Textile Maker Ravi Khemka, In Search of the Infinite Elegance of Grey

Image: Mathew & Ghosh Architects

By

Parni Ray

Date

10.04.2021

When Ravi Khemka, founder of Bangalore based Zanav Home Collection, started in the late 80’s he had to grudgingly join his family’s fledgling textile export company. He soon found his niche – home furnishings. It was a slow strand of the business, he had been told. But it was steady. He stuck with it till 1990 when he ventured out on his own and launched Zanav. For the initial couple of years he travelled around the country looking for craft based textiles he could tap into. Finally, he put his mind and money to building collections of home fabrics using the exquisite, but capricious open air exhaust vat dyeing technique predominantly prevalent in the state of Kerala in India.

A long collaboration with American textile designer Myung Jin had in the meantime reinvigorated his making process. Enthused, he exhibited at trade fairs across the globe, raking up clients like Designers Guild, Zimmer and Rohde, Anna French, Thibaut, Furninova, Kravet, Schumacher, Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn to name a few. And then, quite out of the blue, in 2015, he hung up his boots. In repose since, he has been reacquainting himself with color. And chasing various shades of greys.

Shades of grey - fabric swatches from dyeing experiment - up on walls and tables

Driving away from Zanav Home Collection’s workshop I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story La Biblioteca Babel.

The story is set in a vast library composed of ‘an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of’ interconnected, hexagonal galleries. In this labyrinth was every book that had ever been written, and even those that hadn’t been written yet. From the elementary to the impenetrable it encompassed all books, all ideas, all questions and answers. It contained, in other words, everything.

Looking for books amidst it, however, meant rummaging through volumes of nonsense. This was because the endless library was also arranged arbitrarily. Visitors often went mad in their search. Some spoke of the ‘Man of the Book’, a mythical figure who had fathomed the unfathomable library and knew where what could be found in it. Believers travelled through the biblioteca in the hope of finding him..

In many ways Zanav’s founder Ravi Khemka’s quest is almost just as metaphysical.

Having bowed out of a thriving, over two decade long textiles business he has spent the last six years developing textiles built around a singular concept of ‘greys’. Using the temperamental open air exhaust vat dyeing (one of the traditional forms of dyeing, rarely used by commercial textile manufacturers) he has ended up creating an extensive personal repertoire of varying hues of greys.

Fabric swatches from his dyeing experiments - up on his walls, shelves, tables – hovered in the background as we walked and talked in his meticulously designed workshop. Over the course of a lengthy four hours Ravi introduced me to his decades of work as a textile maker, the value partnerships have held in his professional path and the critical role light and place play in his search for the perfect shade.

Left: The studio, the heart of Zanav, is flooded with light and opens out to all other spaces and functions of the building.

Right: The biblioteca of color trials.

Place of Work

I reached Zanav’s workshop mid-morning on a busy March weekday. It is a stone’s throw from Koramangala, Bangalore’s hip startup hub with its snazzy cafes and bars - in a neighborhood speckled with industrial setups.

Ravi received me in an enormous, well-lit office space surrounded by nothing but rows of white shelves and tables. He is a small built, soft spoken, bespectacled man with salt and pepper hair. Against the sparse setting he appeared stark in his slate grey t-shirt, grey pants and white sneakers.

The palette, I quickly learnt, was not an accident - he saw no other color.

I had trudged through the Bangalore traffic to chat with him not only about Zanav’s new collaboration with Phantom Hands, but also to learn more about his own journey as a maker. A cursory search on the internet about the enterprise had reaped no results. Even the list of questions I had come armed with was arbitrary.

He nodded when I told him all of this and suggested we step outside.

Established in the early 90’s Zanav has a history of doing business with some of the well- known companies around the world. Its present workshop, which the enterprise shifted to in 2012, is a sprawling three storied structure divided in two. The building’s exposed concrete exterior, glass doors and windows lends it an air of bareness. Despite this, nothing of its inside workings were apparent from where we stood staring at it that morning.

Left: A new screen printing unit is seamlessly integrated with the main studio building.

Right: Concept Store in the making; natural light, open spaces, exposed concrete.

‘My work’ Ravi said, interrupting my reverie, ‘begins with my place of work’.

