Darkness envelops the main hall of Bikaner House, Delhi. Golden-yellow light emitting saris rolled down from a spool, glow like precious gems. The saris are transformed into stunning and delicate art objects. “The whole idea is to show these textiles as jewels,” says curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul. “The saris have pure zari in them and we wanted to really highlight the gold content present in these.”

In this ongoing textile show, titled Gold, at the Art of Zari, vintage and contemporary saris with extensive zari work are showcased.  Zari, an art of using pure gold and silver threads on saris, is elevated to an entirely new level in this ongoing exhibition. The saris showcased here come alive with a range of striking zari through elaborate multiple techniques. Kolkata-based fashion designers, Sunaina and Swati, have worked with weavers to bring this art form under the public gaze. Through this exhibition, the designers intend to familiarise the onlookers with pure zari and its use in interpretations of classic sari designs. 

The 36 saris featured here also include a few vintage saris from late 19th to early 20th centuries, sourced from private collections across India. “Our textile industry was way more advanced in the past century than it is now,” says Sunaina. “But we lost it all with time. After the Mughals went, extensive patronage decreased resulting in loss of quality of textiles. Also, we didn’t have written knowledge of the craft. The veteran weavers who knew the craft passed away and there was no sample to look at in order to learn the craft, except for these few vintage saris. The surviving age-old saris served as a reference for us to create exquisite zari work on new saris.”

The exhibition also includes vintage saris.

Through the exhibition, the designers want to draw the attention of people to the underutilised craft of making designs comparable with an era gone by. “Whatever one can revive now is from available vintage textiles. And we have successfully done it. With the weavers of Benaras and by using our own design sensibilities we have created remarkable designs while employing classic techniques. Our work shows that it is possible to bring back this craft and people willing to do so would be highly interested in this show,” says Sunaina.

In the exhibition, each sari has its own name. One such is “Mehraab” which means an overhanging balcony or commonly known as jharokha in the Mughal period. Reminiscent of the Indo-Islamic architecture, this sari depicts the motifs carved on mehraab in the Mughal period. Kaul says, “Woven with fine mulberry silk and zari made from pure silver threads dipped in gold, this sari is called ‘mehraab’ after the shape of the ‘buta’ (Paisley pattern) that is woven across the sari. This shape reminiscent of late 18th century Mughal patterns allows a dramatic play of intricate colour and zari patterns against a plain background with a heavy zari border. Only natural fibres and eco-friendly dyeing has been used in the making of this sari. It is woven using the ‘kadhuwa’ technique which employs the use of a 240 hook-jacquard to create the design.”

Process of making zari.

At a time when there are a number of retailers selling fake products, Sunaina and Swati, are providing a certificate of authenticity with each sari. “The saris sold by us come with a certificate for the purity of zari which is 98.5% purity of silver used to make the zari. This certificate is very important as all the consumers often can’t find out the difference between pure and adulterated zari. The purity of zari varies from 40% purity of silver to 98.5% purity of silver and all these are selling under the blanket term, “a real Zari sari.” This allows for an unfair playing field among producers of real Zari,” says Swati.

The designers give full documentation of a sari which includes purity of the silver, a serial number for the sari, the name of the weaver, the weight, the duration to weave that particular sari, the geographical index displaying the manufacturing place, and the quantity of other materials used in the production of a sari.

Along with the transparency between the buyer and the seller, this documentation also serves for posterity. “The vintage textiles lacked this certain certification. It is only through some references we can find out the period and other important details like the material and purity of a vintage textile. This documentation, along with the authentic information also serves an important object for future generations. If anyone would come to our organisation later even just with the serial number of the sari, we can give them the entire information about the sari,” says Swati.

“This concept is modeled on the subject of provenance often talked about in art. The handing down of the textiles goes on from one generation to another just like a painting allows the zari saris to be passed on as an heirloom,” adds Mayank.

In the show,  the designers have exhibited saris inspired by multiple themes and subjects such as old miniature paintings, Safavid dynasty, antique jewellery, nature and so on. The way the patterns are created on the saris with the use of multiple techniques would also introduce the viewers to the functional quality of zari. Each year Swati and Sunaina produce 80-100 saris. It takes a minimum of six weeks for them to complete a sari. “It is purely a work of passion for us. We don’t have a design team. Every sari is visualised and designed by us. We don’t have a background in design but we were introduced to the best of textiles from an early age. We were surrounded by saris since childhood, as our mothers and grandmothers have a huge collection and they passed it to us. But the learning took us a lot of time and it is still an ongoing process.” says Sunaina.

The exhibition which also presents features a short film showcasing the process of making zari is currently underway at Bikaner House, Delhi till 27 September


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