Art knows no limit. At a time when fashion designers around the world are thriving to stay in pace with sustainable practices and trend metres; designer and textile revivalist Gaurang Shah is creating magic on fabric. With his newest exhibition called Khadi, A Canvas, he has clubbed art and fashion, in collaboration with The Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation and Google Arts & Culture. It pays tribute to Mahatma Gandhi and Raja Ravi Varma, who share October as their birth and death anniversary month, respectively.
Varma’s 30 paintings have been recreated on khadi saris, making it a spectacular showcase, which is available for viewing at National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai till November 15, 2019.
It took three years for this project to take shape. Shah says, “It involved finding the right weavers and dye specialists. The precise replication of Raja Ravi Varma’s unseen paintings had to be handwoven on the sari pallus using the Srikakulam Jamdani technique.” For the designer, the idea of translating paintings through weaving was challenging, but inspiring and worth the patience.
The stalwart of heritage textiles and handlooms, Shah says, “The story goes back to 2016 when I recreated six paintings of prominent painter Laxman Aelay on saris with Jamdani weaves.” During this time, he met Lavina Baldota from the Abheraj Baldota Foundation, a charitable trust which works for social welfare across health, education and finance. Impressed with Shah’s creativity, she proposed to work with him for future exhibits. “Come 2017, Lavina introduced me to The Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation. Our aim was to recreate Varma’s works on khadi saris, in turn also acknowledging Mahatma Gandhi’s journey with the fabric.”
As a passionate advocate of age-old weaving techniques and a textile like khadi, Shah’s connect with Gandhiji was natural. Raja Ravi Varma’s artworks of women in saris and drapes were equally inspiring for the designer too. His thought behind using jamdani and khadi together was simple, “They seamlessly interweave with each other.”
When this project came my way, I was really thrilled. I felt like it was all interconnected – Raja Ravi Varma, his paintings; Gandhi Ji, his love for Khadi; and I, a handloom proponent
Diving into the details and challenges
Right after finalising about 20 weaver families from villages around Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh, the next task was to reproduce Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, which are known for its curved brush strokes and smaller but important details. The weavers had to be trained before replicating it on khadi.
The fabric canvas was blown up to almost 40 inches to accommodate the finer details of the artwork, including its colours, texture and patterns. After taking massive printouts of the paintings, Shah’s team carefully matched different dyes with saris. In this process, the first three saris that came out of the loom portrayed reversed artworks, while for a few others, the colours looked flawed. Shah says, “We quickly had to settle this and rethink our strategy, design and loom procedure for the closest depiction of Raja Ravi Varma’s art.”
The next course of weaving saris involved creating 600 natural dyes and yarn colours, which ranged from pastels to luminescent. The most interesting and challenging phase was to recreate the facial expressions of the characters in the paintings through jamdani weaves, Shah notes.
Demand for khadi and heritage handlooms
Shah’s past exhibitions have witnessed an overwhelming response from the attendees and he believes that the demand for handlooms; from khadi, Banarasi and Paithani to Kanjeevaram and Uppada, is growing at a phenomenal pace. This time, the purpose of Khadi, A Canvas exhibition was to bring the spotlight to India’s heritage, and the versatility of khadi, which today is available in diverse colours, textures and patterns for every age group.
Khadi is now becoming a contemporary product in the market, with designers experimenting with the design and look. Commenting on the close link between creativity and the business of fashion, Shah says, “I firmly believe consumers will only buy outfits which are stylish and have a fresh appeal. My brand’s khadi ensembles are softer, malleable and designed to be more colourful with floral and geometric patterns.”