Earlier this used to be a bridal gown manufacturing unit owned by the family. It was lying empty for some time before Ravi decided to purchase it. It now houses Zanav’s warehouse, studio, office, a newly installed screen printing unit and the bare bones of an upcoming concept store.

The building is an ongoing endeavor, he told me as we walked up. The architect who has been working on it is one of Ravi’s longtime collaborator and a friend. ‘We work together because we agree about the fundamentals – open spaces, natural light, natural ventilation... All his collaborations, he slipped in, are forged on the basis of such shared predilections.

There were no rooms, no dividing walls in the vast space we were walking through. ‘He’, referring to the architect Soumitro Ghosh (co-principal of Mathew & Ghosh Architects), ‘took them down’. ‘He also ripped out the original stairs to put in metal ones and cut out parts of the ground on every floor to install large, square, plexi-glass skylights bringing natural light to the remotest recesses of the building.

The repurposed factory building is a raw concrete space, unfinished in places with numerous shades of grey in stucco, steel and concrete.

‘The intention was to make the parts of the mammoth building blend seamlessly into each other. I moved here because I craved a cohesive space where all the units of my company could be placed alongside each other’

On our way up however we saw no one else. Staff members were so far scattered that they were invisible and, aside from the sound of my heels on the metal stairs, there was almost no sound.

Soon, we were where Ravi typically works. Sunlight gushed through the skylights. On the large tables around us yards of fabric lay in puddles. Just across was a dramatic external wall, beams of shadow patterned its grid like surface. They shifted with the sun, changing their position every passing minute.

Unending trials and retrials - big samples, small samples, yarns of all hues - dogged pursuit of the elusive grey.

Looking for Colour, Finding Light

‘Light’, Ravi said as if on cue ‘is fundamental to my new fabric collection. It brings the most out of the minute color variations produced by vat dyes’, he said.

I hesitated a while about asking him what vat dyeing was and what made it special. His passion for the craft had evidently rendered him incapable of imagining anyone unaware of it and I didn’t want to interrupt his flow. But soon I had to confess my ignorance.

He stepped jauntily to the shelves and pulled out a bundle of yarn.

‘See these?’ he said spreading them out under the sun like a Chinese fan. ‘At first glance they might seem just plain grey to you....’ They were grey. But not a single grey, there was some flint in it, some silver, some lilac, some slate. There were also other brighter shades that glistened in the sun. Yellow, orange... and others I had no names for.

This ‘mesmerizing ripple of colors’, is the result of the vat-dyeing process - Ravi said when I looked up.

Vat dyed linen yarns arrive almost daily from Zanav’s dye house in Kannur, Kerala.

Open Vat dyeing is a laborious process as it involves the use of atmospheric oxygen. Yarns are repeatedly plunged in and out of a dye bath. Each time the yarns are lifted the dye oxidizes a little bit and transforms in color. ‘This is how you slowly build a shade, in layers’.

Given its reliance on the largely unpredictable reaction of the dye soaked yarn with air, vat- dyeing is almost completely speculative. Almost everything depends on the dyer said Ravi. ‘It is the hand that predicts the results of a dyeing cycle through muscle memory gained from years of practice. It is also the hand that creates the inconsistencies that lend vat-dyed textile their unique color character’. The dyers, in short, are who create the color.

Ravi has been working with dyers in Kerala for over three decades. They are now master dyers at the top of their game, he said. It is their exceptional skill that has transformed his experiments with color into an unexpectedly deep exploration of gradations. ‘I just don’t see color the way I used to’ he confessed.

Grey remains his starting point, his ground zero. He locates every other color on the wheel either amidst or in relation to it.

Ravi’s aim is to create a progression of the many gradations of grey. ‘As many gradations as there can be maybe.’ It’s an ambitious dream, impossible even given that, by his own admission, every color can be broken down into infinite intermediaries. To aim to capture the entire range of a color – any color- is thus to want to trap the universe in a shade card.

Where does his quest stop, I ask him? ‘It doesn’t he told me with a sheepish smile, ‘you can never win. It is in many ways a creative grave that I have dug for myself. I am never satisfied; I always find room for improvement.’

Left: Constant evaluation and correction of color to arrive at studio sample.

