Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Prof Shilpa Das with the publication, 'Indian Saris: Traditions - Perspectives - Design'

The poetry of the Indian sari is matchless and paeans celebrating it abound in the rich corpus of Indian literature. The sweep of globalization, however, has seen India struggle to preserve the glory of this traditional and cultural artifact while at the same time assimilating new influences from other cultures. This is reminiscent of India’s post-independence years, when numerous attempts were made to preserve the fledgling handloom sector. The humble charkha had to make way for the technologically superior power looms; the aim being, India’s swift economic progress. What continues to ail the Indian handloom industry and typifies the struggle for survival of the ubiquitous sari is the attitude that the traditional and indigenous are to be dismissed as banal. It is in this context that a well-researched book on saris becomes highly relevant. Indian Saris: Traditions, Perspectives, Design by Vijai Singh Katiyar seeks to and succeeds in demystifying the Indian sari, while still maintaining that the magic hidden in the rustle and drapes of a sari will continue to remain inexplicable.

The book confirms the sari’s deep entrenchment in the Indian cultural fabric and affirms that attempts to trace the chronological authenticity of sari weaving in India are reductive. It culls out insights such as how in Indian society, weaving was traditionally looked upon as a noble art form that enriched spiritual thinking and contemporary material culture. Towards this end, it undertakes an intrepid historical journey beginning with ancient India the Indus Valley Civilisation, the confluence of Aryan and Dravidian cultures, through the Magadhan, Mauryan and Satvahana empires, the Pallava and Chola dynasties to give ample proof of the practice of handloom weaving, cotton farming, the art of dyeing and the tradition of weaving unstitched garments in India. An interesting feature of the book is the reference to temple architecture of the south; photographs show how human forms carved out on the walls present unique styles of draping the unstitched garment, a predecessor of the modern day sari. While the book concedes the patronage to the garment lent by the local royals, it generally refers to the arrival of the British Raj as portending the decline and degradation of the Indian textile tradition.

The chapter, ‘Sari: The Traditions’ traverses a wide range and describes nineteen different saris worn in various parts of India: from Andhra cotton saris to, Asavali, Patola, Baluchari, Chanderi, Maheshwari, Ilkal, Paithani, Orissa silks, to saris worn by women from tribal communities. The chapter is a treat to the reader with not only vivid pictures of saris and the designs and motifs typical to each but also sketches of the looms used. In this regard, the book, with a designer’s eye, does a good job of bringing out the finer nuances of each type of sari: historical background, colour palettes, recurrent motifs and patterns, variations, draping style, weaving techniques and looms used. It is in the variety it covers that the book scores over many of its competitors in the market.

One of the most interesting chapters of the book is the one on sari draping. It discusses the various cultural influences that led to the evolution of draping styles of the sari. The best aspect of this section is the inclusion of coloured sketches that capture in minute detail the various styles in which the sari can be draped. The book draws one’s attention to the fact that religious beliefs and rulers of a region influenced the lifestyle of the people living in a particular region. The attire was a strong determinant of the wearer’s personal, occupational and social status.

The book observes how designs on woven saris have undergone a complete transformation in contemporary times in keeping with ‘societal needs, intercultural exchanges, environmental factors and the pressing need to keep pace with the ever changing perception of perfection and utility’. It also gives details of various exhibitions that were held to spread awareness about the repertoire of handloom woven fabrics in India, while at the same time endeavouring to improve the condition of the weavers and craftspersons involved.

In pointing out timely design intervention as potentially capable of understanding people’s needs and aspirations, the author evokes his many years of experience in the sector. He urges that competition to the sari from other forms of attire, makes it imperative to connect with contemporary users of the sari. It is the ‘aspirational value’ and ‘functional reliability’ of a product that characterises its design components. The book cautions that the design interventions suggested must be objective and application-oriented, or else they will defeat the very purpose for which they have been created. The book enlists eight major issues that have hampered the introduction of appropriate design intervention endeavours. An important distinction is made between how a ‘customer’ and ‘user’ relate to a product. The book says a customer derives satisfaction by purchasing a product as he/she has the power of affordability. The user, on the other hand ‘seeks performance driven functional products that provide a completely new experience’.

The book draws attention to the creation of cooperatives which would focus on ‘liberating the weaver from the perennial problems and exploitation involved in seeking regular work from the middlemen and selling their produce’. In this context, the author notes with sadness that many handloom weavers produce commodities that are dictated by the demands of the intermediaries and not of the market or consumers.

