I have worn a jacket made with woven stainless steel wires. A one-shoulder dress with a fountain of glass pipes cascading over one side. But I have never worn an Ayurvedic sari. Until earlier this year, I hadn’t even heard of one.
In August, I came across my first during the Mumbai store Baro’s Good Life exhibition, a curated presentation of conscious living brands. Store owner Srila Chatterjee had saris by the young Kolkata-based brand Rwitvastra, which aims to create herbal-dyed clothes “to connect modern textile to a 5,000-year-old tradition". The saris caught my eye not just because they weren’t the usual block-printed bores, the label claimed they were Ayurvedic and could transfer the medicinal properties of the dyes through the skin.
I have written earlier about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also known as frequency illusion or recency bias, wherein something you have just learnt begins to crop up all around you. Ayurvedic saris are now everywhere I look. Only a week after my first touch at Baro, the Udaipur-based brand Aavaran made its debut during the Lakmé Fashion Week’s Sustainable Day. While the brand specializes in fine-resist dabu printing, and the show was a luxury collection with mashru and mulberry silk garments inspired by miniature paintings, I queried the label’s founder Alka Sharma about their existing Ayurvastra line.
A textile graduate from the Indian Institute of Crafts & Design, Jaipur, Sharma founded Aavaran in 2011. The word Ayurvastra is a composite of the Sanskrit words for health, wisdom and clothing, and her Ayurvastra line comprises organic cotton fabric treated with a precise combination of herbs and oil, all aimed to promote better health. “The idea is that fabric acts as supple medicine. Also, Ayurvastra cloth is completely free of synthetic chemicals and toxic irritants," says Sharma.
This June, beauty writer Geeta Rao wrote in Lounge about her visit to Kerala’s Aruvippuram town, where she watched yards of herbal-dyed cotton cloth being washed in the running waters of the Neyyar river. After the river bath, the fabric would be laid out on rocks to dry in natural sunlight. The town and those around it have been traditional seats of Ayurvastra, but only recently has the idea been packaged and marketed to a wider consumer base in India and abroad. A host of international clients now source fabric from this region. Rao herself was on a visit to study the processes behind the Indian designer duo Lecoanet Hemant’s Ayurganic line, which sources fabric from here for their Gurugram atelier.
In Ayurveda, the skin is believed to have seven layers, each with a distinct function. Starting with the outermost, the layers are Avabhasini, Lohita, Sweta, Tama, Vedini, Rohini and Mamsadhara. The fourth, Tama, supports the immune system and acts as a barrier, Sharma tells me. This is the layer that is of most interest to her and her researchers, former National Institute of Design (NID) students and faculty, who are consulting with the brand. “Skin infections reflect an imbalance in the layers. To correct any potential imbalance, the herbs that permeate Ayurvastra clothing can improve the skin’s ability to block," she says.
Aavaran’s line has three categories: Haldivastram (turmeric), Manjisthavastram (Indian madder) and the most popular, Neelavastram (indigo). Each has a recommended application. According to Sharma, Haldivastram is good for balancing tridoshas; it has a beneficial effect on blood circulation and works as an antiseptic, an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory. Manjisthavastram acts as a blood purifier and is also used to alleviate skin diseases, arthritis and ulcers. Neelavastram, or indigo, is cooling and has a calming effect on the nervous system. “It reduces heat and can be a great comfort for headaches, inflammation and fever. When a fabric dyed with indigo is worn by a person, it helps the body to reach a better mental and physical equilibrium by balancing doshas," says Sharma.
This can sound hokey to the sceptic, but there’s more. Sharma says this line is the most labour-intensive to produce. Organic cotton cloth is soaked overnight in a mixture of cow dung and water to soften it and make it sparkling white before the dyeing process. “It cleans the cotton. You can see it…it is a fact," says Sharma. The fabric is then washed with reetha and boiled in a mixture of castor oil and herbs—as many as 50—for hours before it is ready for the printing process. The proportioning of herbs, roots and oils is a precise art to ensure the dyes last on the fabric even after several washes.
Sharma argues that if toxins enter the skin through the pores, so can the healing benefits of herbs. She says draping oneself in treated cloth can yield benefits such as relieve insomnia, alleviate mood and stress but other proponents of Ayurvastra, and studies done by the Government Ayurveda College in Thiruvananthapuram, have gone as far as claiming benefits for skin disorders such as eczema and psoriasis, as well as diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol management.
Rao tells me she bought a turmeric-dyed bedsheet back from her trip and pillowcases with sandalwood and vetiver stitched into the lining. The colours have faded with repeated hand-washing but she believes they have undoubtedly helped her. “It could be psychological but I am sleeping much better," she says.
Lecoanet Hemant’s Ayurganic was launched almost a decade ago, but the designers embarked on a communication drive with press and clients earlier this year because they found that it resonates with a new generation of conscious buyers. They produce relaxed loungewear such as shorts, robes, tunics...stuff you would probably wear to the Sunday farmer’s market. They have their consumer down pat—they even do yoga mats.
From bedsheets and loungewear to higher-priced saris, an interest in Ayurvedic clothing, even within the broader interest in natural dyes, is increasing among a certain kind of conscious consumer. Sales are increasing. After Udaipur and Delhi, Aavaran opened its third store in Bengaluru last year at the heritage art deco building, Ambara, overlooking Ulsoor Lake.
Aavaran saris, priced at ₹10,000-14,000, are stocked in boutique stores such as Ogaan, Kilol, Options (Ahmedabad) and Amethyst (Chennai). Sharma’s sons, aged 10 and 12, have been asking for T-shirts, which she might explore.
While Sharma has taken her fabrics to Milan and Singapore, she says there’s a specific spike in interest from Korea and Japan. “The Japanese are my favourite clients. They are very particular about zero waste. No cloth at our workshop is wasted. We make rugs out of chindi (scraps)," she says.
While Aavaran is one of the early brands to expand Ayurvastra to elaborate saris, I ask Sharma if she’s seeing more of it around. “The growth is faster in international markets," she says. We are also limited in what we can make with Ayurvastra as the fabric needs to have maximum contact with the skin. Jackets and scarves wouldn’t make sense. Indigo has the most takers, both in India and abroad," she says. “Everyone is looking for a cure for stress and anxiety."