Right: Changes in fabric construction or color combinations are woven on traditional hand looms by Zanav's weavers at the studio.

Letting go

We broke for lunch. I sat across a large white table silently eating from the boxes of food Ravi had ordered.

We had been talking about his childhood growing up in a small farm in Kahalgaon, Bihar. He left home for boarding at an early age of six as if never to return and he never did as he moved from one boarding school to another until his graduation. The new collection appears to have a touch of the unencumbered simplicity he associates with his growing up years there, I thought as I heard him. But I could tell he didn’t see it that way.

The influences he readily admitted to, however, were those of places his work took him to. Of these Scandinavia and Japan made a clear mark. Ravi spoke at length about what he had learnt of the use of light, color and space from Japanese and Scandinavian modernism. Even a brief glance at his aesthetic universe was enough to appreciate the influence of both in his work.

How difficult is it to disassociate from the fabric, the colors he creates? I asked him. Did he struggle to let people do what they want with what he has made? He paused to consider, but didn’t answer.

‘You asked me when my quest to find my colors stops, and I said it doesn’t.’ he said instead, ‘that is true. But for practical reasons, for reasons of business it often must.

Having been in the midst of the making of the colors, the yarns, it is often difficult for me to pick one over the other. To me they are all good, all a part of a bigger process. So when we need to finalize a color I turn to Fabienne to make a selection.’

Fabienne Collet is a Belgian weaver designer working with natural yarns and processed work on colors.

He credits Fabienne for, unwittingly, setting him off on his present creative journey. ‘A decade ago, when we met and worked together for the first time to transform Zanav’s visual identity the outcome was far from expectation. There was a lot of ground to cover. But the exercise was not in vain.

By then Ravi had become hooked to the color sensibility she had introduced him to. Soon after she left he built his own dyeing laboratory in Kannur, Kerala to do his color research. ('I just didn’t want to depend on suppliers anymore.’). A whole new chapter of his life opened up soon after.

Fabienne and Ravi have worked together consistently since then. Usually, he said, she is in India now and then adapting and improving on existing patterns and colors, working on new weaves, researching on future ideas - never a quiet moment.

Left: Bompuka 100 % cotton in all its shades of grey.

Right: Bompuka Ash fabric on Phantom Hand’s Upholstered Armless Chair.

Out of several of her weaves Bompuka a 100% cotton upholstery fabric has been adopted by Phantom Hands. Like with most of Zanav’s weaves it is produced by processes almost completely manual and is woven on vintage looms. ‘What is unique about the Bompuka is that it brings luster and sheen, typically associated with shiny fabrics like silk, to the flat textured surface of matte cotton’, Ravi said, ‘This makes it special not just as a textile but also as a handmade, natural fiber based upholstery’.

Zanav’s collaboration with Phantom Hands is the first of its kind. At the moment they are the only ones to have seen the new fabrics that has been produced over the last six years, he joked. The partnership was facilitated by Phantom Hands’ intention to marry contemporary Indian textiles with modernist furniture. Zanav, on its part, had been looking to reinvent itself. After several rounds of tests, experiments and prototyping, the alliance finally became a reality. It took two years.

But the slowness of the process didn’t bother Ravi, ‘anything made with care takes time’ he said in response to my astonishment. Ultimately it all came down to compatibility, the right aesthetic fit, a shared method of working. ‘So, to answer your question, no I don’t have trouble disassociating from my fabric, as long as I am working with people who resonate with me and the culture of making I believe in.’

Sitting across the large white table with his legs crossed he took a long sip of water. ‘I have poured my heart into the search for these colors’; he said finally, ‘I should get to decide the form in which it finds an audience.’

Phantom Hands' Upholstered Easy Armchair with Bompuka fabric.

The sun was on the downward curve when I was ready to leave. I shook Ravi’s hand and took a long roll of fabric he asked me to deliver to the Phantom Hands office. My head was reeling from the many shades of grey, every time I shut my eyes I could see them floating. As I got into the car I thought of the long way I would have to go and how I was later than I ought to have been. Then I looked around a last time.

Under the glistening evening sun the glass windows and walls of Ravi’s workshop reflected each other over and over again. They looked infinite, I thought.

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