Handmade is heart made, says designer Ayush Kejriwal, who works only with handlooms 

Ahead of National Handloom Day, we speak to designer Ayush Kejriwal who swears by handmade products and tells us why the beauty of handloom lies in its imperfection 
(L) Kanjeevaram silk sari; and Handpainted Kalamakri sari on a Pochampally Ikkat silk base with chunky silver jewellery from Ayush’s collection
(L) Kanjeevaram silk sari; and Handpainted Kalamakri sari on a Pochampally Ikkat silk base with chunky silver jewellery from Ayush’s collection

Ayush Kejriwal is different. In his creations, in his selection of models and in his approach to production. He believes in quality and not bulk production because he wants you to feel special when you wear one of his creations. And trust us, you will feel very special. Take a look at his Instagram page and you will be stunned at the beauty of his work. They are raw, colourful, bright, and that will instantly make you find a connection with it. Ahead of National Handloom Day (August 7), Ayush tells us about his journey from a naïve designer wanting to work with big designers to actually creating a brand of his own and no longer depending on anyone. But hold on, his clothes have no labels because he says the weavers he works with are the real artists and he is no one to walk away with all the credit.

Excerpts from our conversation:
 

What does National Handloom Day signify to you?

It's an extremely important day for anybody who works with textiles and fashion and design. Handloom goes back to 5,000 years ago, when it was started to empower Indian people. It also signifies the cultural heritage of India and the fact that we are able to produce high quality goods which are at a premium or at par with any other luxury goods in the world and how important it is for us to cherish it. So, the importance of it is not lost on anybody and National Handloom Day is a reminder to not forget that we are great in producing good quality goods. Not that we need to be reminded because people like myself, we come across beautiful products made by amazing master artists every day of the year, but I think it's just good to take a pause once in a while and talk about it and special days like this put things in perspective and brings it in front of the general public who sometimes forget the difference between handloom and powerloom and the beauty of handmade products, because all they think about is the cost. But they don't think about sustainability. They don't think about the work that goes in. And they don't think about the fact that by buying handloom products, they're not only supporting the craft, but they're also helping people who work in that industry. And there's a reason why it's a bit more expensive than machine-made products.

Please tell us how and when your journey with handloom began?

Around eight to nine years ago, I was visiting India to see my family and we decided to go to Banaras for a week-long trip. We were walking through some bylanes as my mother wanted to buy some Banarasi saris. And we came across an old haveli which was filled with four or five families of weavers. And that's the first time I saw people actually weaving a Banarasi sari by hand. I was completely mesmerised, because though I have always been interested in clothes, but I never understood the beauty until I saw it in person, how much work went into it. I spoke to two women and a man there who told me that they were working on the sari for almost six months, and it's going to take another three months for it to be finished. I was completely blown away. I spoke to them further and learned about the issues they have been facing and how difficult it is nowadays to survive in this business because machine-made products are copying the handloom products. That’s when I decided that I'm going to work only with handlooms. Since then, everything I make is handmade.

Handpainted <em>Kalamakri saris</em> on a handwoven <em>Banarasi</em> Tussar silk base
Handpainted Kalamakri saris on a handwoven Banarasi Tussar silk base

Later on, did you work with this particular set of weavers you had met in Banaras?

Yes. I still work with them. I don't produce in bulk. I'm a very small business, and I believe in exclusive individual products. I make very intricate, complicated designs which take much longer to weave. I don't know how other designers work, but mine is more about the quality and the design than quantity.

And it’s a conscious decision that you've taken to not produce in bulk? 

Yes, there are various reasons I took the decision obviously, because I wanted my creations to be authentic and special and unique. I don't enjoy  just replicating the same pieces. Handloom products take time, and if/when you get them made in hundreds and hundreds of quantities in the same design, where is the beauty of it? I always feel that if you're buying something beautiful, it should be exclusive to you. You don't want to go to a party and be worried about somebody wearing the same sari as yours. Commercially, maybe, it’s a very stupid thing to say, but I like it that way because for me, it’s all about the creative satisfaction. Also, handloom requires a lot of capital, and a lot of time to conceptualise, so if I was just making all of them in bulk, I would probably make only one or two designs because I don’t have the resources like other designers who hire lots of fashion designers. So, it’s a mixture of all those things. 

Another thing to understand about handloom products is that no two products can be similar — they will have slight variations because we use vegetable dyes, the minerals might change; the fabric tone might change; how they react with colours might change. Again, one day the daughter might be weaving; the other day, the son might work on the same product. So the hands are different; the motifs will change; there are lots of variables.

For me, this (not producing in bulk) strategy works and what it does is, it provides my customer a unique product; and they keep coming back for. 

Please tell us the process from conceptualising to the end product.