The book gives prominence to design research and discusses how such research can help our complex textile traditions to survive. Katiyar affirms that modern textile design practice is research-oriented, thus enabling the handloom sector to come up with a comprehensive product range to meet consumer demands. Emphasising the need for design communication in the sari sector, he points out that ‘design must communicate its intention clearly at the very outset in the most sensitive manner.’ Sari traditions must be in tandem with the demands of the contemporary markets. Katiyar’s contention that the need to introduce innovations in design is limited due to the ‘structured approach of traditional Indian aesthetics’ which contrasts with the ‘unrestrained contradictions of modern creative expressions’ is debatable. However, it raises some important and sensitive questions about the dismal condition of handloom saris. Katiyar’s underscoring of the role of design communication is worth noting because the communication material currently used by the handloom sector is good enough neither to spread awareness on the value of the products nor to appeal to the emotions of the consumers. Indian Saris: Traditions, Perspectives, Design, does not restrict itself to being a mere documentation on the aesthetic details about saris in India. A distinguishing feature of this book is its emphasis on the current practice of textile design in India and the repercussions of various policies on the textile sector. It succeeds in establishing that no other attire, but the sari, is versatile enough to capture the diverse traditions, styles and the immense cultural melting pot of India. For the richness of its visuals, for the perspectives on design, the book is definitely worth a buy. (Shilpa Das with Helga Govindan)
Prof. Shilpa Das, a critical theorist, is faculty at NID in the Interdisciplinary Design Studies department. She teaches in and heads the Science & Liberal Arts programmes. Currently she is also Head of NID publications.

Comments from Prof. Ashwin Thakkar

It was not only intellectual but a visual treat going through the book, ‘Indian Saris: Traditions – Perspectives – Traditions’. The book opens up with a journey, of the most colorful Indian dress, in to the historical background and takes us to the latest trends and the way in which it is draped in different parts of the country. It is amazing to see, with a renewed interest, how sculptures have had the impact on weaving. I am sure people, all over the world, will look at this truly Indian garment in a new perspective.
Prof. Ashwin Thakkar, Department of Textile, LDCE, Ahmedabad and Joint Hon.Gen.Sec., The Textile Association (India)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Review of 'Indian Saris: Traditions - Perspectives - Design' by Subrata Bhowmick

On 21st februray 2009, I had the previledge of sharing the publication, 'Indian Saris: Traditions - Perspective - Design' with Subrata Bhowmick. His remarks are shared here at the end of this post.

Subrata Bhowmick is one of India’s leading graphic designers with great penchant for the Indian textile heritage. For many years, he was the design director of the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad. He is also a Creative Consultant at Mudra Communication in India. Further, his specialization includes textiles, photography, environment, graphics, book design, advertising and exhibition design. He conducts workshops for art students. His work in textile and graphics has international acclaim. His design works have been exhibited in international biennials and he has received over 50 national and international awards in graphics, advertising, photography and book design, including 18 President’s National Awards. Twice he has been the ‘Art Director of the Year’ and ‘Photographer of the Year’ in India several times.

He has contributed in building brands such as Cali-Cloth, Vimal, Dhara, Remanika, Deepam, and the Handloom House. He has also launched a brand named RmKv silks, a well known brand for silk saris from Chennai.

Subrata Bhowmick reviewing the book in his office

Brand identity designed by Subrata Bhowmick for wedding silk saris for RmKv silks, Chennai

Subrata Bhowmick's remarks on the book

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Nehru centre, Programmes

Announcement for the release of the publication, 'INDIAN SARIS: Traditions - Perspectives - Design' is now available on the website of the Nehru Centre, London. Follow the link here and look for the programmes and schedule on 20th April 2009.
The Nehru centre, Programmes

Monday, March 9, 2009

City of ‘Ahmedabad’ completes 600 years in 2011

Here is something that all the designers, artists, architects, artisans, writers and heritage conservationists concerned with Ahmedabad need to take notice of. The historic city of Ahmedabad has just completed its 598th birthday on Thursday, 26th February 2009 and now fast inching towards completing its 600 years of its existence in 2011. Not very far away if the true spirit of this city needs to be showcased. Creative and intellectual minds in the city can look into the idea and draw innovative plans for the centenary celebrations of Ahmedabad. There is much that could be inspired from and integrated in the larger concept visualisation. The idea is appropriate to this forum as some of the key concepts of city’s visual culture trace back their link to age old language of textiles and architecture. One finds a distinct interrelation between the grammar of ornamentation in saris and the old monuments. Incidentally, the National Institute of Design (NID) will also celebrate its golden jubilee in the year 2010-11.

Though the material culture of the region is profoundly linked with the ancient Indus valley civilisation, the city of Ahmedabad has derived its unique character from the confluence of diverse ideas in creative arts, architecture, crafts and culture in different periods of known history in this millennium. The city could evolve its dynamism and influence only through trans-cultural fusion of ideas and expressions. A streak of modernity common to people here has forever carried an undeterred motivation to imbibe the innovation in the expressions of everyday life and environment.

