More Power To Indian Handlooms

Based in Mumbai, Smriti Morarka who has been working on reviving the dying art of handwoven zari saris in Varanasi, held an exhibition at the residence of the Ambassador of Turkey to India in Delhi. In a candid chat, amid the sound of flutes and looms, she talks about her journey to Ambica Gulati

Smriti Morarka and her label Tantuvi

“I have no business being in the business that I am in,” laughs the lady who has been doing this for 22 years now. Smriti Morarka was a history student, born in a family of art collectors, married into a family of freedom fighters and the only art she knew was painting. But ‘the Lord knows what you have to do’, is how she puts her journey.

“This skill is an amalgam of different eras — Persian, Ottoman and Mughals,” she explains. And supporting the confluence of cultures and heritage, Leyla Torunlar, wife of H.E. Şakir Özkan Torunlar, Ambassador of Turkey to India, hosted the exhibition for those who appreciate this ages old art and like to wear something that moves the spirit.

(left) Sheila Kanwar, wife of Dutch Ambassador with Leyla Torunlar

“Generations of skilled craftsmen were doing this, but in the 1990s, when the young lot had turned towards more designer wear and retail, the weavers were going through a traumatic time,” reveals Morarka. “My mother opened a centre for research in Indology, Religion and Culture, and my trips to Varanasi became frequent. In one of those trips, I met an acclaimed weaver who asked us to get his grandson a job. I thought to myself, if this is the case with this acclaimed weaver, the others must be more traumatised as people are not opting for this.” She decided to take on the onus of getting this family work, but it wasn’t as easy as the promise she had given. She then worked on a sustainable and long term plan.

“I worked with around 10 weavers and put up an exhibition of 100 saris. It was a coffee and snack show and I sent out invitations to a select few with a long story about the weaves. Voila! we sold 30 saris. I was encouraged and after that people kept coming for more.”

Her label, Tantuvi, was born in 1998. Tantuvi is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘weaver’. The fabrics made under this label are ‘made in natural yarns of cotton and silk, its derivatives or in the combination of both’. There are many processes that happen before the spinning begins. And at least four hands are needed on the loom.

Initially for some years, Morarka worked with traders. But then she thought that the saris would be replicated in cheaper fabrics and sold for lesser prices, thus the cause would be lost. That’s when she decided to learn the art herself. “The weaver community was scandalised as women aren’t allowed to sit on the loom. But how could I innovate and create if I didn’t know the technique myself?” she says. Now, she is able to get just what she is looking for with the right colours and the right designs and the right flow.

Once trained, she found a place in Varanasi where the weavers work on daily wages. She doesn’t like to count her ‘family members’, but there a ‘couple of hundred’ working with her. “It’s a closed door affair as there are so many poachers and we need to guard the authenticity of the material and the designs. For each design, there are only four saris in different colours.” She takes inspiration from different art forms, architecture, paintings and visits museums often. “I haven’t visited any shop selling Benarasi saris for over a decade because I don’t want my mind to get coloured.”

A weaver family gave a demo at the exhibition

“We offer many perks to the weavers such as bonus for completing a sari before time, better wages as compared to what they would earn outside. No one is penalised if the work is delayed but they are surely rewarded when it’s done before time.” On future paths, Morarka says, “The looms belong to them, should I die, they will always have their tools with them.”

On handloom over powerloom, Morarka cites an ages old adage that comes from the old timers in Varanasi, ‘when you wear a powerloom sari, it touches your body. But when you wear a handloom sari, you get goosebumps because it touches your soul’.

Made in limited numbers for the process is long, the saris are popular for weddings. The price begins from INR 60,000.

India-based journalist, photographer and videographer, worked with Outlook Traveller, Swagat and written for Mail: