Ground Report: The sound of silk


Ground Report: The sound of silk

One of actor Vidya Balan’s earliest childhood memories of a sari is that of a Kanjeevaram. Balan, a Tamil Brahmin from Kerala, says she was in school when she became aware of her mother’s “great collection of Kanjeevarams”, especially her wedding saris, a red- and-gold and a green-and-gold that she would wear for special occasions.

“Both were heavy and draped stunningly. They were unique because they were pure Kanjeevarams with a Banarasi feel to them,” says Balan. She also remembers visiting a temple in Mumbai’s Chembur, known as a mini-Palakkad, and watching women in exquisite Kanjeevarams with freshly washed hair left open with mallipoo flowers held precariously by a pin, kajal lining the eyes, todu (flower-shaped diamond earstuds), diamond nosepins and no make-up. “My ideas of beauty, grace, femininity and sensuality probably derive from these images,” says Balan. Many years later, she would be one of the few Hindi cinema stars to wear Kanjeevaram saris on the red carpet both in India and abroad.

“Wearing a Kanjeevaram came naturally to me. Besides my cultural background, I had personal memories associated with it and took to the sari in an organic way,” says Balan. Even today, her parents gift her “an authentic Kanjeevaram” every year on her birthday—saris she really treasures. And as every fashion observer knows, Balan looks her best in these saris, which she says “take on an air of their own”.

The Kanjeevaram sari, a product of the globally known silk-weaving industry of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, is one of India’s most robust weaves. The town, near Chennai, accounts for more than Rs.200 crore worth of the country’s silk- sari business, according to industry estimates. It is the largest such cluster, with almost 75 weavers’ cooperatives as well as contracted looms run by big stores from Chennai like Nalli, Kumaran and RMKV Silks, which provide their own silk yarn and zari to weavers. This cottage industry has survived everything from the rising costs of pure silk to diminishing numbers of weavers, albeit with some knocks.

But the sari itself is in a double bind. It is still a reverential symbol in the vocabulary of south Indian traditionalism. But while traditional high-end Kanjeevarams called pattu saris are still the most sought after for formal occasions, festivals and weddings, there is a growing demand for lighter ones with unconventional patterns and colour palettes.

Originally a heavy dupion, tightly woven with a lustrous outer sheen, the Kanjeevaram’s opacity and overwhelming grammar of checks, stripes, two-toned field, large temple patterns, zari borders and motifs with peacocks or rudraksh beads, and riotous colour combinations lends it an aura. But for most women, especially outside the south, even those interested in the resurgence of handwoven textiles, this traditional Kanji—as it is colloquially known—is no longer the top choice.

While Kanjeevarams are visually associated with classical dance, especially Bharatanatyam, and remain unforgettably linked to the image of renowned Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi, they are far from the formulaic slinky glamour of Hindi cinema heroines. That’s why actor Rekha’s brand of starry charisma, stamped by her zari-soaked Kanjis, makes her a unique case study. Though it has been worn in different ways and eras by actors Vyjayanthimala Bali, Hema Malini, occasionally even by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who also wore a Kanjeevaram for her wedding, and very authentically by Balan, the story keeps shifting back to Rekha, who has singularly kept the Kanjeevaram rooted in our collective memory. No other Indian weave has had such a committed endorsement from a famous star.

For popular emcee and compere Rini Simon Khanna, the Kanjeevaram holds many stories in its folds. “My romance with Kanjeevarams began in 1984, when as a Doordarshan broadcaster I realized a sari was our unstated uniform. I understood that it was the top part of your body that was in the camera’s focus. That’s where one needed to be creative in dressing without taking away from the formality of the job,” says Khanna, recalling that for the Parliament news broadcast, she learnt to train her eye on saris that would stand out on black and white television. She continues to favour Kanjeevarams, saying she has a “relationship” with them. “They are my window of experimentation, my subject in dressing.”

She admits that belonging to a south Indian family (even though she was raised in the north) may explain her preference for Kanjis. Over the years, Khanna became as associated with articulation as an emcee as with stunning Kanjeevarams. She prefers her saris from within a traditional design vocabulary but locates those that are stylish and eye-catching. Often, as she admits, she buys them at the Utsav sari store in New Delhi. Her extensive collection, which she calls “my heirlooms”, includes cotton Kanjis for summer, and would shame a small sari shop.

Personal stories thread the Kanjeevaram narrative. Senior Bharatanatyam dancer Geeta Chandran says that among Tamilian Brahmins, girls are ceremonially gifted Kanjeevarams when they attain puberty. She got hers from her grandfather when she was 14, even though her earliest memory of the sari goes back to the time she was a year old, and was dressed in a pattu-pavada (the Kanjeevaram half-sari). “I must have worn hundreds of Kanjeevaram costumes over the years but can never forget my first costume for my first performance when I was seven years old—a red-and- green Kanji cut into five parts. Chandran, who had her Bharatanatyam arangetram (the debut stage performance) at the age of 12, vividly recalls the details, colours and patterns of all four costumes tailored for that performance. “My teacher was a Devadasi from the Isai Vellalar community and my arangetram wardrobe included a yellow-and-pink Kanjeevaram from the Vaishnavite tradition,” says Chandran.

