetra. “My all-time personal favourite is ikat (an ancient resist-dyeing weaving technique), especially double ikat, which is the most difficult to create as it requires both the warp and the weft to be dyed. Only the most highly trained weavers have been able to master this.”

What are some of the lesser-known weaves or handicraft techniques you have encountered that more people should know about?

“Over the years, I have come across exquisite embroidered pichwai temple hangings with appliqué work that are a rich paen to the gods. Another standout is gold and silver varak printing on textiles, which is virtually extinct. Such textiles used to adorn temples in Rajasthan, and chiefly used to hide the deity from the public.

The frescoes and murals in the temples of Kerala’s Guruvayur complex depict Puranic themes with a vibrancy and wealth of detail that take one’s breath away. These heavily decorated paintings, made of natural pigments, bring alive Hindu mythology like nothing else. I shall be incorporating some motifs from these temples into my Spring 2017 collection.”

Madhu Jain is celebrating 29 years of working with ikat through a showcase at Ensemble (Lion Gate, Mumbai), 7th April onwards.

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