The forgotten weave
Khun, a 4,000-year-old handwoven fabric, was almost extinct when designer Vaishali Shadangule chanced upon its magic. We retrace her journey and the art’s revival
It’s akin to the search for the Holy Grail but of a rare handloom weave of India, khun or khana. Traditionally favoured by women in north Karnataka and some parts of Marathwada and Vidharbha regions in Maharashtra, this light-weight cotton or cotton-silk handwoven fabric is used to stitch ravike or choli (blouse) to be paired with Ilkal saris from the same region. With an intricate brocade pattern, which is 4,000 years old, khun is dotted with small delicate motifs. Once a staple among village women from the region, over the centuries and under the onslaught of powerlooms, the original handloom fabric had almost disappeared: neglected and on the verge of dying a slow death. That was when Mumbai-based fashion designer Vaishali Shadangule chanced upon the textile and embarked on a journey of rediscovery. “Nobody in the markets of Mumbai or Pune had seen the fabric, which has a distinctive brocade pattern, much like the Banarasi. It seemed it had become extinct,” says Shadangule. After some research, in 2012 she reached Guledgudda, a small nondescript village in Bagalkot district of Karnataka, the home of khun.
Gulegudda was once a flourishing hub of handloom weaving, with every household having its own loom and every family member involved in the weaving of the fabric. While there is no definite historical evidence about the origin of the weave, folklores say it started in the 8th century when the Chalukya dynasty was in power in this region. It is said weavers in this village started weaving this typical fabric to accompany Ilkal sarees. It is also said that during religious festivals, these pieces of fabric would be folded in triangles, placed on a saree and offered to the goddess. Some say, it’s the folding pattern of the fabric into small squares that got it the name khana or khun. Nature and mythology inspired the fabric’s unique motifs.
Unfortunately, later, as most of these age-old traditions started becoming irrelevant, so did khun. The traditional designs were almost lost, and the generation of authentic weavers disappeared, with the few remaining shifting to powerlooms. “When I had first visited the village around five years ago, there were around 500 handlooms, a drastic fall from 4,000 a few decades ago,” says the designer.“I was in New York and I returned to India from the US after a long gap and realised the fabric was still being neglected. Everyone was talking about Chanderi, Banarasi, Maheshwari, and no one even knew of khun,” she adds. Adamant to revive this textile, she returned to Guledgudda and to her dismay, found only one loom in working condition.
She got to work, reviving and adopting 50 looms and sitting with the weavers to chalkout a revival plan to make it popular among a global urban audience. “It’s an intricate brocade weave and very lightweight,” says Shandugle, adding that she wanted to present khun as it is, in bright colours. “If you go to any village, people are so updated, they don’t follow a trend yet are connected with nature. So there are greens, metallic shades, combinations of wine, mustard, and fluorescent green in them,” she says.
Explaining the painstaking weaving process, Shandugle says: “When you change the colour of even one patch of the fabric, the weaver has to connect by hand 4,000 yarns on the loom, and this process takes the entire day to be completed. Even today, the time taken remains the same but the earnings have less than halved, with a weaver earning only INR 400 a day!”
Raju, 40, who’s been weaving khun for 15 years, is the designer’s master weaver. He says that in more prosperous times, there were 50,000 people in the village who worked at the looms. “They would work on dyeing and weaving, dedicated units for raw materials and for joining the fabric.” Today, he says, the few families who pursue this craft do it as a passion and not for money! “Khun is such a beautiful weave and so artful and it can be produced only in this village. It’s a tradition, not just an inanimate object. It’s influenced by the climate, motifs, everyday life and even the environment of the village,” explains the designer, who has previously worked with Chanderi and paithani weaves.
In 2012 and 2014, she showcased two khun-based design collections at fashion shows held in India. The positive response, encouraged her to create another collection of contemporary garments that was showcased in 2018 at the India Fashion Week in Delhi, the most reputed design showcase of the country. “My idea of revival is to keep the soul and the functionality of the fabric intact and just design it to suit a contemporary audience. People love the comfortable feel of the fabric on their skin and the lustre on the outside.” In her latest collection, she expanded the traditional colour palette, pairing the native oranges, greens and pinks with bronze, gold and grey. The designer is showcasing a 40-piece khun collection in New York in June this year and again at the globally acclaimed New York Fashion Week, a 45-piece line, including dresses and jackets. She’s also planning an Indian bridal couture show, her first ever, in July in India, with this beautiful textile.“I’m just trying to take whatever the weavers are making and giving them an assurance that I will pay them a certain sum per month. I have improved the quality of the fabric and contemporised the designs but my first aim is to make the trade lucrative for the villagers again.”
Another challenge in the revival of khun is that the traditional looms are small to cater to pieces of fabric for blouses. Shadangule is now working towards creating a cluster of Guledgudda khun weavers and larger looms to produce yardages that more commercially and creatively suited. She also plans to diversify into using khun for home furnishings and home décor in addition to her clothing line.
Shadangule says that her contribution is very small and more people need to be made aware of this magical fabric. She says, “We need to respect a weaver’s hard work, who sits at a loom for hours to make a saree that can take four months to be completed. This is art work and not just a piece of fabric. Only once the work brings the weaver and his family money and respect will the next generation carry the tradition forward.” Her efforts seems to have given a ray of hope to the weavers of Guledgudda village, as Raju sums it up: “I like working on the loom again. When I see the beautiful clothes being created from the fabric I weave and being showcased across the world, I feel proud. It motivates me to save the looms and the craft. I will teach my children too.”