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Weaving the India Story

Of late, the grand Banarasi sari with its fine silk and opulent zaris has managed to grab the eyeballs of many fashion designers. Among its finest examples was when Padma Shri-awardee Ritu Kumar dazzled her audience with her ‘Varanasi Weaves’ collection last year at the Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai, where the most notable outfit was worn by showstopper Aditi Rao Hydari. The actor walked the ramp styled in a fuchsia pink Banarasi sari with gold, matching a pair of golden tights and a Nehru cap. Bollywood has also for long been fascinated by the garment. Rekha sported a red and gold brocaded Kathak costume made from a Banarasi sari in the 1981-film Umrao Jaan’s song Dil cheez kya hai. A decade before that, Jaya Bhaduri lent a face to singer Vani Jairam’s classical strains in Bole re papihara for Guddi, sporting a striking red and gold Banarasi sari. With Kumar’s iconic pink sari on display, National Museum’s latest exhibition titled “Atoot Dor – Unbroken Thread: Banarasi Brocade Saris at Home and in the World” makes visible the many histories of the fabric, the numerous journeys it has made and its contemporary interpretations.

In collaboration with India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore, the museum is displaying over a hundred weaves from Varanasi, under six sections, including artifacts from their archives and private collections, thereby bringing out an acme of the subcontinent’s handweaving skills. Abeer Gupta, one of the three curators of the exhibition, says, “The Banarasi sari has become a textile of India’s identity to outsiders. The exhibit explores the ‘Banarasi’, as both a textile for personal adornment and as a cultural artifact produced, circulated and sought after at home and in the world.”

 Within this collection is a notable group of saris from Banaras, exemplifying the many distinctive techniques and motifs special to the north Indian weaving centre, which employ marching elephants, peacocks and flora and fauna motifs within its frame. On display is a red and gold Ashavali sari from Gujarat, wherein a typically gold medallion appears near the pallu and is accompanied by a pair of lions roaring up from corners. There is a 19th-century Baluchari sari from Murshidabad, in a hue of cream, known for its pictorial quality of depicting aristocratic figures engaging in leisurely pursuits. Red and green patterns here depict a nawab smoking a hookah.

A bidriware chair with brocade upholstery from Hyderabad, falling under the luxury craft section, and signifying royalty, is also part of the exhibit. The highlight is a 15X15ft wall spread, made of deep blue silk and zari and a contemporary rendering of the most distinctive Banarasi motif — the shikargarh. A repurposed children waistcoat, a children sari and a bright red wedding sari are among the many items lent to the museum by various private individuals.

The exhibition also features Motherland: The Festive Tableau (2009), a work from N Pushpamala’s ‘Motherland’ series, where the artist is photographed as Mother India, as she steps into the role of a benevolent goddess, wearing a red and green Banarasi sari while seated on a lion. Gupta says, “In popular posters, Bharat Mata’s sari is usually embellished with yellow or gold motifs alluding to the red Banarasi,” adding, “Till today, the Banarasi sari is an aspirational object because of its grandness and delicacy, kept carefully and passed on to many generations.”

Through the works of designers Asdeen Lilaowalla, Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Rahul Mishra, contemporary interpretations of the garment can also be viewed. The most notable is a black bomber jacket and short utility dress by Mishra, made using silk georgette brocade last year. By exhibiting a handbag with shikargarh motifs from Banaras, lotus jali cushion covers and a black palazzo, the exhibition unveils the various possibilities of the fabric.

Kumar says, “It is one of the oldest weaving traditions followed in India, although such kind of weaving no longer exists in other areas where it was followed. Banaras in India is a rich repository for it. This exhibition is very useful exercise for educational and aesthetic purposes for those who want to go back and see what our ancestors used to make, which has been lost. Initially, the Banarasi sari used to be soft, so that 15-year-old brides could easily get into. Present-day productions are highly unwearable. The yarns have also changed.”

The exhibition is on till April 25 at the National Museum, Rajpath Area, Delhi. Contact: 23019272

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