When India’s new golden girl, Hima Das, soaked in the adulation of a thunderous crowd at the Finnish city of Tampere, holding aloft the Tricolour during a victory lap,a sparkling dash of red on a pristine white cloth sat quietly around the athlete’s neck. The gamchha—or as Das’s home state Assam calls it, the gaamosa—made a huge statement in the eyeball-grabbing photograph of the week.
The multipurpose cotton towel used by millions of Indians boasts of surprising versatility in terms of colour and pattern. Popular across India and Asia, the gamchha has moved beyond its humble origins—the common man’s most faithful piece of sanitary cloth. Straddling cultures and societies, the gamchha today holds different meanings for different people; for Hima Das, the gaamosa is a symbol of her Assamese ethnicity.
“Gamchha and lungi have fascinated me since childhood. I used to see beautiful checks and prints and would wonder who made them,” says Bangladeshi supermodel-turned-designer Bibi Russell, who’s been credited with taking the gamchha out of the interiors of the subcontinent to a larger international stage back in the ‘90s. “When I went to Europe and came back to my home in Bangladesh in 1994, I returned only to support the local weavers. If you look at the pictures of the 1971 war, you’ll see people carrying a gamchha and a gun. Every part of India has a different colour or pattern in its gamchha. Isn’t that fascinating?” Russell asks.
Models at one of her shows
Nearly two decades after the Bangladeshi designer provided the initial thrust to this rough piece of cloth, several designers from India have embraced the gamchha and given it a quirkier, more polished twist. From sarees and petticoats to jackets and gowns, the radiant fabric has slowly, but surely, taken over ramps and wardrobes across the country.
Calcutta-based designer Sanjukta Roy launched her line of gamchha clothing in the year 2012. For Roy, the fabric is not just a beautiful fusion of utilitarianism and fashion, but also a representative of indigenous identities of the various regions it hails from. “The gamchha has been looked down upon through the years. Every state has its own identity, something which is highlighted on their gamchha. For example, the white and red that’s on the Assamese gaamosa is representative of only one section of Assam. Every district and community of every state has its own variant,” Roy says. “Even though people usually associate it with coolies in India, that idea is not correct. If you look at the structure of the gamchha, you’ll notice how black is barely used, but red is seen in abundance. In our culture, red is considered prosperous, it’s seen in weddings, pujas and other auspicious occasions,” she adds.
So what made the country wake up to the magic of this modest weave after all these years? “The bold drama of the gamchha weave and colour matches the current lively fashion trends, and its novelty has added value,” says Padma Shri awardee Laila Tyabji, a social activist and one of the founders of Dastkar, a Delhi-based NGO working to revive Indian crafts. “Handloom weavers all over India have been having a difficult time…It’s lovely when high-profile designers or trendsetters pick up something we take for granted and give it a twist that makes it contemporary and trendy. In the process, the weaver finds new markets,” Tyabji says.
Designer Rema Kumar with a gamchha weaver in Odisha
Apart from being cheap, tough and available in every possible shade, this underrated fabric has the capacity to soak moisture like no other. In Bengali, the words gaa, meaning body, and mocha (wipe) form a portmanteau for this piece of cloth that one can easily find lying around rather carelessly in households of not just Bengal, but most other coastal and riverine states in India. “I used to have gamchhas that I had picked up from Bangladesh lying around in my home. I finally thought, why not do something with them? They were so gorgeous that I had wrapped some diaries and photo frames with them initially,” says Calcutta designer Tri Paul, who officially launched her label, Tri, in 2015.
A professional Odissi dancer by day and fashion designer by night, Paul says the colours on the vibrant gamchha can make her “forget every pain in the world”. “It’s perhaps the most neglected object in our homes. But then I felt that if I can wipe my face with it, what’s the reservation in wearing it too? People often advise me to start working with more profitable fabrics, but I refuse and say that I shall never stop using the gamchha. Designing clothes with the gamchha is an exciting challenge every day. The same weaver does not weave an identical pattern a second time, so it’s nearly impossible to find another exact copy of the same piece,” Paul says.
To add to that, most gamchha weavers spin their yarn to make pieces in a standard towel size, as a result of which stitching any item of clothing out of a single gamchha becomes nearly impossible. “It was difficult to win the trust of the weavers. I used to go from one village to another with my trunk looking for weavers. Since they work in groups, it will be unethical of me to expect one weaver to break off and work for me. I can do that only when I am willing to take their responsibility for a lifetime,” Roy says.
Actor Swastika Mukherjee (left) is wearing designer Sanjukta Roy's (R) creation.
Even after this traditional handloom has found a new audience and purpose, the gamchha’s meteoric rise on a global stage can only be consolidated once a strategy for sustaining the craft and the weavers is formulated by the stakeholders. “I am not sure how much support the weavers receive from the government. One needs a different kind of dedication to keep this craft alive,” Paul says.
However, as this common man’s towel-cloth prepares to take over the runway one stitch at a time, its rekindled popularity at present can be attributed to the millennials, according to Bibi Russell. “The new generation has a lot of interest in gamchha. And why not? Celebrities from across the world have endorsed my gamchha. From Bollywood stars to the Spanish queen, even Antonio Banderas—everyone has loved my gamchha,” the veteran designer says.
Back home, none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been seen embracing the gamchha on International Yoga Day earlier this year. To go further back, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were both seen sporting an Assamese gaamosa on their visit to India in 2016. In addition to these sporadic popular public appearances by the indigenous fabric, actors from various Indian film industries have also been seen warming up to the gamchha, with some swearing by the high comfort quotient it brings with it.
“Now it’s become quite a fashion statement. There’s a cool, happy vibe to it,” says actress Swastika Mukherjee, who claims to be an admirer of Sanjukta Roy’s craft. “I love how she experiments with colours. All the sarees are so dramatic. One doesn’t have to try too hard to make a statement wearing them,” Mukherjee says.
The unlikely pair of Tricolour and gaamosa made a huge statement during athlete Hima Das’s victory lap in Finland.
Whether it’s the uttariyam down south or the gamchha in the east, the desi towel has managed to rivet the interest of artists working in different disciplines across the country. However, one needs to be mindful of designers who claim to make gamchha clothing with synthetic fabrics resembling the authentic variant. “If you compromise on the genuine product, then it’s a negative. But there are designers who go to the roots and work with the weavers,” says Rema Kumar, a Delhi-based designer who worked with the Odisha gamchha a year ago during a residency programme conducted in the state. With her husband Puneet, who’s an artist, Kumar curated and organised the residency titled ‘Excavating Odisha’ in 2017, helping some contemporary artists collaborate with local craftsmen in and around Raghurajpur.
“It was by chance that we came across this very small village named Brahman Alandia near Raghurajpur, where they weave only the plain off-white base gamchhas day in day out. I worked with a few weavers from this village and incorporated colours into the gamchha. Then they got excited and embroidered the prajapati and mayur motifs on the loom,” Kumar says about the process behind her collection of vibrant dupattas made from the Odisha gamchha. The designer hopes to work with the humble cloth again in the days to come, as she too believes in a sustainable interest and investment in the art for the betterment of the craft and the welfare of its custodians.
As artists get ready to further explore the wonders of this versatile weave, the gamchha is slowly dispelling the myth about the poor man’s towel, with its strikingly rich colours.