Designs on Khun

From Guledagudda in Karnataka to the New York ramp — Surekha Kadapa-Bose lays threadbare the story of the khun weave

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It was a chance glance at a squatting vendor on the roadside selling a meagre collection of vegetables from her small cane basket that got Mumbai-based designer Vaishali Shahdangule start her chase of a fabric that is almost on the verge of extinction. The sheer sheen, the striking pure blue colour with its small intrinsic design and the contrasting border in dark maroon colour with two white stripes once again with very small maroon design was something that she hadn’t noticed earlier. 

“I had a distinct memory of my Maharashtrian grandmother wearing it sometime, but I had almost forgotten the beauty of it. When I saw it on the vendor, I was mesmerised by that weave. I just stared and asked the lady. She told me it was known as khun and she had got it from Pune,” says Vaishali recalling the incident from nearly a decade ago.

Woven tale

Thus began her chase of a fabric. It was in 2011 and she herself was busy stepping big time in the world of fashion in Mumbai. She had her debut show at Lakme Fashion Week where she was launching her label Vaishali S. With her first show she became a hit and came to be known as a designer working with the fabric of the soil. Her first collection was all about fabrics from her hometown Chanderi from Madhya Pradesh and Paithani from Maharashtra. Till her collection stepped on the ramp, very few had thought of using the rich and aristocratic Paithani in any form other than the saree.

Vaishali didn’t know it then but the fabric that she was chasing is the famous Dharwad Khana (khun) which was earlier used as a blouse to accompany another beautiful fabric in the form of a saree, the Ilkal saree from the same region. Then, and even today, the khun is mostly worn by farmers and rural women in the region of north Karnataka and south Maharashtra. Though there is no question of the beauty of this fabric, for some reason and for centuries, the khun was associated with rural women or as the fabric to be offered to Devi Yellamma Renuka’s deity at the famous Yellamma temple at Saundatti in Dharwad district.

And the origin of this fabric is mostly mistaken with the Ilkal sarees even today. Till about two decades ago both of them were hand woven. Now power looms have taken over. There are not even a handful of hand weavers left of both fabric. Both of them are woven in the district of Bagalkot in north Karnataka — khun in the taluk of Guledagudda and Ilkal in Ilkal taluk which are about 50 km apart. 

Lost sheen

Though the Ilkal saree is regaining its lost popularity, as many fashionistas and the elite in metro cities to earn a brownie point are flaunting the elegant handloom saree, the khun still doesn’t have any takers. In fact the Ilkal saree too had almost vanished, till some of the entrepreneurs from Dharwad started enhancing the simple saree with kasuti motifs, very complex embroidery of the region. The small motifs bring alive the saree and almost at every textile and handloom exhibition around the country, one can see these sarees on display.

This anonymity of the origin of the fabric affected Vaishali’s quest for khun. In a car from Mumbai she reached Pune, from there she was directed to go to Kolhapur.

“Many textile vendors had the blouse fabric but weren’t aware of the origin. Then someone suggested I go to Belgaum and from there I was asked to go to Hubballi. It was here that I got the right location and so I reached Bagalkot,” recalls Vaishali of her road trip way back in 2012.

The fabric pieces that she was shown were all woven on power looms and she was told categorically that all the handlooms had shutdown. Not one to be browbeaten, upon her insistence, she was directed to Bagalkot and from there she reached Guledagudda.

“Even there the weavers were showing me only fabric woven on power looms till an old lady lying down on her charpoy admonished her son and asked him to show me the pieces from an old wooden cupboard. I was elated and felt that I had reached my destination,’’ recollects Vaishali. After spending some time with them and urging them not to leave the handlooms, she bought some fabric and promised to come back soon. But when she went there in early 2018 to start work on khun, she was shocked to see the entire village almost shut down. On enquiry she was told that as there was no money in the handloom sector, almost the entire village of nearly 10,000 weavers had shut shops and would everyday go in the mornings to nearby cities to work as daily wagers to help them and their families survive. In fact, Siddaramaiah, the former Chief Minister of Karnataka, had promised to start a Javali Park (a cloth manufacturing place) in Guldegudda to help the weavers way back in 2013 but it hasn’t yet materialised. It’s urgently needed if the handloom sector of Guledagudda doesn’t want to lose its people to Mumbai, Bengaluru or the nearby Hubbali to eke out a living. The power looms are running but the handlooms are vanishing.  

Mesmerising

Vaishali spent days and weeks urging weavers to start their looms again and now has nearly 45 weavers working for her from whom she buys hand woven khun. “They can weave about 14-15 mts of cloth per week. I buy all of it from all these weavers. I discussed new designs, new colour scheme and changed the dimension of the woven fabric to suit the newer apparel. Now I am planning to start a new dyeing unit as I want them to adopt chemical free dyes to get a better international market,” says the designer. She showcased a collection of khun recently at New York Fashion Week, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Milan and has the collection in stores across the world, including Middle East and Singapore. “Everyone was in love with the mesmerising khun,” says the proud designer.

 

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