The eternal blockbusters

Proud heritage
Last Updated 22 February 2016, 18:39 IST

Although India has a rich clothing heritage, fashion is a new industry as we look mostly to the West for inspiration. But if one goes back in time and takes a look at the Eastern influence on Indian fashion, there exists a rich fashion culture. They are not the modern silhouettes or fashionable cuts with fancy embellishments. Rather, they are the ornamental and classic hand block prints.

They say fashion evolves with time. But it is, more precisely, a cycle that is pedalling back in time. Hand block prints on fabrics, especially saris, have a history dating back to the 12th century and India was known to have the best artisans who painstakingly arranged the wooden blocks to make the beautiful saris look more elegant. However, with the invasion of Western screen printing machines, the art saw a decline. But it is not dead. The art is now reviving and so is the consciousness of the fashionistas, who are shelling out extra bucks to make a meaningful fashion statement.

The netted and machine embroidered saris are taking a backseat in the wardrobes of many fashionistas and the traditional handwoven, hand printed saris are seeing the light of the day more often than before. ‘Sakhi’, a sari boutique run by Chandra and Neeta, has growing requests from customers for hand block printed saris, even though they carry an expensive tag. The increasing demand has made the designers innovate this traditional art, which is now being extensively done on ‘Kanjeevaram’ saris too. Explains Neeta, “‘Kanjeevaram’ is considered the queen of saris, and what better than combining the traditional art with this queen?” The boutique is known to combine the modern discharge printing (reverse printing) with hand block printing, which is keeping many  women on their toes to grab these exclusive saris. With a printing unit in both Bengaluru and Kolkata, the boutique works closely with traditional artisans to whom the art of hand block printing has been passed on from generations.

The saris here take a makeover combining ‘Kalamkari’ and hand block printing that are infused on handlooms like ‘Mangalgari’ and the traditional ‘Kanjeevaram’ silk. “A few collections have cotton body and ‘zari’ borders that inculcate hand block prints. This breaks away from the monotonous look of the nine yard wonder,” she says.

Merryn Mathew, the owner of ‘Iha’, works exclusively on handwoven saris after staying connected with the traditional weavers. She opines that hand block printing is still a dying art as these prints are being easily replicated by the screen prints. “Hand block printing requires expertise; there can even be flaws in hand block printed fabrics. But the art is painstaking. It is slow when compared to machine printing. The labourers too are not making much out of it, which is the reason for the dying artisans and the art itself,” Merryn explains. However, she adds that there are, if not many, a few women who appreciate hand block prints as they understand the complications of the art. She has customers who come looking specially for hand block printed saris and she says, “The demand has not elevated. Yet there are a few people, very recently the youngsters, who do not mind shelling out extra money to own these saris.”

Shanthi Rao, the owner of ‘Devaki’s’, has been tracing innovative hand block prints for the past 18 years now. Keeping her eyes open for inspiration for these designs, she sources handloom fabrics from a local vendor in the City and works closely with artistically inclined, skilled labourers. “I have many customers who still look forward to buying hand block printed saris. While the artisans are moving on to taking up lucrative jobs, there are a few who still remain loyal to the art. We, at Devaki’s, do hand block printing on cotton, other handlooms and rougher silk saris,” she says. With a few designers in the City, who are gradually growing in number, the homespun prints are finding love among fashionistas who want to make a traditional yet stylish fashion statement.

(Published 22 February 2016, 16:01 IST)

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