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The Brocades Of Banaras - Weaving Magic For Centuries

Designer Payal Khandwala takes us through the history of Banarasi brocade and its evolution to Indian couture

Brocade is luxurious, versatile and timeless

Talk about opulence and brocades have long fascinated people around the world. Once considered to be the most luxurious of all fabrics, being crafted only for the royals, there have been many reinterpretations over the centuries as master creators have experimented with its craft. In India, Banarasi brocade flourished during the Mughal period to go on to become a significant part of Indian heritage. The beauty of brocade is that it has still managed to hold its finery yet fit in comfortably into modern aesthetics to remain relevant and popular even today.

Fashion designer Payal Khandwala, who is known for her marvellous brocade creations in the form of sarees, kurtas, ethnic suits and more, has long been romancing this handcraft from Banaras. We catch up with her to learn about its history and what makes brocade such a rage even today.

You have been working with brocade for years now. What about brocade got you interested in this craft?

Payal Khandwala: I've been collecting brocade textiles and saris, even before I started working with brocade. I wore a vintage Banarasi brocade lehenga for my own wedding in 2007. I've always thought brocade is the king of textiles in a way; I love the intricacy and beauty of the craft and the subtle luxury of its gold and silver yarn. It's dramatic but soft to touch, light to wear and still comfortable. For me brocade ticks all the boxes effortlessly.

(Also read: The Return Of Brocade To The Spotlight In Contemporary Ethnic Wear)

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Kareena Kapoor in a brocade outfit by Payal Khandwala

Can you share insights about the history of Banarasi brocade?

Payal Khandwala: It's a centuries-old craft, woven for royalty primarily in silk, the peak of which was during the Mughal period. Kinkhwab, Mashru etc were woven initially with draw looms and now are woven with pit looms as jacquards. It's a technically tedious process in which added weft threads in zari (metallic thread) were woven in intricate motifs to resemble embroideries.

What are the technicalities involved in creating Banarasi brocade?

Payal Khandwala: Brocades require a complicated graphing and punching process, which is tedious and mathematical in its inception. Sometimes there can be thousands of punched cards depending on the design. The design and repeat dictates the number of cards and the complexity of the design. This has to be done before the present day pit looms are even set up. Then starts the process of setting up the warp (lengthwise thread) and the weft (transverse or width-wise thread), to this is added the gold or silver thread that float above the weft to form the patterns.

Designer @payalkhandwala speaks to Swirlster about her love for brocade • #payalkhandwala #banarasibrocade #brocade #fashiondesigner #indianfashiondesigner #banarasi #textiles #handloom

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These can be woven by two techniques - Phekwa, where the zari goes from left to right and extra zari floats on the underside of the textile to be cut later. The second is Kadwa, where each motif gets woven individually like an embroidery. This is a more time consuming and expensive process, but the back of the textile looks as clean as the front.

(Also read: Brocade And Bridal Wear, A Style Staple Of Indian Weddings)

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Alia Bhatt, Malaika Arora and Karisma Kapoor in Payal Khandwala creations

There are also special looms for lehengas where each panel is woven separately, the set up of an engineered woven garment (where sleeves and necklines have different motifs than the body of the garment) have different processes from simple repeats, and veiled all over designs pose different challenges.

What are some of the popular design motifs?

Payal Khandwala: Brocade motifs will often have butis and butas inspired by nature. Butis are smaller motifs with a single bird, animal, leaf or floral motif and butas are larger ones. They are often shaped into forms like Badam (almond), Chand (moon), Aam (mango), Coin (Ashrafi) and repeated across the textile. In addition to this, there is the Jaal and Jaaldar or Jangala (veiled) patterns with interlocking leaf and floral patterns that cover the ground of the fabric in an all over pattern. Modern day interpretations also offer geometric patterns.

Can you tell us about motifs seen in royal attires?

Payal Khandwala: A lot of the motifs are centered around themes of nature, the moon and stars (chand tara), the sun, flowers (poppy, rose, jasmine, lily) and leaves. Also hunting scenes (shikhargharas) were popular in royal attires like deer, elephants, tigers, horses and in some cases the themes pictured images of Lord Krishna and his gopis.

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A lot of the motifs are centered around themes of nature​

Through the course of your journey, how have you reinterpreted brocade?

Payal Khandwala: I was keen to reimagine brocade, not the craft for the most part, but its application. My preoccupation was to rethink our approach to brocade clothing. For me, it was important to give our brocade line, the same unique identity that our pret clothes had, that India Modern voice, which has now become our signature.

This is why I wanted to make our distinct silhouettes, jumpsuits, shirt dresses, dresses, maxis as separates but in brocades. So that in addition to the lehengas and kurtas, those that are open to more experimentation have more options.

How has brocade made its way to Indian bridal trousseau?

Payal Khandwala: I hope it never left! But I do find that brocade saris will always find a place in bridal trousseaus here, however, increasingly brocade lehengas, skirts, pant suits, and maxis make appearances as part of the must-haves now as well.

What do you have to say about the future of brocade?

Payal Khandwala: It is my sincerest hope that brocade doesn't become a trend and then get replaced by something else. It deserves pride of place in our craft landscape, its legacy is rich and unparalleled, and I hope that brocade continues getting the continual support it deserves from designers as well as consumers. Our weavers in this sector are always open to new ideas and experimentation, and this textile is luxurious, versatile and timeless. It has a bright future in my opinion.

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Payal Khandwala, "It is my sincerest hope that brocade doesn't become a trend."

To read more about other Indian crafts, don't miss our articles under #IndianSwirl on Chikankari.

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