The Emergent India As A Luxury Brand

Prasad Bidapa explains why we have the potential of becoming the most wanted purveyor of luxury goods in the world.

Prasad Bidapa

Allow me to give you a brief lesson in textile history. The entire world wore khadi — hand-spun and hand-woven fabrics — before the power loom was invented by an Englishman, Edmund Cartwright in 1784.

The power loom changed the course of history. And the English quickly exploited this to their advantage by making the new machine-made textiles popular the world over. 

In India, the wide variety and worldwide popularity of our native Handloom textiles posed a big threat to the British. In their quest for world dominance with their machine made textiles, they concentrated on exporting their products to World markets. They ensured the decline of Indian Handloom by taxing it heavily, destroying looms all over the country and aggressively promoting their own power-loom fabrics woven in Manchester and other centers in England. A proof of its popularity can be gauged when you look at the black & white photographs of our ancestors. More often than not, our fathers and grandfathers wore wool and cotton three-piece suits and blazers made from these imported fabrics, everyone looking like a proper Brown Sahib!

The art of applique done by village women in a cooperative

To our good fortune, the women of India did not take kindly to all these imported fabrics and western modes of dressing. I credit our mothers, aunts & grandmothers with having saved the art of heritage hand weaving in this country to whatever extent they could. 

From the masterpieces by master weavers of Benares, Kanchipuram & Paithani woven saris to the great Ikats of India – Pochampally, Sambhalpur & Patola and the myriad other varieties we have, they saved them all. Post Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru charged textile experts like Pupul Jaykar, Kamladevi Chattopdhyay & Sina Kaul with reviving every variety of Khadi & Handloom in India, and these wonderful ladies did a great job of it; opening the Central Cottage Industries Corporation of India (CCIC) stores all over the country and giving our artisans a platform to sell from.  

Bandhini is a tie and dye art form that creates bold patterns

Today, the Handloom & Khadi Industry are managing to hold their own, and come regularly into the fashion space with enlightened designers like Bibi Russell, Rajesh Pratap Singh, David Abraham, Rakesh Thakore, Ritu Kumar, Rohit Bal, Rimzim Dadu, Raghavendra Rathore, Payal Pratap Singh, Rina Singh,  Gaurav Jai Gupata, Suket Dhir, Uravashi Kaur, Vidhi Singhania and many others featuring these Heritage Textiles in their collections. In fact, I often tell young Indian designers to take advantage of our myriad textiles and processes like block-printing & Bandhani to create unique & beautiful globally appealing products instead of buying cheap imported Chinese or Turkish synthetic fabrics. I do not deny that man-made power loom textiles have their myriad uses and spaces – especially in the field of Uniforms for the Armed Forces, Medical Fraternity, Police & Firefighting personnel, Airline Crew as well as the Hospitality Industry, and this is all the more reason as to why our Hand-woven textiles should occupy a luxury space far above these mundane and mass-produced textiles.

The Kota Doria bridal collection

The Rajasthan Heritage Week was a successful platform for the promotion of Rajasthan’s matchless textiles like Kota Doria & Khadi and beautiful processes like Leheriya, Bandhani & Block Printing like Dabu, Ajrakh & Sanganer. This helped bring these textiles to National attention and many designers are interacting and working directly with renowned artisans like Ram Kishore Derewala, Abdul Majid, The Ansaris, Mustakeen Kachara, Sabir Bhai, Grameen Sansthan and many others. Ruma Devi of Grameen Sansthan went on to win an important Textile Fairs of India award, appeared on the cover of India Today magazine and was featured with Amitabh Bachchan in Kaun Banega Crorepati. These craftsmen are in the process of building their own brands and need all the help and support they can get from their customers, brands and the ready-made garment industry as well as the Government who could do a lot in raising the profile for the Heritage Arts of India.

The fine art of block printing, ajrak is printed on both sides of the fabric

Designers in Rajasthan feature these beautiful fabrics in their collections, and labels like Puja Arya, Swati Ubroi, Tripti Bhargava, Swati Vijaivargie, Rasa Jaipur, Rohit Kamra, Anantaya, Anokhi and many others celebrate the hand-made textiles of Rajasthan in diverse ways in their collections sold to an international clientelle.

Today, we celebrate mass-produced designer bags, clothes and accessories from the West who have laid claim to their products being high up in the Luxury Sector. Unreal amounts of money are spent for the heavily advertised goods that seem to have convinced the world that life is not worthwhile unless you own one of the machine or factory made merchandise. 

We need to understand and realize that true luxury is necessarily hand-made, needing to be produced in limited quantities to ensure exclusivity and has to be priced way above what we are selling it for now.  A beautiful Kota-Doria Sari is an original, can never be replicated, made entirely by hand and will definitely become a family heirloom that can be passed on from Mother to Daughter for generations. How then is this of any less value than a Designer bag? Carry the bag by all means, but wear the Kota Doria!

A block printed Kota Doria

We need our designers to create partnerships with the artisans, in helping them create products that have global appeal. Designers in the West have long used Indian embroidery in their work with no mention of India or the artisans input. This must change, for the artisan cannot be overshadowed by the Designer’s name, as it is a true partnership that has resulted in their beautiful collections.

The next generation of the Artisan’s families have to be encouraged to support the family business by studying subjects like Fashion Design & Merchandising, Textiles, Apparel Production, Marketing, Retail and other subjects that can benefit them and take them to global spaces.   

Indigo has many shades and this green is also derived from the same

Indian Heritage Textiles and the Artisan’s work will soon emerge from the shadows, taking their rightful place in the world of international fashion in couture and Luxury spaces. 

Prasad Bidapa has chronicled fashion in India for close to four decades now. He has presented his shows & exhibitions all over the world for some of India’s biggest Labels & Brands. He works in the revival & promotion of Indian Heritage Textiles & Crafts, creating projects which modernize and energise India’s beautiful Handmade treasures.

All Photographs by Jiten Agarwal for The Rajasthan Heritage Week revival program.

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