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Past preservation

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ALL IN THE FAMILY: (left) Sharmila in her wedding 'joda' which was restored by Ritu Kumar for Kareena;an antique 'abha' kurta from Kutch restored by Singh

Antique fabric restorers get busy saving precious heirlooms.

All of us have at some point or the other seen our mother look wistfully at the frayed old silk saris and decided to cut them because there was no way she could wear them again. Owning a piece of history and heritage, for many, is the ultimate unmatched luxury. Wearing your heritage is infinitely more stylish than flaunting labels. But India's weather coupled with insufficient knowledge about saving heirlooms - saris, coats, shawls or just lengths of delicate fabric - leaves garments lifeless. But restoring these pieces of art is what some designers and textile experts have made a mission of.

Textile conservationist Smita Singh in a recent interview mentioned a saree she conserved and restored for a royal family which had the entire clan woven on the palla. In 2003 antique collector Ranajana Gupta reportedly restored an ageing Rajput lehenga for hotelier Priya Paul's wedding. "People are realising the imporatance of antique sari borders. I get many customers who come with their great grandmother's vintage Banarasis and ask me to transfer their beautiful wide borders in pure gold and silver onto a georgette or chiffon sari. They team it up with a contrasting blouse and the heirloom gets a contemporary makeover, " says Rekha Misri, a textile expert and NID graduate.

Even tinsel town's latest wedding, that of Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor, saw the bride wearing an ensemble that had been handed down the generations. The shaadi ka joda - a rust and gold outfit - had been first worn by Begum Saijida Sultan, Sharmila Tagore's mother-in-law in 1939, needed a little tender care so that the Nawab of Pataudi's bride could wear it. Fashion designer and textile expert Ritu Kumar helped restore the pre-Independence garment.
Before Kareena's wedding dress, Ritu has restored a couple of heirlooms from Rajasthan with some incredible gota embroidery from Jaipur.

According to her, the oldest existing garment from the Indian subcontinent is a coat which belonged to Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and it is presently displayed at Victoria and Albert museum in London. Another coat from the same period is preserved at the Bikaner museum. Shobha Deepak Singh, director of Shriram Bhartiya Kala Kendra in Delhi, has an enviable collection of antique sarees and dupattas. Some of the precious wonders in her collection include a black dupatta with gold bootis (motif ) and red border, which Singh says can also be seen in a Raja Ravi Varma displayed at National Gallery of Modern Art. A green saree with four bootis (more than one displays higher skill of the weaver), a black temple saree (they are traditionally red in colour) and a silk dupatta from Gujarat with a rare pattern of different coloured stripes. She spends close to a month and a half in summer every year in restoring this priceless heritage. For regular upkeep she darns and drycleans. Where the fabric has completely given away, she gets craftsmen to extract the border and the bootis and transfer them to a new fabric. Or, the kaarigar can take loose threads from the edge of the garment and use it to weave the worn out patches. In Kareena's wedding joda, the gold was fairly in place but the underlying Chanderi tissue, woven on old naksha looms of Benares, had given away. Naksha looms enabled weavers to weave complicated winding floral patterns. The odhni was salvaged and the kurti was recreated with threads from the original garment. The gharara was entirely new but looked similar to the original piece with green satin and gota boder. "While restoring and recreating antique fabrics you need to take a certain amount of liberty as a designer. I do it by making them more functional and suited for today's brides, " says Ritu.

Usually it's the craft that makes an heirloom stand out but at times it is the craftsman. Designer Madhu Jain was given a fragile khadi sari hand-woven by Jawaharlal Nehru for restoration. Nehru wove it while serving time in jail in 1941-42. His daughter Indira Gandhi had inherited this rose pink sari and passed it down to her daughter-in-law Maneka Gandhi who wanted to wear this piece of history on her son Varun's wedding last year. But having been kept away for so many years the sari was literally giving away. Jain, initially intimidated by the historical significance of the task, took it up as a challenge to her rich experience as a designer. To give body to the tearing fabric, Madhu used a family recipe of an herbal concoction. "Frayed edges were restored by my team. It took us two weeks to put it back in shape, " says Jain.

While drapes, like shawls, dupattas and saris, still manage to stand the test of time it is the stitched garments that get damaged easily. Textile expert Neeru Kumar advises that if the yarn in your heirloom is still intact then get it restored. In her career spanning over two decades Neeru has restored saris, shawls and even old canopies. Most of the time such pieces are so worn out that they are fit only for display and not for use.

To make them wearable, Neeru places a fine fabric underneath the tissue and uses kantha stitch to hold it together. "Stitching on the top changes the character of the fabric. It's transformed into another fabric with another appeal. Usually, the makeover works well but at times it takes away some of the magic. You have to take that call as a designer, " says Neeru.

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