Since the early centuries of the millennium, Asavali weavers produced exquisite saris and other brocade fabrics whose technique and distinct design style were considered so very impressive that even the legendary weavers of Varanasi and others from many parts of India were compelled to get inspired from. And of course, legendary tradition of Patola from Patan is not letting its charm fade away. The exquisiteness of patola is marvelled along the fine architectural details of the famous Sun temple in Modhera. During the 11th century, Patan was under the rule of the old Hindu monarch of Asaval or Asapalli. Both these early textile traditions display immaculate capability of weavers to innovate with the design elements from local folk culture by successfully combining them with other styles, materials and techniques that were not necessarily always indigenous. Such creative pursuit continued through woven and other crafts under the regime of Solanki king Karnadev, who had re-established Asaval as Karnavati and it included the present day Maninagar area as well.

In 1411 when Sultan Ahmed Shah shifted his capital from Patan, he decided to set up a new city at the banks of river Sabarmati with the name of Ahmedabad. In 1487, Mehmood Begada, the grandson of Ahmed Shah transformed it into a fortified city with ten-kilometre long boundary wall with twelve grand gateways. Some of these gates that still exist today remind us of the city’s glorious past. Many parts of this architecture were destroyed due the war between Peshwas and Gaikwads in 1630.

In 1573, Mughal emperor Akbar took the control of city. And it was this period when the city took new leaps in the development of many new textile varieties. Since the Sultanate period, assimilation of Hindu and Islamic sensibilities is already pronounced from the city’s textile and architectural traditions. Emergent style began acquiring precision with a trans-regional appeal. Textiles that were produced here were already exported far and wide. The ornamentation style from this region inspired the architecture of famous Fatehpur Sikri. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan is said to have spent a good part of his life in Ahmedabad and contributed to the city’s growth in textiles, architecture and other crafts. During Islamic invasions many weavers and craftspersons from the region migrated to other parts of India and contributed to establishment of several new craft traditions in the country. When the Mughal rule was upturned by Maratha rulers in subsequent era, master artisans were frequently commissioned by Maratha rulers to incorporate their skills in famous nauvari sari traditions that include paithani, maheshwari and chanderi saris. With reference to its architecture, the city of Ahmedabad for over a millennium presents a great transformation through fusion of many creative ideas. One can witness the vivid fusion of Hindu craftsmanship and forms with traditional Islamic layouts in its old architectural monuments. Shaking minarets, Bhadra fort, Siddi Sayed jali, Sarkhej-Roja, Rani Sipri Masjid are some of the great examples. The pol architecture of old walled city offers interesting insights for the concept of community living.

Birth of contemporary and modernist architecture movement in India can also be attributed to Ahmedabad when the city commissioned renowned architects like Louis Kahn (Indian Institute of Management), B. V. Doshi (Tagore Memorial Hall, School of Architecture and Doshi-Hussain Gupha), Le Corbusier (Sanskar Kendra, Mill Owner’s Association, Shodhan and Sarabhai Villas), Buckminister Fuller (Calico Dome), Charles Correa (Ahmedabad Cricket Stadium and Gandhi Ashram), Christopher Charles Benninger (Alliance Francaise). Few may be aware that the project to design the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) was orchestrated from the National Institute of Design (NID) itself.

The new form of machine led industrialisation took roots in the city after the British East India Company took its control in1818. First textile mill was set up between 1859 and 1861. First rail link between Ahmedabad and Mumbai was established in 1864. And thereafter the pace of industrial development was rapid. Ahmedabad was soon to be a well known industrial centre of the world. With its large number of textile mills, the city was known as Manchester of the East. Today it is the 7th largest city of India and one of the fastest growing urban settlements. City is currently spreading over 465 sq km.

One of the biggest movements that contributed to Indian freedom struggle came from this city only – the revolution also brought in the concept of Khadi. Mahatma Gandhi began his freedom movement from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Famous Dandi March also began from here only. According to Lok Nayak Jayapraksh Narayan if any city has sacrificed the most during freedom struggle and in rebuilding the nation, that is the city of Ahmedabad.

Since 1960s, with the birth of Gujarat as a separate state from Maharashtra, Ahmedabad as the first capital of Gujarat and subsequently as an important economic and cultural centre in western India, the city continues to retain its creative and cultural flavours. Today it is much known for its unique contemporary culture, distinct heritage and a visionary approach to its future. Since the early days of folk artistry—to an industrial revolution—the city today continues to live with a penchant for global lifestyle and modernity that has always remained the mainstay of its ideas and artefact. As Ahmedabad is the abode of a large number of creative minds—designers, artists, architects, artisans, performing artists and heritage conservationists—some of its glorious traditions in saris, textiles, crafts and architecture shall be brought to the fore during its centenary celebrations.