Over centuries, the traditional Indian art of textile designing has been passed on from one generation to another. But weavers have begun to abandon their traditional crafts, often migrating to cities because of a lack of patronage for their work and the need for jobs to sustain their families.
In 1992, when Vidhi Singhania witnessed a similar grim situation in the state of Rajasthan, she decided to work towards assisting weavers and make them proud of their inheritance. Today, several weavers including Mustakin Kachara, Siraj Ahmed, Rafiq Bhai, Nassir Mohammad and Zakir Husain are an integral part of her creations. And so too are the weavers’ wives and daughters on whose names the fashion designer has dedicated her works — such as Noor Jehan jaali and Shaista booti — in kota, a handwoven fabric.
Even though Singhania was brought up in Mumbai, she has childhood recollections of her father, Mahendra Sanghi, organising special performances of folk musicians from Jodhpur. “The exposure of seeing my father wearing a beautiful saafa (head gear) during family weddings, and my mother, Manju Sanghi, donning gorgeous French chiffon sarees — which were the signature style of the Rajput royal families — bring back a plethora of emotions in me,” Singhania tells Weekend Review. “I was introduced to the culture, tradition and heritage of Rajasthan in all its history and grandeur, and the vibrancy of Rajasthan remained ingrained in my psyche.”
A Benarasi brocade peacock zari saree designed by Vidhi Singhania
It became all the more prominent when she was married into a family from Singhana, a part of Marwar in Rajasthan’s Shekhawat region. Initially based in Kanpur, she was further influenced by the profound Marwari traditions.
Singhana’s life took a decisive turn when her industrialist husband, Nidhipati Singhania, and his business interests took him to Rajasthan’s erstwhile Rajput kingdom and the hub for the lovely handwoven kota masuria sarees. A limited social life and few stores to shop led Singhania to try her hand at developing her own ideas using kota fabric. She started working with kota karigars [artisans] by creating a batch of sarees for corporate gifting. Her energy and aesthetics, combined with the weavers’ skills, revived kota doria into an avant-garde style statement.
“At one time, kota sarees were worn during summers,” Singhania says. “The light and airy fabric was an excellent protection against severe heat. But with the advent of power looms, the age-old handloom weavers of kota started fading into history. There was no way I could just sit and let it happen. Weavers had to be given a new lease of life by reviving the fabric.”
Trying to dissuade the craftsmen who wanted to give up their traditional occupation in favour of factory jobs, she started working with them and designed sarees with a twist from the original.
“Indian textile is a form of art, history and heritage that needs to be protected and promoted,” she says. “To make this happen, it was important that the art of weaving was kept alive and artisans’ looms were kept busy throughout the year. For me, it became essential to not only generate contemporary designs but also protect the traditional structure of the fabric and weaving techniques.”
But nothing happened overnight.
“I had to cajole weavers to give the kota fabric a new identity,” she recalls. “It was required of them to make the sarees look more attractive for clients. Silk was included in the warp and weft to soften the stiffness of the kota, which was earlier known to be a simplistic bagru-printed saree. While cotton provided strength to the fabric, silk gave it the shine.”
The roots of Make in India were sown. Singhania had begun retailing by 1997 and, ever since, the kota fabric has not only been revived from a buyer’s market, it has become a seller’s market too. Turning the fabric into exquisite sarees and ensembles, she set up her brand name ‘Vidhi’ and runs a store from the prestigious precincts of Greater Kailash in south Delhi. Her designs are known for an intricate karigari [craftmanship] that goes into transforming the weave into a piece of art that comprises meticulous embroidery, hand-painting and motifs. Even as the silk kotas are fluid beauties, the zari woven kotas are a heirloom collection.
“A small Muslim community marries within itself in the same villages to keep the art intact,” Singhania explains. “They handle everything in an age-old manner — dyeing of the yarn, setting patterns and graph making — all in a room where the family lives. That’s the emotional bonding the family has with the fabric. Despite having the skills, what saddened me was the fact that weavers had little know-how or access to an evolved market to showcase their products.”
Despite having the skills, what saddened me was the fact that [the] weavers had little know-how or access to an evolved market.
- Vidhi Singhania
She remembers that younger family members were not inclined towards nor expected to work as artisans, as it wasn’t a lucrative option.
“Once I resolved to tackle the issue, there was no looking back at providing them a platform to ensure the protection and survival of this heritage craft,” she says.
“In the beginning, when she spoke about saving our heritage, we thought she was putting on a facade and would fleece us and run away,” recalls master weaver Mustakin Kachara. “Over time, we developed an emotional connect with her. Since we cannot express our feelings, we pour our emotions into our work as there is no other way we can pay her back for her generosity and genuineness.” It’s a similar feeling expressed by weaver Zakir Husain. “It is embarrassing when she mentions she’s not a qualified textiles person,” he says. “In fact, the knowledge and enthusiasm she has is a knowledge ground for us. Working with her has not only made our future secure but we are also hopeful that our coming generations will continue to follow this trade. Our children are going to fashion institutes to return to villages armed with professional degrees.”
