For the Love of Handlooms

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World over people are going crazy after handcrafted and handmade clothes and accessories, where Indians have been at it for centuries. Unfortunately, the craftsmen are not getting the impetus they deserve, due to the trend of fast fashion. But, now people are now slowly veering to their roots and realising the importance of sustainability. Also, the thrust towards Make in India and Vocal for Local, might help the skilled artisans. Unknown to many, one of the biggest differentiators of India is its handloom industry. Among the largest in the world (90 per cent of the world’s handlooms come from India). One such person, who is working tirelessly towards reviving Kantha, a dying art is Farah Khan. She has travelled across the world to promote the art and led several delegations of women for exchange programmes.

Farah Khan who runs her label, Kantha by Farah Khan and works closely with the weavers of Bolpur, shares, “My association with handloom started during my childhood when I used to see my mother wearing beautiful handloom cotton and silk sarees. I gave into my passion in 2002 when I was invited by the Ministry of Iceland to give a talk on handicrafts and life of artisans in India. Those days I was into Pashmina shawls only. I was wearing a handloom saree and it was highly appreciated by the Icelandic women. Many stylish women wanted to buy handlooms, either a saree or fabric that was handwoven. This made me realise that our handlooms have a universal appeal. You could take an Indian handloom from a small village in India and an Icelandic woman would go crazy over it, how amazing is that? I started understanding the nitty-gritties of handlooms over time.”

    

The handloom industry employs close to 10 million artisans in India and is considered the second largest income generating activity after agriculture in rural India. India has close to 2.3 million handlooms with major centres in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. Every Indian state has its unique weaving style and each dyeing and the weaving process is extremely complicated, requiring mathematical precision coupled with a vivid imagination. These skills are passed on through generations and serve as ways to both earn money as well preserve and showcase local heritage. When you are wearing a saree, you are also wearing and promoting a story, steeped deep in your heritage and culture! 

Bengal has always been the epitome of some extraordinary patterns and techniques of weaving. It is a part of Bengal’s rich cultural heritage. When we say weaves of Bengal, it includes the ones that originate from both East Bengal now Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. Over the years these weaves of Bengal have not only gained local importance but garnered worldwide recognition.

The revivalist, Farah adds, “In 2004 we got posted in Bengal and I immediately fell in love with the Tagore’s land. The rich culture of art, music, dance and of course textiles and Kantha hand embroidery stole my heart. I had to give up my passion for Pashmina for some time to learn this new art form. Inspite of being a 1000-year-old art form, Kantha was not very famous among the stylish women. It was often considered a boring art. Several reasons for this are that most kantha products were made on cheap fabrics, artificial silk and very old designs. There was very little innovation in weaving and dyeing of silk. Finishing and polishing of the products i.e. the sarees and dupattas was not a trend at all. Seeing this poor state of affairs, I decided to work towards elevating the status of Kantha. With my wide travel experience around the world, designing contemporary styles came easily. Being an Army wife there was a huge platform to try out new designs. Sincere feedback, large fan following and good sale made me continuously improve as a designer. Unlike many other kantha makers I used handwoven tussars. Bengal tussars have a rich gold colour with a very soft feel which makes it easier for kantha embroidery. Due to this it drapes well.”

Over a short period of time, Farah’s kantha sarees and dupattas became popular across the country. She did several exhibitions of kantha stoles and shawls all over Europe and USA. Indian fashion industry is showcasing the beauty of Indian handloom across the world. But a large number of Indian weavers are forced to end their lives because of their inability to pay the heavy debts. These are the unfortunate artisans who have taken Indian handloom to the centre-stage of the world fashion without getting sufficient monetary benefit to lead a decent life. With entrepreneurs like Farah Khan, thankfully, there seems to be a shining light at the end of this dark tunnel.

We speak to Farah Khan on her views on the art of Kantha work and how she adapted to the changing trends to revive the fading art.

1.What are the upcoming trends predicted for the festive season ahead?

Due to the Corona virus people have become aware of the importance of nature and environment. They have become aware of the impact of eco-friendly fabrics and I feel the demand for natural and pure fabrics will see an increase. Handmade silks, tussars and cottons will see a much-needed revival as people want to connect to their traditions. Since most of the clothes will be worn at home people want comfortable fabrics and natural handmade fabrics fit in the best in such a scenario.

2. What are some of the festive colours in vogue this year?

Shades of red, pink, blues and bright colours will be flavour of this festive season. People want to dress up in bright and mood uplifting colours to overcome the boredom of staying locked up in their homes.

3. What are the latest additions in your festive collection this season?

I have Kantha sarees and dupattas in handwoven tussars in bright and beautiful shades.

Hand painted with Kantha embroidery sarees and dupattas.

Floral contemporary designs

Kantha Blouses

Vibrant geometrical patterns stoles

Kantha shawls with pashmina lining for winters.

4. Any style tips you’d like to share?

Try out kantha sarees with Indo-western blouses.

Wear traditional handmade eco-friendly fabrics.

Wear bright colours.

5. When and how did you decide to become a designer? How are you supporting the Indian handloom industry?

I have been working directly with artisans and communities where they make the work. I don’t go though urban middlemen who exploit the artisans. I have displayed Indian Handloom work across the world, and the media coverage from international and national magazines puts a world-wide spotlight on Indian handloom industry. This boosts demands and drives its economic revival.

6. What were some of the challenges you faced?

My biggest challenge was in getting good quality raw material. Handloom weaving of tussar in the rural Bengal had been constantly declining. The weavers were migrating to cities in search of better livelihoods since they do not have adequate work. Weaving is a strenuous and very difficult process; it takes lot of patience and hard work. It takes more around 10 days to weave a good quality Tussar fabric for one saree. The renumeration for the weavers is very low. They are in such a miserable condition that they are unable to cope with the problem of rising prices and cost of living. 

8. How did you elevate the status of Kantha?

Working with Tussar weavers to give them more orders. Most of my clothes are on handwoven Tussar fabric. I have made Kantha famous in the armed forces, helped increased awareness about Kantha by participation in numerous exhibitions in India and abroad. I have helped increase awareness and popularity of Kantha through online ethnic websites like Indianroots.com, Jaypore.com and limeroad.com. Kantha has been one of the best-sellers in both the portals.

9. What have been some of the highpoints about your journey so far?

I got an opportunity to revive and popularise the art of Kantha. Exposure to the international clientele and the value for creating sophisticated designs and high-quality finished products, made my enterprise stand apart from the rest of the market. I helped in making Kantha fashionable with new modern designs and helped remove the misconception that Kantha is old and boring.

10. What are the plans ahead?

Make my online store as the best one stop shop for the finest Kantha. Thereafter add more handmade textiles from various parts of India.

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