The diverse tales start merging when Balan, Khanna and Chandran talk about the comfort and confidence they get from authentic Kanjis which do not need dry-cleaning, just a simple dip-and-dry-at-home washing process. Despite its silken and zari-spiked personality, the Kanji is one of the easiest-to-maintain weaves. Home-washed over the years, it becomes softer and finer, a delight to drape. “I can never forget the feel of a washed Kanjeevaram. It is most comforting,” says Chandran.

Khanna tries to find cotton Kanjeevarams in summer. “It is an extension of my body. I don’t like delicate wear but prefer a sari that can be hitched up, moved in, worn everywhere, yet beautiful and easy to maintain,” says Khanna, who never puts falls on her Kanjis, saying that the weight of the silk in fact could teach even a bad sari-wearer how to manage one.

Unfortunately, authentic handwoven Kanjeevarams in dupion and traditional motifs have become rarer. All the designs are computerized and every large private store or handloom organization has its own design centre in Kanchipuram. “I wear Kanjeevarams less and less because the ones sold in cities weigh you down. In draping, they stand away from the body, unlike old, handwoven ones which hug your body,” says Balan. “When I started wearing saris as a Hindi cinema actor, I was often asked why I had chosen such a bulky drape. I love old Kanjis, including those with checks. But I am no longer a fan of the new ones, which do feel fluffy,” says Balan. She was gifted a lovely deep maroon Kanjeevaram with all-over gold zari by none other than Rekha at her wedding. “That Rekha-like sari in my photographs was a gift from her,” says Balan, laughing when asked to pick her favourites.

Like many Indian weaves, the Kanjeevaram has had to survive what some would call the invasion of contemporary design. In this case, the result is a vastly muddled new vocabulary with rhinestones, embroidery, Kantha work, even appliqué and cutwork on Kanjeevaram silk in “modern” colours. And as any sari expert from Chennai will tell you, many looms now use imported Chinese yarn which crackles like paper, unlike the pure silk yarn from Mysuru. Simrat Chadha, who is a co-director of Chennai’s Shilpi store with Nalini Sriram, says people have a mind-block about original Kanjeevarams as “heavy” saris. “Frankly, we don’t support the idea of the modern Kanjeevaram with mixed designs on it. Such a sari can never be an heirloom piece. As it is, the old finesse is no longer visible in the new versions. In the 1960s, weavers would even recreate the motif of two women pouring water over lotuses—the symbol of Chennai’s famous Rajkamal Studios—but now even they have become nonchalant about purist designs,” says Chadha.

Emphasizing that revisiting a classic is more important than obligatory “revival”, she talks about an exhibition the Shilpi store took to Mumbai last year. “We took 25-30 saris sourced from veteran wearers, some saris were 80 years old, and exhibited them alongside modern recreations for sale, without tampering with the colour or design vocabulary,” says Chadha. The response was not too enthusiastic, she adds.

Here’s the irony. On the face of it, the Kanjeevaram is still perceived, at least outside the south, as a traditional weave in bold colours with gold borders. But its design vocabulary has gone through an enormous change, with so-called English colours dominating the old palette of maroon, mustard, black, red and green, which came from natural dyes. Some stores, like Aavaranaa and Sundari Silks in Chennai and Utsav in New Delhi, strive hard to find a beautiful blur between the old and the new. But many others, including Nalli, one of the most popular addresses for the Kanjeevaram sari, seem to keep tipping that balance between too-familiar ethnic designs and the new, nowhere saris.

Nalli does have some extraordinary pieces but they are few, buried in the heaps, and can only be found in the price bracket above Rs.10,000. Lighter Kanjis start from Rs.3,000 onwards. Some years back, stores in south India even came out with Kanjeevarams with funny-looking pockets for mobile phones. Thankfully, it was a passing fad.

“The charm of the Kanjeevaram is not fading at least in south India. It is still the ultimate formal garment here,” says Vijayalakshmi Krishna, co-founder and owner of Chennai’s Aavaranaa store, putting the debate between the old and the new in perspective. “In fact, there is a retro trend right now and big checks with pakshis (birds) are popular again. Yes, those who have worn Kanjis for years in this region do want something new so we develop other interpretations with cutwork or printing but continue to sell traditional designs in the antique colour palette,” says Krishna.

An authentic Kanjeevaram silk sari, as a veteran salesperson from Chennai’s Nalli store told this writer a few years back, “should never be under 500g”. The ones with a good fall would in fact be 700-800g in weight. In comparison, the newer ones are considerably lighter, they barely weigh 350-400g, says Krishna. For the uninitiated, there is a large variety of Kanjeevarams without a dot of zari, quite the opposite of what Rekha wears. These saris have patterns created from silk threads on their borders, pallus and fields.

But strangely, and very unlike Chanderis, Jamavars or Bhagalpuri silks that have benefitted tremendously from design intervention, the experimental Kanjeevaram gets a thumbs-down from most people. “Certain weaves don’t take adaptations too well. After all, not everything can be participatory to modernization. The Kanji’s grace lies in its traditional form,” says Chandran, who is the aesthetic inspiration behind Utsav’s saris, curated by her brother-in-law Shashiv Chandran. Khanna couldn’t agree more.

So when Vidya Balan says that it is difficult to find the right Kanjeevaram, even for someone like her who can practically live in a sari, you know why Kanjis may do better by retracing a few steps.

Star appeal

Actor Vidya Balan says she was “organically” drawn to Kanjeevarams. Part of her earliest childhood memories, they have formed her ideas of beauty, grace, femininity and sensuality.