Revival isn’t new for this fabric. Now an upcycled collection is bringing eyeballs back to the intricate weave
In the book, Woven Wonders of the Deccan, author-researcher Moin Qazi describes the hallmarks of muslin, a cloth so delicate that poets of the Mughal durbars romanticised it with names such as baft hawa (woven air), abe rawan (running water), and shabnam (morning dew). Of these, the Dhaka muslin — from which jamdani originated — is considered the finest. Requiring immense skill and intensive labour (as the designs are created on the loom), UNESCO declared the fabric an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ in 2013. Yet, in a world of fast fashion, jamdani is going the way of many other heritage weaves — in danger of becoming a dying art. The pandemic has only added to its woes.
Every so often, however, it gets an infusion of new life. Last year, Kolkata-based designer Kavya Singh Kundu saw first-hand what weavers in Phulia, West Bengal, were going through. She also discovered their pile of deadstock. “Many of them export their work. And when they make commissioned designs, they often create additional pieces to experiment with colour combinations or designs,” she says, adding that she got in touch with them “to understand their creative process, and fell in love with the craft”.
Her new collection, Tale as Old as Time — launched a few weeks ago, it’s also her first time working with jamdani — is an upcycled one. Using saris, stoles and scarves from the weavers’ cast-offs, she found creative ways to work around imperfections, mixing and matching bits to allow the motifs to take centre stage. Kundu says her collection is a “love letter to Bengal”, a natural progression from being surrounded by her grandmother’s stunning jamdani saris while growing up. “Working with these weavers is my way of giving back in terms of design,” she adds.
For jamdani, nomenclature is an important point. “The Geographical Indication [GI] tag is only given to weaves from Bangladesh,” says Mahua Sarkar Sen, a curator and researcher with over 20 years of experience with handlooms. Moreover, silk fabric is not used in its weaving. “So when people say they’ve got a silk-cotton jamdani sari, you know it’s not authentic,” she adds.
Weavers across the border also have it tougher than their counterparts in West Bengal. “India used to be their biggest source of income, but now it’s considered an import, and most weavers [or even middle men] do not have the right licenses or registration papers. In addition, there’s no concept of GST in Bangladesh, which makes it harder for them to sell,” says Sen, elaborating how the weavers have tried every trick in the book to get across the border. “Some have even hung on to the tails of buffaloes in an attempt to sneak in with their wares,” she reveals.
While Sen questions the word ‘revival’ — because it “implies something already dead or extinct, which isn’t the case with jamdani yet” — she acknowledges that the weave is headed that way if we do not take the right measures. Designer Anavila Misra agrees. “Jamdani has the potential to bring about an artisanal diversity by utilising modern techniques. However, for us to sustain the skill and artisans associated with it, we need to make it more mainstream and link it to fashion,” she says.
Kundu has done this by experimenting with cuts. Her versatile pieces include flattering one-shoulder, flowy dresses. “If you use a sari with an overall dense design, it’ll work out to be expensive. But by strategically placing the designs in certain areas, you can wear jamdani without the hefty tag,” she says. The most popular part of her collection: the kaftan (perfect for our current work-from-home lifestyle). “They have allowed me to give jamdani a modern twist without taking away from the craft,” she says.
Going forward, she believes capturing the global market is one of the ways to ensure the longevity of the craft. “A lot of younger weavers are creating fresh, contemporary motifs, which are almost like abstract works of art that appeal to a younger demographic as well as to an international clientele. This will ensure that jamdani continues to have a future,” she says. Misra agrees, adding that we also need to simplify the weave and work on youthful silhouettes to make it more relevant. “After our metallic jamdani tunic sets got a fantastic response during the last festive season, we are working on cotton jamdani shirts for our next collection,” she reveals.
Meanwhile, Kolkata-based designer Arundhati Maitra believes handlooms need to be made a way of life. “Don’t just buy one-off pieces. Give the weavers enough work by going beyond saris [perhaps incorporating jamdani accessories and home décor]. Encouraging versatility will go a long way in giving the weave a contemporary edge,” she concludes.
Where to buy
The House of Three: The Bengaluru-based sustainable high fashion label has several experiments with the fabric. From their Sattva Diffusion spring summer 21 collection, try their overlays, trench coats, wrap tunics, dresses, and more. From ₹7,500 onwards, on houseofthreestudio.com
Yavi: From among designer Yadvi Agarwal’s designs, which pay tribute to handloom and impressionist art, we pick the Zephyr, a chequered floral cotton jamdani dress with waist gathers. Also available are saris, tops and jackets. ₹24,900, on yavi-eshop.com
Sayantan Sarkar: The Kolkata-based designer has a range of maxi dresses, long tunics, and shirts on offer. The high-collared, cold-shoulder, pink maxi, with a geometric fox print, is a stunner. ₹9,000, on azafashions.com
Anavila: Saris aside, check out the designer’s jamdani kurtas and palazzo sets. The rosewood set with woven motifs, side pleats and side pockets is ₹ 28,000, on anavila.com
Divyam Mehta: The Delhi-based designers new spring summer 21 collection, Rivering, includes several designs in jamdani. Brahmi, a self motif panelled top and trousers, will be a comfy addition to your wardrobe. ₹18,800, on divyammehta.com