It was a sweltering day in Mumbai. A dear friend was showcasing at an exhibition in Colaba where I was to volunteer for a couple of hours in helping her set up her stall. We had just about cut open the boxes when a deluge of determined shoppers streamed in, eyes glinting in excitement and body language that of a hustler. Soon my friend and I were huddled in a corner, as the women dug into the boxes, pulling out garment after garment, jostling, bravely stepping over cartons to access every possible cloth. Within an hour, my friend had sold all the small and medium sizes. As we sat in a stall that looked ransacked, my friend – a pioneer of sustainable fashion – was trying to recover from the shock of it all “Maybe my pricing is too low…” I smiled and bade her goodbye. Though I had a flight to catch four hours later but I just wanted to leave the venue which was now stifling like Church Gate station during office hours.
I left straight for my flight, happy in the knowledge that tucked in my bag was an amazing book that I would read at the airport’s coffee shop. But that was not to be. An exhibition at NSCI had caused a massive traffic jam with women, impatient with the situation of time being wasted in taking a U turn, were jumping out of their cars, vaulting over the dividers and were crossing the road with an abandonment towards safety for life or limb. Another jam and the knowledge of another exhibition at Four seasons Hotel made me wonder if at all I will reach the airport.
It was a special day. Vidya Balan, the supremely talented thespian and the resolute wearer of saris, had wanted to visit the weavers and experience the process of handwoven textiles. Mira Sagar of Vaya Weaving Heritage, Gaurang of his eponymous label, photographer Vinit Bhatt and I were happy accompanists. As we drove down to the villages that are home to these genteel weavers, the pace changed. Soon windows were rolled down and a relaxing quietness engulfed us.
The winding road led us to this house where a couple was sitting in a pit loom and weaving. The threads comprising the warp and weft were tied with a mathematical precision with plastic bottles full of sand and water tied along the edges to provide the precise tension. There are specialists who can accomplish this thread by thread tying of the entire expanse of textile to be woven. The threads are hand made in most cases. The dyer colours the thread in myriad ways and many a times with such mastery that when required, the colour changes in the border of the sari without weaver having to shift anything.
The weaver then sits on the bench like edge of the pit and centimetre by centimetre creates a yardage so rich with precision craft, so intricate in execution and so vibrant in colour and pattern that one is left gaping in wonder. It can take months and sometimes years for the saris to finally get off the loom. The weaving happens in silence. Some time during the day, the children come back from the school and after a meal together, the parents are back at their loom.
Vidya was completely immersed in the beauty of the textile creation, understanding every aspect of weaving technique and connecting with these artists at a humane level. The weavers mostly work with their wives to marginally speed up the process. When invited, Vidya sat at the loom with the weaver and gently wove the threads, working the pins, gingerly looking for the nod of assurance from the indulgent weaver while a deep silence ensued. Weaver after weaver was met, each a master of a certain weave, until the day came to an end. “Having experienced the patient artistry and hard work that goes into weaving a sari, I cherish the handwoven garment more than ever,” Vidya shared.
As we left behind those weavers, empowered with the regular quality work Gaurang is giving them, there was a satisfaction in the knowledge that this cluster of weavers was prospering – creatively and monetarily.
I wondered, though, how we have become so disconnected with the narrative of garments which ordinarily are such a personal tool of self expression. How is it that we have come to be such passive bystanders that we have lost all sense of discerning choice. Rather than buying one such garment that is made by these weavers over days and months and which is guaranteed to make us look stunning, why are we spending on these sacks full of more and more clothes that are making us look boringly homogenised?
One word, often spoken by the weavers, kept coming to me – koncham – which means slowly…softly…Maybe somewhere in the metro living, the emotional connect with our surroundings, our soil, our garment is broken. Maybe it can be woven back, one garment, one weave and one thread at a time …koncham…koncham…