The Eternal Allure Of Gold: How Two Designers Interpret And Revive Zari


Kolkata-based designers Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan have worked with master weavers in Benaras to re-introduce pure Zari interpretations of traditional designs in saris. Their exhibition, Gold-The Art of Zari, in collaboration with textile and fashion designer, curator and writer Mayank Mansingh Kaul, presents vintage textiles sourced from private collections and their contemporary work. Anandi Paliwal speaks to them about the exhibition, tradition and design intervention.


How many people have worked on this project?

We have 40-50 looms; 15-20 skilled craftsmen/weavers and many skilled artisans have worked on this project. It is a tedious process — beginning with the designer — creating a graph, involving a punch card specialist, dyer, warping specialist, to prepare the loom before the weaver can spill magic over the yarn.

Is it ongoing?

It is an ongoing project and we are creating complex weaves within our current area and availability of skilled craftsmanship.

What are the different weaving techniques? 

There were plenty of weaving techniques of Benaras. Over the years, some are extinct simply because they were too complex. They had few takers. These are the ones we are working to revive.


Rang Kaat


The Rang Kaat is a unique technique where weavers introduce new colour in the weft, almost as many as ten times, while weaving one line or one strand. This is extremely time consuming and needs a certain skill set and patience. As little as 2mm is woven in a day. Pieces from this much-revered technique are on display. Another piece uses 10-12 colours in the ‘dampach‘ technique. It is unique — 12″ butas have been woven throughout the saree, employing as many as three times the normal weaving capacity of a jacquard machine.

What have you added to this rich tradition?

We have experimented with pure silk and fine cotton yarn — 100 count single ply hand spun by women at home, as it is too delicate to be machine spun and 200 count double ply. We have successfully used the two together, creating a beautiful sheer fabric that can be seen in the Shikargaha, Oorjaa and Amrutha, Rang kaat and Hukum sarees.


Shikargah heirloom weave



Mayank Mansingh Kaul, Founder-Director, The Design Project India, talks about his role in the exhibition, interest in Zari and its history. 

Which designs have been re-introduced by Swati and Sunaina?

The Shikargah and some classic floral jaals and butas have been revisited. Rarer are classic designs from the early 20th century, such as Litchi Buta and Rang Kaat, uncommonly used in the Benaras industry today. The Litchi Buta – as the name suggests – uses the motif of the Litchi fruit, an exotic fruit from the Orient at that point and became a part of a series of foreign-inspired themes and design references in the Benaras industry from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. The Rang Kaat is an exceptional example of a classic design, which, because of the difficulty it entails, has become very uncommon now. It uses multi-coloured wefts and warps.


Litchi Buta


There is also a mention of the specialised technique of making Zari. Please elaborate.

Zari is a word used to refer to metallic yarns which are used in Indian textiles. Traditionally, they were made of pure metals such as gold and silver, but since the 1960s, have undergone major transformations and use either copper as a base or in the mass segment category, even synthetics. The work of Swati and Sunaina uses 98.5 per cent silver, which is gold-plated and is the purest form of metallic yarn being used in the world today. There is only one such atelier in the world, in Benaras, making this pure form of Zari.

The process of making pure Zari involves many stages. This begins with melting a chunk of pure silver, and refining this through several stages of drawing and spinning. To transform solid silver into yarn, which is almost like the thinness of hair, is the specialised art of making Zari itself.

What does the presence of Zari mean?

I think for most people, the presence or absence of Zari defines a textile. The presence of Zari becomes an end in itself and contemporary audiences have not been exposed to the various ways in which Zari is used creatively. For instance, if you combine silver Zari with white silk, one can achieve a pearl-like finish for the fabric. If gold Zari is woven with thick silks, then it can transform the material quality of fabric similar to sheets of metal itself. If it is combined with very fine silk like tissues, then it mimics the appearance of light reflecting on water. The attempt has been to bring such perspectives into seeing the art of how Zari is used itself. In India, the use of Zari is both historical and contemporary.


Oorja Rang Kaat


Tell us about the history of Zari.

The word ‘Zari’ is believed to have been derived from the Persian word ‘Zar’, which means gold. There are references to cloth made of gold as far back as in the hymns of the Rigveda more than 3000 years ago. We see metallic yarns being used in historical textiles from the subcontinent – the 17th century onwards and most of these are attributed to the Mughal period and onwards. There is very little research done with a focus on the subject from the historical perspective, but another interesting aspect is that apparently, the art of metallic yarn went from India to Lyon, a major French brocading centre in the past.

While the exhibitions brings up facets of this history, its focus is on the art of Zari, how it is used traditionally and how its contemporary interpretations are brought alive through the work of Swati and Sunaina.

What prompted you to take this project? 

I have always been fascinated by the elernal allure of gold and the symbolisms associated with it — whether of power or the sacred. Swati and Sunaina approached me to consider collaborating with them on an exhibition which could bring alive a narrative on Zari, and I was impressed with their commitment to documenting and researching the subject with their work, the quality of which has not been seen in the Benaras industry in quite a while now.




Gold-The Art of Zari is open till September 27, at Bikaner House, New Delhi.