An Ode to Banaras

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It was when I had completed my master's and the future loomed before me, that I began thinking of where to go. Asha Gautam, then Vinayak had been a part of my childhood. And even at 17, as my mother developed a capsule collection, I found myself fascinated with her work. Wiggling my way in, always eager to source raw materials, or man the exhibition stalls. Even the opportunity to speak to clients and give design feedback, was a source of total joy to me. So, it was natural that I found another home at Asha Gautam. After all, the brand grew before my eyes and right by my side. To watch it grow further was an absolute dream for me.

And this is where Benaras comes in. After college, as I joined my mother, at the age of 22 I had the opportunity to visit the town, in May of 2003, that would change me. The sounds of looms, the fragrance of those streets, the hustle and bustle of Benaras thrive in my memory. Benaras exists for me, not as a mere geographical location, but an emotion. The sounds of the Ganga Aarti, the taste of the litti-chokha, the saffron of the robes that sadhus don and the red tilaks that mar their foreheads, the feeling they leave me with, is simply indescribable.

In fact, this is the place that instilled the awe of craft within me, as I stood and asked a weaver, “Bhaiya kitna time lagega is saree ko banane mein?” ( How much time will it take to make this saree.”) And he, with all his experience, looked at me, the lines around his face crinkling as he smiled and said, “Beta, saat mahiney se upar.” (more than seven months). 7 months. For a saree. Those words left a deep, deep impact on me. It is when it dawned on me, the effort, the time, the pure skill needed to create one saree. That feeling still lingers, till this date.

Even after all these years, the tale woven in those handlooms, continues to unfold and the divinity of Benaras continues to move the soul. Not merely, just in the city, this emotion bleeds into their textile industry. Having travelled and experienced handloom clusters across the country, I can confidently say Benaras is an absolute leader, in innovation, adaptation, and re-engineering. At Asha Gautam, too we proudly espouse these values. While Banarasi fabrics and sarees have been a mainstay of the brand, it was in 2010 that we began developing our own designs. And that is when we had out eureka moment of introducing Banarasi fabric weaving in lehenga panels. Preceding this, lehengas were made of running fabric, cut into panels. Yet, we set out to create something tailor-made, and cutting fabrics into panels allowed for greater customization. For this to be made possible, the pre-weaving setup and the graph loom had to evolve. There were challenges and roadblocks, that come with every new venture. Getting weavers on board, navigating quantity and demand constraints, and moving ahead, it was all a risk. One that we decided to take.

Days of travelling and searching led us to two head weavers who finally agreed to create lehengas for us. It was a moment of pride and joy for us, to create a disruption and evolve an entire industry, especially the one in Benares. To see this design intervention coupled with marketing create a thriving subsection in the industry is a watershed moment in our own history as a brand. It showed us that anything and everything is possible if we just devote ourselves to it. While the expression of such ideas tends to veer on the costly side, there are always those who respect it and are willing to pay for the experience of exclusivity, or what we have termed as, “Exclusive Handmade Luxury.” Today, the paneled lehenga has become a bridal classic, not just for today but for generations to come, transcending to the status of a classic icon.

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And this is just one of the many contributions that Benaras has made to who we are. Creating fabrics that interlaces different yarns and creating unique textiles was another game changer and then of course, tissue georgette, a fabric that created quite the splash.

From fabric, to processing, to crafting to creating a new identity, Benaras is where we began and the town has made Asha Gautam who and what it is, today and we carry its gift forth, weaving it into the DNA of our own brand.