A few years back, the Shahs from Benaras - one of the city's most prominent textile families - decided to open a retail store in Delhi. Ekaya was a bold move, not only for a traditional format of handlooms to enter into the space of luxury brands, but also to position it in the heart of a mainstream fashion ecology obsessed with foreign labels.
This preceded the current euphoria among designers and fashion editors with Indian textiles, and before the fashion week brigades caught onto hand-made's marketability. Ekaya’s clever, creative collaborations over the years have yielded fun collections of saris with Abraham and Thakore, Frou Frou, Anupama Dayal, Playclan and its reportedly most commercially popular, Ashdeen Lilaowala.
For Loom The Bell Tolls
The brand's latest venture – Ekaya Thaan - offers an entire floor of fabric yardages from Benaras. A superbly representative variety from plain silks, Tanchois, even Gyasar - a heavy brocade with metallic yarns traditionally woven in Benaras for Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayas, and ideal now for winter jackets - is displayed in neat rows, and encourages easy browsing of a what is essentially a crash course in the contemporary history of Benaras textiles.
Ekaya’s clever, creative collaborations over the years have yielded fun collections of saris with Abraham and Thakore, Frou Frou, Anupama Dayal, Playclan & most commercially popular, Ashdeen Lilaowala.
The Benaras textile industry has been one of the country's most dynamic. Known until the 1980s for silk fabrics, over the last four decades it has transformed into a prolific centre absorbing new influences and designs, and today, offers an equally great range of cottons and wool. Ekaya Thaan showcases a good chunk of this repertoire, and it is clear that the fabrics are sourced from weaving clusters across Benaras representing the various 'schools' of the Benaras tradition.
An unusual snake-skin design in a brocade with zari shows the level of creative experimentation that has gone into the evolution of textiles in Benaras. And I am impressed to spot an iconic Shikargah design from the early 1980s by Jadunath Suparkar - a renowned artist trained in Shanti Niketan by Nandlal Bose - who spear-headed a major contemporary revival in the handloom sector there.
Hello, It’s Nice To Pleat You
The morning after its opening, I am met by Palak Shah, a young member of the Shah family, who manages client relations and brand outreach. Dressed in a simple trouser and shirt, her effortless manner is reflected in the design of the store. It is crisp and contemporary - simple straight lines and a neutral black background - allowing for efficient use of time.
It suits me when product is easy to access as it is here; available to feel and try out without too much need of store staff, even though they are quick to appear at the whisper of an 'excuse-me?' I notice, and love, the lack of the usual sentimentality associated with Indian textiles that has become so palpable now; thankfully, no images of artisan hands on a loom nor gimmicky decorative elements which take away from a focus on the fabrics themselves.
And just as anxiety sets in - of how the ladies of my family will be able to get garments made, no matters how gorgeous the textiles - or just as I think how fun it would be to use an olive coloured brocade with small butas for a couch, I am told that the store can handle requests for tailoring and upholstery.
The Great Indian Yard Sale
Ekaya Thaan’s floor could do with additional information on the varieties of fabric, for the uninitiated. Shoppers would benefit from information about different techniques used to make the specialised thaans on display, and how to tell the difference between a powerloom and handloom. In light of synthetics flooding the market, clarity on how to recognise pure silk from its polyester cousins would also be useful.
In an environment where the country has a dwindling number of museums to represent its traditions of textiles, retail spaces such as these greatly help in raising awareness. Stores like Ekaya Thaan remain amongst our best hopes for keeping alive dynamic narratives of Indian textiles that are otherwise fast eroding.
Getting there: D-7, Defence Colony, call 01141009143.
This story was contributed by Mayank Mansingh Kaul, a Delhi-based writer and curator, with a focus on post independence histories of textiles and design in India.
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