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How Swati & Sunaina sarees are restoring India’s glorious textile heritage

For Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan, India’s textile doyennes, every day is a lesson in history. With every saree under their eponymous label being a limited edition piece taking years of research and an army of craftsmen to create, the designer-duo’s work is dedicated to preserving India’s heritage. ‘Purity of intent’ is how Agarwal describes her brand’s ethos. For more than a decade, the Kolkata-based business partners and sisters-in-law, with their almost encyclopaedic knowledge, have engaged in a dialogue with fashion, design, and craftsmanship through their intricately woven sarees, which feature intricate usage of zari, traditional patterns such as shikargah, and motifs inspired by Pichwai paintings and Mughal architecture.

A model in a creation by Swati and Sunaina
A model in a creation by Swati & Sunaina

Swati & Sunaina designs are a pure celebration of India’s past, and the ongoing exhibition, ‘Sacred Textiles The Art Of Woven Gold’, curated Sharan Apparao at Chennai’s Buwa House, is testament. “We connected with Sharan during ‘Gold: The Art of Zari’, at Delhi’s Bikaner house, curated by Mayank Mansingh Kaul, two years ago,” says Agarwal. “Sunaina and I were very keen to do something in Chennai. Our past experiences in the city came through sales oriented events, and we realised that women here were very interested in what went behind in the making of a saree. They were very curious, intelligent, and knowledgeable, so we thought it was the right kind of environment to portray what we were doing.”

Sacred textiles
A model in a creation by Swati and Sunaina
A model in a creation by Swati & Sunaina

The one-of-kind-exhibit gives access to a whole array of complex Benarasi textiles and techniques. There are fabrics tracing their inspiration to Iran and France, and a showcase of rang-kaat, one of the most time consuming and skill intensive weaves (one weave requires the introduction of multiple wefts in one single piece; the label has been able to make five different styles of it). Gyasar is another artisanal weave on display – created for Buddhist monasteries and with a strong Oriental influence in thick satin, the Swati & Sunaina version comes in fluid fabrics that can be perfectly draped as a saree. There are also pieces which reflect Persian and French influence: ‘Trishna’ one of the sarees on display, features motifs inspired Indian peacock feathers and the French feather. “This design was first found on French crockery, and later French paintings and textiles,” explains Agarwal.

Working on two fronts
Swati & Sunaina
Swati & Sunaina

Agarwal, a history graduate from Lady Sri Ram College, Delhi, and Jalan, a Geography graduate from Loreto College, Kolkata, grew up in traditional Marwari households, where conversations about sarees were a norm. As a result, even without having a formal design education, they acquired vast knowledge on the subject. It was around her brother’s wedding, when Agarwal was on a lookout for authentic Benarasi sarees, that she realised, to her surprise, she could not find any. The search took the duo to Benaras, where they spoke with officials at  the Weaver Service Centre, who in turn put them in touch with the weavers.

After speaking with them, they got a sense of how they could make a difference. “Weavers were hesitant to take up any complex work; they thought that we will commission limited number of pieces and leave. Why would they do something temporary when they had jobs that paid them through the year,” says Agarwal. So they came up with a framework which provided weavers an organised setup, along with a promise of minimum production. With time, mutual trust was built. On the design front, the duo frequented Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad, to see and study textiles, and drew information from books published by the museum.

For them, the craftsmen are the unsung heroes. There are 10-12 who work with them in-house: On the loom, designs, dyeing, stretching the yarn and weaving. “All these skilled people are driven by interdependency,” says Agarwal.

Going back to the roots
Swati & Sunaina's version of Gyasar
Swati & Sunaina’s version of Gyasar

For the designers, it has been all about performing a balancing act. Driven by providing their global client base with the best of heritage textiles, the duo is revisiting concepts like commissioned textiles, which allow saree connoisseurs to customise their weaves, much like how royals, court nobles, and other aristocrats commissioned fabrics from weavers in Benaras. “We have tried to steer our production back to the direction where it was meant to be,” says Agarwal. They also plan to launch the old-school ‘trunk service’, where women can shop from home, a carefully curated edit of sarees taken to them.

The introduction of these services come at a time when women are opening up to the idea of investing in sarees. “Today, brides want to wear a beautiful Kanjeevaram or Benarasi, which has a story behind it. More and more girls are moving away from lehengas – they want to be saree brides,” says Agarwal. And their response to such demands is not just an intricately done saree but full transparency. Each of their creations comes with a certificate of authenticity and a document card containing all the procedural details, along with the Geographical Indication certificate. So what is the future for a brand that is catering to those enamoured by the quintessential Indian saree? “I have great expectation from the market. If everything goes right, there can be a textile revolution and we can move way forward,” Agarwal affirms.

All images: Courtesy brand

How Swati & Sunaina sarees are restoring India’s glorious textile heritage

Anupam Dabral

Sr. Associate Editor

It was while studying fashion journalism at London College of Fashion that Anupam developed a keen interest in the anthropological aspect of the discipline; for him, fashion only makes sense when seen in the context of its environment. He is always on the hunt for great stories, and in his spare time binge-watches films/shows starring Whoopi Goldberg, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

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