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A khunn-do attitude

Swati Sanyal Tarafdar | Updated on December 06, 2019 Published on December 06, 2019

A second life: Janhavi Kulkarni, founder of KaleNele (shelter of arts), convinced Dharwad’s khunn weavers that they could turn their business around   -  IMAGE COURTESY: KALENELE

A Bengaluru entrepreneur revives a traditional cotton weave with a sheen that can beat silk

Janhavi Kulkarni wanted a particular kind of cloth for her dupatta and was surprised she couldn’t find it anywhere in Bengaluru. Called khunn, a cotton weave that looked like silk, it was a part of almost every woman’s attire when she was growing up in Dharwad, Karnataka. Sadly, even in the textile markets of Dharwad, there was no trace of it.

“We were mostly blind to the beauty of the khunn as we saw it every day. It was only when I went to study textiles in Mumbai that I started to understand the value of these traditional weaves. And then I wanted to possess my own piece of khunn, but it was nowhere to be found,” says 44-year-old Kulkarni.

It was the memory of the beautiful weave — and the fact that it was gasping for breath — that nudged her towards her present work: To revive, sustain and diversify the use of the traditional weaves of Karnataka.

About 450km from Bengaluru, the small town of Guledgudda, with its 34,000 residents, is the birthplace of khunn — the weave with a sheen that can beat silk hands-on.

Khunn has mostly been used for making cholis or blouses for saris and lehengas (long skirts). One of Guledgudda’s neighbouring villages produces ilkal (pronounced irkal) — another century-old handcrafted cotton-based sari weave. The speciality of an ilkal sari is that, irrespective of its colour, the pallu is always a bright vermilion, woven separately in silk and then attached to the rest of the sari.

The exquisite khunn blouse and the ilkal sari are the traditional attire of rural women in North Karnataka and Maharashtra. But just like other hand-woven textiles, khunn is being wiped out by power-loom weaves. And the younger generation of khunn weaver families have been, not surprisingly, looking for other forms of livelihood.

Despite its beauty, surprisingly few know about khunn. The weave is distinctive for the extra yarn that is woven on the warp and weft, to reinforce a particular motif on the cloth. “The extra warp yarn in bright rich Indian jewel tones that forms the design on the base weave is the speciality of the khunn,” Kulkarni explains.

She adds that the motifs woven with the extra warp have a particular theme or concept derived from nature or the lives of people in that region. “Every motif has a name, has a character, a purpose and a reason why it’s there,” she says.

On one piece of khunn, for instance, you may see jowar seeds, while on another, the goddess the weavers worship in the monsoon season of shravan, or regional flora and fauna.

In 2012, in her effort to give a boost to traditional weaves, Kulkarni started KaleNele, or shelter of arts, from a tiny garage on the outskirts of Bengaluru. That’s when she started working with the weavers of Guledgudda. As a designer for home furnishings for both European and Indian markets, she realised khunn’s potential.

“It was easier to go from the known to the unknown,” she says, referring to how she put the material to new use.

She would procure the 31-inch weave from Guledgudda, strengthen it with top stitches and cloth linings, mix and match with various other weaves and cloths, metals and wood, to create home accessories and furnishings. Gradually she added kurtas, cholis, skirts and stoles, and the much longed-for dupattas, to her collection.

The real challenge came when she decided to incorporate khunn into a sari. “For the other products we have not made any changes on the loom. But for weaving a sari, we had to increase the width of the weave and the loom to 45 inches,” she says. “A whole community of weavers and traders had to be convinced to do so — it took time, effort and passion. But once that was done, khunn was available for further diversification.”

Until a few years ago, khunn and ilkal were surviving — though barely — through the looms of a handful of passionate weavers who did not want to abandon their ancestral vocation. Today, it’s seeing a revival, thanks to people such as Kulkarni.

“The work that KaleNele has been doing with the weavers is unique and deep-reaching. She convinced khunn weavers that they can turn around their businesses and livelihoods, and she showed them how to do that through diversification of products, through her designs of lifestyle items that used various traditional art forms — such as kasuti from Dharwad, and kaudi from Anegundi, besides other metal and wood crafts. She has made the khunn weave appealing for customers and profitable for weavers and traders,” says Mukund Kirsur, scientist and media advisor to the chairman of Central Silk Board, Karnataka.

Others have been focusing on the weave, too. In May this year, the fabric attracted eyeballs when celebrity designer Vaishali Shadangule showcased khunn in her fusion western-wear collection, in New York. At the Lotus Make-up India Fashion Week in Delhi earlier this year, Shadangule displayed khunn shorts, woven khunn dresses and blouses that were spun with silk.

The Crafts Council of India, of which Kulkarni is an empanelled designer, has been promoting her khunn designs across the country through various stores and outlets in Pune, Bengaluru and Mumbai.

These milestones are not enough, thinks Kulkarni, who doesn’t take home a salary for her work and channels every penny back into the community.

With technical and knowledge support from The Silk Board, her current pet project is to map silk clusters across Karnataka, find and nurture the various weaving communities to bring them back in focus and place them squarely on the craft map of India for generations to come.

Swati Sanyal Tarafdar is a freelance writer

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Published on December 06, 2019
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