The bond between the weavers and the designer has become so strong that when Singhania is unable to visit Varanasi or Kota, the weavers unhesitatingly make a visit to Delhi to discuss and apprise her about work progress. At present she has more than 1,200 weavers, including master weavers working with her. Together, they not only saved a heritage, but have also been displaying the magic created with the versatile kota.
“I had never imagined that a small endeavour could someday transcend into such beautiful creations that include sarees, trousseau ensembles and blouses and vast range of home collection comprising cushions, table mats, napkins, woven paintings, trays and coasters,” Singhania says.
In 2004, she showcased with the Fashion Design Council of India, of which she has been a member for more than a decade.
Clockwise from left: A handloom weaver at work; yarns are dyed in different colours; dyed yarns before being spun into bobbins.
Singhania did not restrict her work to Rajasthan. Her mother’s home town of Varanasi — also called Benaras — in Uttar Pradesh was her next stop in her bid to revive the sector. Intrigued by benarasi textiles that include silks, satins, gheechaa, koras, organzas and georgettes, she extended her creativity and designed intricate works that have now become her trademark style.
A riot of colours with zari motifs; a contemporary rendition of a black-vermillion woven saree; a white, cyan and lemon yellow benarasi inspired by the tartan checks; the gajanan saree with a zari border and rows of elephants woven near the pallu; pichwai cows; Madras checks; Gujarati patangs and parrots on a tree line — the collection is vast and varied. “These are limited edition pieces and no two sarees are similar,” Singhania says.
Working in tandem with weavers in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, her creations are a fusion of several elements that create a perfect blend of art and fashion. She juxtaposes them with the contemporary palate of blacks, indigos, ivories and charcoals. The result is a mix of garas and paithani work of Maharashtra, sanjhi from Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh and the Kashmiri paisley.
“My sarees can be teamed with different blouses, jackets, shirts and jewellery for an edgy spin,” the designer says.
For centuries, India has been famous as an exporter of textiles to most parts of the world. However, few fabrics of the early dyed or printed cottons have survived due to extreme weather conditions, and few weavers continue to weave the traditional beauty of the country’s precious heritage for posterity.
“I have always loved fabrics, but after I began working in this direction, I realised the amount of labour and skill that goes into each weave,” Singhania says. “This has enhanced respect for the weavers in my eyes. No power loom can match the passion and emotion that goes into each item the crafts people design.
“I am aware of the time when sustenance became hard for weavers with the introduction of power looms, due to which lot of cheaper imitation kota with synthetic yarns were available in the market. But these have a short shelf life. The discerning buyer can feel the difference. Kota is a fine sheer natural weightless material ideal for a warm climate. Hand-woven with pure gold threads, it has an ethereal quality. While a simple design may take 10 to 15 days, a heavy kota brocade can take a weaver up to four months.”
A distinguished panelist in many forums discussing the Indian handloom sector, Singhania has been a recipient of several awards including CNBC-TV18’s True Legends Award in 2016 for her unconditional and unparallelled endeavours in the revival, protection and conservation of India’s art and heritage. She also received The Sunday Standard Devi Award that same year, and previous won the International Women’s Entrepreneurial Awards bestowed by Indian Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce Award back in 2008.
Her expertise in the field has enabled her to take handlooms to the international level. She has used fabrics not only to make sarees but also a variety of garments. Displaying India’s rich traditions, she has generated such styles with the result that every garment made of handwoven fabric has a unique story to tell.
“Saree is the most structured unstitched garment and with a little innovation in draping, it can be made to look more elegant, sensuous and dignified,” Singhania says. “With slight imagination, styling and accessories, a saree can give several different looks. I have experimented it all in my pret line, which comprises wearing two sarees in contrasting colours, sarees matched with lycra tops, tunics matched with linen and cotton trousers, crushed kotah skirts and simple kurtas with churidar pyjamas.”
Her enduring Pushkar Mela and chetak collections make graceful weaves. “while the the Kota gharcholas, the benarasi sun and moon collection, the guthwa flowers, the Kashmir Valley sarees synonymous to the luxurious shawl drape, all bring our legacy of timeless cultural heritage,” she says.
The ombre georgettes with gorgeous woven borders inspired by Indian royalty make the perfect cocktail sarees, stunning applique jaali with block prints and the intricate half silver-half gold real zari revival jaals, along with the immaculate warak printing and tissue embroideries, are all part of her collection.
Singhania’s couture will be seen in art promoter and film producer Swati Bhise’s forthcoming foreign production Swords and Sceptres, based on the life of Lakshmibai (also called Manikarnika), the Rani of Jhansi. (Lakshmibai was the queen of the princely state of Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, north India. She was one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and became a symbol of resistance to the British Raj for Indian nationalists).
“The character of the Rani has more than 50 made-to-order special design nauvari (the traditional nine-yard Maharashtrian) saris,” Singhania says. “We researched the patterns prevalent in the era and wove each costume in a process that took over a year. We have also crafted customised shoes to match the outfits. That’s how I always work — keeping details and requirements of the wearer in mind.”
Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.