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To Gunjan Jain, every designer ikat and bomkai tells a story - of the community that wove it, the land that nurtured it, its past as well as future.
There are little flourishes that mark out Gunjan Jain's Odisha saris - the bright piping to lift the dullness of the naturally dyed tussar, the visibility of the tribal weaves and the clever use of ancient motifs that she has dredged from near extinction.
Ikat and bomkai saris have always had a good market among handloom lovers but what Jain and her Vriksha saris have done is to put a different thought to them. "There were so many lost, intricate designs in weaving that I was keen to revive. It is a fact few people know that the tribal weaves of Behrampur is one of the most primitive and can take up to 8-9 months to pull off in a sari, " says Jain, who is originally from Delhi but now works out of Bhubaneswar.
Odisha, says Jain, is one of the best handloom centres in the country because it offers a fantastic spread - from ikat, jala, jamdani to jacquard and antique tribal weaves. When she landed in Jajpur in 2008 there were only about 1000 weavers doing tussar weaves. With her fashion-design background, Jain decided to bring designs back into jala work. "I give them a base design and then let them play with it. My role is to figure out what is likely to work in the market, add, delete from existing framework and experiment with the colour palette, the rest of the work is theirs, " says Jain.
Vriksha is heavy on the use of natural dyes in the otherwise bright ikat and kotpad saris. "I got lucky that the weavers took to the natural-dye look and it clicked in the market, " says the designer. Jain is by nature affable and rarely sells a sari by impersonally handing it over the counter to the customer;she offers to tell its story, talk of her own work and the skills of her weavers.
There is, for instance, a beautiful yellow sari with a traditional fish motif priced at well over Rs 9, 500. She tells a curious buyer that it was last used on a sari worn by Indira Gandhi. The sari seems then to instantly acquire a history of its own, a life other than its texture, colour or even price tag.
The shrinking market for handloom has played havoc with the lives of weavers and their communities. For instance, says Jain, Behrampur was the original centre for bomkais but it was taken to Sonepur which took to selling jala/jacquard saris as bomkais and ironically enough the GI went to Sonepur. "This did a lot of damage to the tradition, " says Jain. There were all of four weavers of Bomkai left in Behrampur when Jain started working there. But Jain's work has given the sector a push that it needed - a growing market for her saris has revived the viability of remaining a weaver.
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