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Published on: 12/11/18 5:26 PM

Feature: The Kanjeevaram Sari




The Body and Soul of the Kanjeevaram Sari

What’s changing, what never will, and why the Kanjeevaram is a power weave

Sabita Radhakrishna has worked with textiles for well over 30 years now. An active member of the Crafts Council of India, she was senior consultant for many years at Kalakshetra’s famed Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC), one of the premier centres for the preservation of India’s rich arts and crafts.

Radhakrishna was also in the forefront of the revival of the Kodali Karuppur sari, an 800-year-old precious fabric once woven exclusively for Thanjavur queens.

At 75, this doe-eyed lady with a luminous smile is still on the Handloom Board of Kalakshetra Foundation and considered a doyenne of the South silk sari.

Textile veteran Sabita Radhakrishna has been in the forefront of the revival of the Kodali Karuppur sari.

What has the journey of the traditional Kanjeevaram pattu podavai (silk sari) been like?

The Kanjeevaram silk sari is about 400 years old but underwent a transformation only about a century ago.  In the early days, only natural dyes were available, so the silk yarn was dyed with stuff like the bark of trees, leaves, and crushed flowers. Then chemical dyes stormed the bastion of design and colour, and the saris took on brilliant and captivating hues. This was also when women stopped wearing these saris at home and reserved them for weddings and special occasions.

The striking feature of the Kanjeevaram sari lay in its broad borders, where a pettu (a designed woven border) was often woven in a simple design of vankis (a close-set V pattern zig-zagging horizontally), rudraksh, or plain lines.

The beauty of it was that no one was too short or too fat to wear these saris, the spectacular combination of colour and design complemented the wearer irrespective of age, girth, or skin tone.

Has there been a shift in colour or motif preferences, over the years?

The past ten years have seen a drastic change: Women stopped wearing Kanjeevaram saris; their tastes underwent a sea change. They turned to North Indian fashions; it upset me to attend a South Indian wedding where one usually saw a plethora of gorgeous Kanchi silks, to be confronted by jhil-jhil (excessively bling-y), embroidered gossamer chiffons or synthetic fabrics.

Nowadays, the defining line between Kanjeevaram saris and silk saris is very thin. All Kanjeevaram saris are silk saris but all silk saris are not Kanjeevaram saris. Today, Kanjeevaram silk saris feature “modern designs,” Raja Ravi Varma paintings, scenery, and historical myths. One award- winning sari even had Gandhiji at the charkha! I thought that was horrendous.

I have great admiration for the alumni of institutes like NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) and NID (National Institute of Design), but some youngsters veer completely away from traditional lines, designing saris in such a way that the total character is lost. While change is inevitable, we cannot just cast off the traditional jewels that these Kanjeevaram saris invariably are.

Today, Kanjeevarams feature “modern designs,” Raja Ravi Varma paintings, scenery, and historical myths.

Are there still takers, apart from the genuine cognoscenti, for the traditional Kanjeevaram sari?

The past five years have seen radical changes in sartorial tastes. The various online sari pacts have opened our eyes to the wondrous beauties in silks, which are slowly receding into oblivion due to disappearing skills. There are still takers for the typical traditional Kanjeevaram saris though they are a minority, and I`m talking about the present generation. They may look too young to handle a heavy sari but they adore paati’s(grandmother’s) saris and treasure the family heirlooms!

Virtually every year, there is a spate of stories about the death of weaving in Kanchipuram the village. How bad is the situation really?

Weaving is still the main occupation, and silk saris are woven in plenty, so we cannot say weaving is dying. It is the specialised saris with traditional weaves, which require a different skill, as well as the Korvai saris, which are languishing. Only a small section of the buying public, which is discerning enough want these saris.

Photo: Pinterest

The Korvai sari is a mixture of the colours of the warp and the weft.

What exactly is the Korvai technique of weaving?

The Korvai technique is different from ordinary weaving, where the weft threads go right into the border, which already has a coloured warp, thus giving the border and the pallu a shot shade, which is a mixture of the colours of the warp and the weft. In a Korvai weave, the weft does not touch the border; the body is one solid colour, the border and pallu are woven separately in a contrast colour. Three shuttles are required to weave this kind of sari, and three people to work at the loom. Since it is a difficult process, very few weavers are left who are willing to weave Korvai saris, and textile activists need to support and lobby for the skill to be preserved.

Does the weaver make enough money from a Kanjeevaram sari?

A traditional sari could take anywhere between a week, a month or even more to weave, depending on the complexity of its design. The weaver is paid Rs 5,000-6,000 rupees as labour charges in places like Kalakshetra in Chennai but the sari would belong to the institution and they might sell it for Rs 20,000-30,000. Now, if you or I placed an order directly with the weaver, we would pay the cost of the sari to him. However, the catch is, he weaves three saris at a go, and we would have to take all three of them. Not many people are willing to do that.

The Kanjeevaram should be rolled in a soft cotton veshti (dhoti) and not folded and stacked.

What is the best way to preserve a Kanjeevaram sari?

Do not hang the sari up, the weight destroys it. Ideally, it should be rolled in a soft cotton veshti (dhoti) and stored on a shelf, not folded and stacked. Air the sari regularly and after each wear, spread it out to dry before putting it away, as perspiration can ruin the sari.

Do not dry-clean the sari, the starch they use kills it.

Wash your sari with punga kottai, a soapnut kinder to silks than commercial products, which is specially used to wash delicate fabrics. If you mash it a bit and soak it in water, it will lather up like soap. Next, soak the sari in water and lather it by hand. Genteel (liquid detergent) works well enough, but be sure to remove all the soap from the fabric at the end of the washing process.

Dry it lengthwise along the whole length of the clothesline, remove when still damp and turn it over. Handle carefully, the weight of the sari plus water might make it tear at the pallu and along the borders.

Oh, and enjoy your Kanjeevaram silk!

Banner courtesy: Gaurang Shah, ‘Jugalbandi of Weaves’ campaign, 2017.

This appeared in THE VOICE OF FASHION dated 11 Dec 2018.

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deconstructing the kanjivaramFeatureKanjeevaram sarisSabita RadhakrishnaThe Voice of Fashion

Sheila Kumar • December 11, 2018

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