I will explain it with an example of Chanderi silk, which we are currently working on. First, we decide upon the actual fabric; then comes the yarns and the prices of yarns go up by the day! Once you’ve decided upon the yarns, you think about the colours which also react differently; so if you’re mixing three different yarns, you have to make sure that all those three yarns react to that colour to give you the desired effect. With that taken care of, you do the testing, and then you have to let them dry. Then you leave a small sample to see if you get what you wanted.

This is the trial and error process, which can take around a month-and-a-half. Then begins the actual production, which will take you around two months — and I’m talking only about a simple Chanderi sari with very small motifs! Also, sometimes what happens is if, for instance, one thread goes out of sync when the person is weaving it and they don’t notice it, that one thread can ruin the whole sari because when you pull that thread, the whole sari just falls like a pack of cards! So the weaver has to be very careful and keep checking; you can’t rush these things. With a handwoven sari, you will notice that some motifs or edges are not perfect, but that’s the beauty of a handmade product unlike a machine-made one. With handloom, the beauty lies in its imperfection.

Ayush Kejriwal
Ayush Kejriwal

The weavers you work with, where are they from?

I work with weavers from all over India because I deal with different textiles. For Chanderi saris, I work with weavers in Chanderi; for Kanjeevaram saris, I’ve got weavers in Kanchipuram and South India. For Kalamkari, I've got artists in Srikalahasti. Then I've got Patola saris for which I work with weavers in Patan, Rajkot, Ahmedabad; and for Banarasi saris, I’ve got weavers in Varanasi. I also worked with some weavers in South India who weave Bangalore silks and tussar products. So they're all over India, because I have not restricted myself only to one particular textile or a handloom product. India has got such a wide variety of textiles. And I have explored and I play with all of them. Because why wouldn't I? You know, if you were in a candy store, and you've got five flavours, you would want to try all of them; wouldn’t you? So I work with weavers from all over India, even Bengal has got some beautiful weavers in Murshidabad for katha and cotton. So I work with all of them.

There's this whole talk about reviving handlooms, with many designers claiming to have revived handloom. Does it need revival? Have you revived any?

I wouldn’t take the credit and say I have revived handloom. I don’t think handloom went away for it to be revived. What designers like us do is they might help in getting it back into the limelight. It’s sad to say that people are more influenced by celebrities than the actual beauty of the product. For instance, if a celebrity wears a simple white sari with a white blouse, it becomes a fashion statement.  And when big, well known designers — not like me, I’m not very big or well known — mention the word handloom, because they’ve got to that stature with their investment media and PR, people just think they revived it, but like I said, I don’t think handloom went away anywhere in the first place!

Why do you think people now want to spend a little extra on handloom products?

I think people have understood that how we consume products and how we live our lives have a great impact on the environment. And there is a lot of talk about how the climate is changing, and each one of us have a part to play. And by buying and selling handloom products, it really helps in reducing the carbon footprint. It has more benefits; it doesn’t have any cons apart from the fact that it’s a bit more expensive. And I think the work that the fashion industry is now doing in terms of promoting the way a handmade good is produced, is helping people realise the value of it.

Handwoven <em>Banarasi</em> silk <em>saris</em>; and (in yellow) handwoven <em>Kanjeeveram </em>silk <em>sari</em>
Handwoven Banarasi silk saris; and (in yellow) handwoven Kanjeeveram silk sari

Your creations are so different. Your products are different, your themes are different, your models are different… what made you want to be so different?

I’ll tell you how it happened. I was always mesmerised by clothing; and designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s team got in touch with me. There were talks about me working for him, but nothing materialised, and was very upset. And because of living in UK, I wasn't able to kind of crack in or find a way inside the fashion fraternity in India.

I was kind of getting really upset because I knew I had the talent, but I did not know how to go about exploring it. In one of these very low moments, while having coffee with a friend, he said to me, ‘why the hell are you bothered about other designers who won't give you a chance? Why don’t you start something on your own?’So then, what I did was, I went for a holiday to see my mum and my sister in Kolkata, and I talked to them about starting my own journey. I told them I'm going to invest Rs 20,000 from my own pocket and make a few saris. I took pictures of my sister wearing the saris and I posted on Instagram. At that time, Instagram had just started. Then what happened was within two days, a woman from Germany bought my first sari for 150 euros. And I was completely taken aback! I didn't even believe somebody would actually want to buy my clothes for some pictures of my sister that were taken on the phone and posted. But that’s what happened, and I told myself that I'm going do more of this. I brought the saris with me to Glasgow, and I thought I need to do a photoshoot now, but where do I get the models? I had a friend in London who was a photographer and I told him that I want to do a photoshoot. H said, he had some friends who would be willing to do the photoshoot. He wanted me to see their pictures before I finalise them, but I said I don't care about how they look. If they're interested to pose for me, just call them to the studio. And there walks in Shubarna, a very dark South Indian woman. What I had chosen for her was this very bright candy pink and gold kanji. Seeing it, she had doubts about whether she will be able to carry off this colour. But I told her, if after dressing up, she doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror, she can choose not to wear it. She got dressed up and looked stunning! I posted the picture then boom, it went crazy. And that's when it caught the attention of media. And suddenly, this whole thing became a trend. But for me, it was never a trend. I never go with a specification when I'm looking for people to shoot with me. As a designer, as a stylist, my job is to make everybody look and feel beautiful. And if you can find the beauty in every single girl or woman that you work with, my job is done. So for me, it was never a marketing strategy. I don’t want my models to be plastic dolls; I don’t want them to be perfect because nobody is; I just want them to be themselves. Whenever I do my shoots, I tell the photographer to not irritate the model just to make them look ‘perfect’. A lot of people tell me that my work is so amateurish, I tell them that it’s because I sell with honesty. I don't want to sell anything that will make you feel you're lacking something and by buying my product, that lack in your life will be fulfilled because that'll never happen. And the first point is you're not even lacking in anything. All I'm saying to you is that you are beautiful just as you are.

