Tradition Meets Modern

Is Modern India Ready for a Textile Makeover?

Often termed as the ‘birthplace’ of international investment in terms of labour and garment production, India offers an indigenous mix of design and culture through its textile industry. Yet with the growth of technology, many Indian designers are experimenting with machine made embroidery and digital prints that not only cut down the lengthy hand weaving process but also enhance their handwoven fabrics with a fresher look. In the day and age where handloom is regarded as couture and technology as a residue of pop culture, is there a possibility of maintaining a middle ground to incorporate new methods while keeping the traditional elements intact? NJAL investigates…

Three very significant cultural events have helped in shaping the face of Indian fashion in the past two years. Firstly, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced his Make in India campaign in September 2014 which motivated people to manufacture their products in the country. Secondly, two of the most prestigious Indian Fashion Weeks, namely, the Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) Winter/Festive 2015 and the Amazon India Fashion Week (AIFW) Spring/Summer 2016 both put the city of Banaras in the forefront by showcasing unique crafts and textiles from the region. Thirdly, a mammoth exhibition titled The Fabric of India and hosted by the Victoria and Albert museum in October 2015 celebrated the complexity and dynamism of the art of Indian handmade textiles. According to an article in the Economic Times, India is “home to 24 percent of the world’s spindles and eight percent of the world's rotors. It is the world’s second largest producer of cotton and silk and also the second largest textile manufacturer.”

So then why does a country so rich in textile heritage need a constant nudge to provoke a revival of its traditional design practices? The answer is quite skewed.

Technological advancements in the past decade have metamorphosed the Indian design circuit. From machine made embroidery to computerised digital prints, these modern facilities have made the design process not only simpler but also very price-effective. Designer Yogesh Chaudhary, who is known for infusing playful prints in his handloom creations, thinks technology not only goes beyond making the finished product look more beautiful but is also a significantly more economical option as compared to traditional handlooms. “One of my first collections had chanderi handloom sarees with a digitalised Pac Man print on it. Crafts are very expensive; for example when you are doing traditional embroidery, the cost of the finished product is very high. We incorporate technology in a way where the garment is produced faster and is also cheaper. But to be completely honest, the DNA of it all still rests in traditional crafts,” he says.

Apart from textiles and fabrics being expensive, the other problem arises in actually wearing such handloom designs. The trend of wearing heavily, traditionally embroidered garments that was once made famous by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, later became imbued with a very strict, formal and patriotic quality which ultimately came across as boring and painstaking to wear. Tarveen Kaur, a Delhi-based fashion designer and textile enthusiast, elaborates: “It is so easy nowadays to wear a great machine embroidered saree instead of the traditional Khadi or Patan Patola, one which is not only more expensive but also a pain to wear. A handloom saree is going to be heavier, the pleats have to be neatly formed or they might come across as looking shabby. There has to be great after care for such products. People just don’t have the time for this anymore, they like things that are easy to maintain.”

On top of the money and wearability factor, handloom pieces take a while to be truly envisioned into a final product. The Patan Patola saree (a rich silk handwoven saree with double ikat work) is a traditional saree famous in the state of Gujarat and takes approximately six months to design. Also because of its intricate detailing and hand weaving - which involves more than 50 weavers working on a single piece of fabric - it is often regarded as a couture piece and therefore is not necessarily enjoyed by the masses.

Conversely, such artisanal techniques hold significant emotional value for some designers as opposed to mechanically made textiles. “As a heritage Indian textile revivalist I pursue handlooms. I firmly believe mechanised looms takes away the authenticity of the weaving process which I would never want to happen as our weaving process is timeless and inventive,” maintains designer Gaurang Shah, who is well-known for giving a modern twist to handloom sarees from all over India.

So can there be a marriage between design and technology? Can a combined use of technology and handlooms help maintain India’s rich textile heritage while facilitating its growth as a contender in the international fashion landscape? There is no absolute answer to this argument; it all depends on its presentation and the audience’s reaction to such an amalgamation.  While there will always be a percentage that will highly regard the purity of textiles, some believe that infusing technology is the best way to not only revive the age old practices but also make it available globally. “There has to be a balance between both. We are masters of craft; I don’t think we are ruining it by using technology. I think we are making it more feasible to the people both nationally and internationally,” says Chaudhary. While others like Shah believe a variation in terms of presentation could also help. “I have incorporated age old Jamdani weaving techniques in khadi fabric. I have also created modern silhouettes such as jumpsuits, dresses and skirts out of them.”

The tug-of-war between traditional and modern elements in design will always remain but the complexity of this issue also indirectly helps shape the cultural and social framework of the country. More and more Indian designers are now placing emphasis on craft and the environment, whether it is designer Anita Dongre’s take on sustainable but aesthetically beautiful clothing or Aneeth Arora’s tasteful and modern spin on Indian crafts. Textiles will always remain the treasured past but in order to get ahead of the times, technology has to also be embraced with equal aplomb. The Indian Government’s efforts to revive its famous crafts and textiles will only benefit if they are positively popularised by the media along with being more commercially viable. So is India really ready for a textile makeover? Only time will tell. As for now, there is a change happening in the Indian design fraternity, which if not carefully nurtured and supported, might just remain a passing fad.