Biennales to celebrate India's rich heritage of handcrafted textiles

It also aims to position skilled artisans as principal stakeholders

embroidery Representational image

As evidence of India's early trade relations with Egypt, one may look no further than the discovery of a 5,000-year-old Odisha ikat in a pharaoh's tomb. In an exhibit of a vintage Saptapar ikat saree from Odisha at Delhi's Handloom Haat, one learns of the distinctive features of the ikat which typically includes simple motifs like macho (fish), phulo (flower), singha (lion), mayura (peacock), padma (lotus), baulmala (string of flowers), shankha (conch) and harina (deer). They have weft ikat for the pallu and a warp one for the border, with a combination of the two in the body.

Padma Shri-winning handloom designer Gajam Anjaiah's double ikat Telia Rumal saree from Andhra Pradesh channels the 108 zodiac symbols to depict the possibilities of love in an Aries-Taurus zodiac match. The designs are etched on a graph first before they are transferred to a fabric. It takes a week to complete weaving this saree and there are no room for errors. These are just some of the exquisite specimens of India's textile heritage showcased in an inaugural exhibition in the run-up to World Handmade Textile Biennales (WHTB).

Supported by the Ministry of Textiles, the curtain raiser event for WHTB was held at the newly renovated Handloom Haat in Janpath, New Delhi. Union Textiles minister Smriti Zubin Irani inaugurated Handloom Haat with minister of State for Textiles Ajay Tamta and secretary at ministry of textiles, Raghvendra Singh. The event saw the announcement of a series of international textile biennales to revitalise and celebrate the unique heritage of weaving in India. It will kick off with World Khadi Biennale in October this year at Ahmedabad with its proximity to Sabarmati Ashram and 2019 being the 150th birth year of Mahatma Gandhi. This will be followed by brocade (September 2020, 2022, 2024) in Varanasi, ikat in Telangana (February 2020, 2022, 2024), chintz in Jaipur (December 2020, 2022, 2024) and embroidery in Srinagar (June 2021, 2023, 2025).

The planned biennales aim to highlight India's handcrafted textiles as a living repository of the world's legacy enterprises and position skilled artisans as principal stakeholders. It aims to facilitate international trade, map creative communities and showcase some of the finest collections, apart from aggregating innovative design-led initiatives in the sector. It also aims to position 'slow fashion' as an alternative lifestyle choice and create jobs at the grassroots. The five skill-sets—khadi, brocade, ikat, chintz and embroidery—will zero in on the pre-loom, on-loom and post-loom categories to create robust bridges between master craftpersons and the conscious, informed consumer. WHTB will be held in association with the Ministry of Textiles and The Asian Heritage Foundation with support from Crafts Council of India and Craft Revival Trust.

"Go to Khadi and 70 per cent of what you buy is fake. We are talking of a sector which is the second largest after agriculture, but nobody has the patience to examine it. There is just not enough articulate discourse on it. The biennale is a chance to rigorously deconstruct the idea of where do we go from here with respect to handloom, separate the grain from the chaff, to distinguish the fake from the real. We are talking about millions of livelihoods here," says Rajeev Sethi, curator and founder-chairman of the Asian Heritage Foundation, on the significance of the upcoming biennales.