Handwoven B<em>andhani Banarasi Khadi sari</em>
Handwoven Bandhani Banarasi Khadi sari

There’s lot of talk about reviving handlooms; have you revived any?

I wouldn’t take the credit and say I have revived handloom. I don’t think handloom went away for it to be revived. What designers like us do is they might help in getting it back into the limelight. It’s sad to say that people are more influenced by celebrities than the actual beauty of the product. For instance, if a celebrity wears a simple white sari with a white blouse, it becomes a fashion statement.  And when big, well known designers — not like me, I’m not very big or well known — mention the word handloom, because they’ve got to that stature with their investment media and PR, people just think they revived it, but like I said, I don’t think handloom went away anywhere in the first place!

Why do you think people now want to spend a little extra on handloom products?

I think people have understood that how we consume products and how we live our lives have a great impact on the environment. And there is a lot of talk about how the climate is changing, and each one of us have a part to play. And by buying and selling handloom products, it really helps in reducing the carbon footprint. It has more benefits; it doesn’t have any cons apart from the fact that it’s a bit more expensive. And I think the work that the fashion industry is now doing in terms of promoting the way a handmade good is produced, is helping people realise the value of it.

What are you currently working on?

I work with around 46 families — weavers, painters, embroidery artists, dyers. I am usually working on seven to eight different projects at a time. I’m currently working on a series of Kalamkari saris, where I am going to try and change the colour palette from the traditional Kalamkari Indian colour palette and using a lot of teal and indigo; the motifs that I’m using are European Western flowers rather than Indian flowers, which are going to be painted; and instead of peacocks, I am going to use pigeons. I’m working on a collection of art murals on the Kalamkari saris. I recently started a foundation called Ayush Kejriwal Art Project and I’m working with artists in Ahmedabad who specialise in Matani pachedi artwork; we are doing beautiful handcrafted wall hangings and saris in Matani pachedi, an age old traditional craft where everything is hand drawn and coloured with vegetable colours like tumeric for yellow; pomegranate for red; onions for pink — all vegetable dyes. Then I  am also working on a few patola saris with my weavers in Rajkot and Patan; we are working on some very unusual colours that you don’t normally see on the patola fabric. I am also working with weavers in Varanasi to come up with a new collection soon. I am doing some work mixing Chikankari from Lucknow and Kanjeevaram from Kanji saris, like a Kanjeevaram border with a Chikankari work on the body. And some Kutch mirror work borders — mixing those and dyeing them with Kalamkari blouses, so we get a mixture of four or five crafts in one look.

Bengal <em>Jamdani</em> handwoven <em>saris</em>
Bengal Jamdani handwoven saris

Are you announcing or launching anything specific on the National Handloom Day?

No, because that becomes a gimmick for me. I might just acknowledge the fact that it’s National Handloom Day, but I wouldn't use the day as a way to make more money. So, no, I'm not going to launch anything specific. Handloom is the DNA of what I do.

How do you see the handloom sector growing?

Historically, weavers in India enjoyed a high bargaining power, but the industrial revolution is gradually eroding that bargaining power making the weavers more economically backward. And the perception of handloom has changed — from a cultural activity into a more entitled possession; some people feel like handloom is only for the rich and the elite. But if designers constantly look into producing things in a more sustainable way, and try to think not about the actual cost of the product, but the long-term benefits of working with handloom, it’ll slowly start sustaining itself and reviving the industry. Also, try not pushing down the weavers’ cost as much as possible, because we push them so much that it becomes unbearable for them to sustain a living. I know of a weaver in Lucknow, who had to give up his full-time embroidery job and go back to driving an auto rickshaw because he couldn’t sustain himself as people were constantly asking for low prices. It’s really sad that this happens to a lot of weavers.

Yes. Crediting the weavers is also rare…

The weavers, the artists are the wind beneath our wings. I am nothing without them. I never put labels on my clothes because that label would be my label, but I am actually nothing. The weavers are the true artists. I am here because
of them.

Price on request.
Available online.

rupam@newindianexpress.com

rupsjain

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