When Vidhi Singhania visits villages in Kotah, Rajasthan, weavers and their families address her as ‘older sister’, welcome her into their homes and offer her Diet Coke and Fox’s candies that they have especially sourced for her because they know her weakness for them. Vidhi is no social worker. But when it comes to creating exquisite saris and keeping a traditional art alive, she’s been the employment fairy for entire communities in Kotah.
“The weavers give each sari a name,” she says, indulgently. We are at her swanky store in Sunder Nagar in Delhi, where silks, tussars, cottons and zaris hang regally from racks. Like the designer whose label they wear, the limited-edition saris are discreet, elegant and unmistakeably purebred. “We work on a process of backward integration, wherein we chart out the final product, the weave and fabric combination, design, colours and finish, and then instruct the weavers and embroiderers on how to get there,” she explains, adding that the only way to encourage traditional crafts to grow, evolve and be lucrative is to mould them into luxury products. Making once-traditional fabrics, weaves and embroideries into designer labels increases their scope, pushes creativity limits and raises the price bar, she elaborates; it’s a win-win situation. “You can’t have them weaving casual cotton saris; who really wears them any more? Branding the weave is imperative to keep these communities in demand and in thriving business,” she says, her voice ringing with conviction.
Though she hails from one of India’s wealthiest business families, owners of JK Industries, all Vidhi can talk about is her passion for keeping Indian heritage alive. “The international luxury label Hermes has launched a sari. Why aren’t more Indian designers looking into this as a lucrative business opportunity? This is what we do best; why don’t we invest in our own forte?” she asks. Fabrics and weaves roll off her tongue: Varanasi weaves, satins, kataans, silks, chinias, woven dupyons, georgettes with silk borders, Kotah silks, Chanderis and tissues with pure zari. These surround her at work and home, filling her mind with prints and textures, and hands with the pleasure of a true love.
Mumbai-born Vidhi moved to Kotah with her husband Nidhipati Singhania and two children in 1993, which is when she began to develop an interest in the weaves and handlooms of the area. “Fashion and textile designing became a creative outlet for me,” she recalls, crediting her family and in-laws for their support in her enterprise. Vidhi quickly saw the potential of upgrading, styling and branding mundane, everyday fabrics and weaves. Besides Kotah, she also began working extensively with the kadwa weavers of Varanasi. “What I give them is the design input; the workers have their own freedom to create and supply as many saris as is feasible for them,” she explains, adding that even if they create ten pieces for her and sell ten to other customers, the process has at least kept the art alive, competitive and profitable.
Within three years of her arrival in Kotah, Vidhi organized her first sari exhibition, and, in 2005, launched a stand-alone store in Delhi. She continues to hold exhibitions annually in Mumbai, where society women and industrialist wives throng to pick up her exquisite, understated creations, which now include lehengas, embellished potlis (batwas), bridal weaves and separates like sari blouses. You can also buy beautifully woven Shrinathji wall decorations made using Pichwai art. However, saris remain her first love. “I would never venture into ready-to-wear, that would be a huge boo-boo for me,” she grins in her reasonable, down-to-earth way. “I had to stick to something that was true to myself.”
By adding imaginative design, a Vidhi Singhania label, a fair-price environment and an open mind, this ardent revivalist has managed to create a luxury appeal around an otherwise dying art. As she says, “The only way to save our heritage is to contemporize it.” This lady has made tradition relevant.