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On a starlit night, as he lounges on the balcony of a circuit house on a hilltop and points towards the town of Chanderi, he recalls the time when his father would return from his sojourns in this Bundelkhand town. But it was as late as 2002, during an election campaign, that Jyotiraditya Scindia, 45, first set foot in Chanderi, located in the Lok Sabha constituency of Guna, from which he has been elected four times. He was always enchanted by the magnificent 11th century Qila Kothi Fort, also known as Kirti Durg, looming tall despite its ruined facade. And recently, he rebuilt it with help from the Archaeological Survey of India, hoping to reinstate Chanderi to its past glory. "The might of the ancient past was crumbling. I felt a sense of urgency. It took us about 8-10 years to get to where we are right now," he says.
Where we are right now is at an attempt to put Chanderi back on India's heritage map. On October 12, the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) and Scindia will reinvent Chanderi as high fashion with the inaugural show at the Amazon India Fashion Week to be held in New Delhi. Sixteen designers will showcase the weave as part of their design collection.
Titled Road to Chanderi, this is an ode to a small town in Madhya Pradesh caught in a time warp. Chanderi was founded by Kirti Pal of the Gurjar Pratihara Rajput dynasty. The Qila Kothi Fort was built in 1018 but the cobblestoned paths are new, built by Scindia, who was inspired by his Nice trip in 2008. "This beauty is to be found nowhere else in India," he says "It is a confluence of cultures." As if on cue, dusk falls and the sky pales to blue waves, the muezzin calls out from one of the mosques and temple bells start to ring. "When you talk about communal harmony, Chanderi is a living example," he says.
Over the past 14 years, Scindia has systematically made efforts to revive the built and living heritage of this 30,000-strong town, of which 12,000 are weavers. Having restored the Raja Rani Mahal with help from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), he has moved some Chanderi weavers to it, in a collective, to ensure they get a fair price by eliminating middlemen, and providing them with facilities to sell directly to consumers. The project is called Chanderiyaan.
It was once a town that could best be reached via potholed roads through Uttar Pradesh. Now, the Delhi-Habibganj Shatabdi Express halts at Lalitpur, thanks to an approval by the ministry of railways in 2013. But Chanderi is still 37 km away and the road through Uttar Pradesh can only be politely described as rough.
But in Chanderi, the lawns are manicured and fountains gurgle in Kirti Durg, Kaushak Mahal, Badal Mahal Darwaza, Kati Ghati, Battissi Baoli, Shehzadi ka Roza, Bada Madrasa, Jama Masjid and the graveyard of the Nizamuddin family. It was in 2005-2006 that Scindia decided to improve the condition of the weavers by connecting them to the market. "I wanted to transfer the maximum value of the chain to the weavers. I got FabIndia to source from here. I got designers like Rahul Mishra and Sanjay Garg to set up units and help with design intervention," he says.
In 2004, Chanderi Sarees (World) was registered as a trademark by the Registrar of Geographical Indications, Chennai. Fabric produced outside the geographical boundary of Chanderi cannot be attributed the name of Chanderi. Any violation is a punishable offence but despite efforts, the fabric is produced all over the country.
There are 4,352 looms in Chanderi. A handloom park will soon be up and running to house 240 weavers from different clusters. The idea came to Scindia when he visited the homes of weavers and realised the looms were crowding them out of their tiny tenements. At an investment of Rs 50,000, each weaver gets a 30-year lease. A nominal rent will be levied which will go towards maintaining the facility that has a storage and packaging unit and other services connecting weavers directly to the market.
It was the weavers of Dhaka who brought the fabric to Chanderi. The Industrial Revolution hit the craft hard. While Chanderi is woven traditionally with 300-count cotton, the British imported cheaper 120- to 200-count cotton from Manchester, which created a price difference and pushed Chanderi weaving into a cycle of unfair competition and poor wages. Not much changed after Independence as the handloom sector suffered from government apathy and the market catered to more commercially viable, cost-effective products woven on the power loom. Now, there is a consciousness about handloom, and the government, aided by designers, is trying to work on textile development to make it more fashionable and aspirational in order to save the dying crafts. The fashion week, Scindia hopes, will give the required boost to the textile.
"It is the most organised cluster I have worked with and the work culture is very good. With the FDCI's initiative, Chanderi textile will be seen in different avatars and it will help mainstream it. It will also expose this beautiful textile to the world," says designer Samant Chauhan. The fabric is suited to the Indian climate. Earlier, Chanderi specialised in saris. But with designers' intervention, it is beginning to be used in other garments as well.
In July, the newly anointed Union textiles minister Smriti Irani visited Varanasi with an entourage of big-name designers to celebrate National Handloom Day, an initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to provide the textiles sector a much-needed fillip. Last year, the FDCI made Varanasi the theme for the fashion week's grand finale. Sixteen designers were chosen to showcase collections made of handwoven Benarasi fabric. The theme this year is Chanderi.
With Road to Chanderi, the FDCI seeks to project Chanderi as a versatile fabric. It will showcase more than half of its collections in ivory, the basic colour of the fabric. "We want people to experiment. We are also celebrating the people behind the progress of the town. The Road to Chanderi does not end with the show. We are talking to two royal families and collectors for the next fashion week wherein we contrast heritage collections with the modern ones," says FDCI chairman Sunil Sethi.
For Scindia, it represents the romance of the past. "You walk in its streets and they are cleaner than any other city's. At every corner, you are confronted with history," he says. For the weavers, it is an opportunity to earn better wages. Now, they can make Rs 300-500 per day as opposed to Rs 80 until 2009. The condition was terrible, says Muzzaffar Ansari, who is from a weaver's family but now works as a guide. "We are able to access the outside world now. Wi-fi was introduced in 2010. It created awareness. Websites were created for e-commerce. We have sent our saris to as far away as Canada, France, Italy and Germany," he says.
About 20,000 designs have now been digitised by Mohammed Furqaan with help from Chanderiyaan, which was started in 2009 and is supported by the Delhi-based NGO Digital Empowerment Foundation. About 2,000 girls have been trained in stitching. The aim is to make Chanderi a tourist destination with nine monuments having been listed as heritage by ASI. Chanderi is also on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
When Scindia's father, Madhavrao, spoke about the town, he often used the word sukoon (peace) and here, far from the madding crowd, people are trying to keep a genteel craft alive. But in the bid to make it more mainstream, old motifs such as the ashrafi are being lost despite efforts to archive them. The designs now cater more to the demands of buyers, says Farooq Ahmed, a weaver at Chanderiyaan.
Scindia has built two amphitheatres to host the Chanderi Festival. But that's in the future. Precisely where Scindia wants to take Chanderi.