Let me tell you a little secret that not many people know about me. When it comes to clothes I am a complete traditionalist and a total slave to hand woven textiles. I think there is something magical about weaving. So much of the personality of an artisan is imprinted in the fabric that they create. Someone once said “perfection is boring” and I absolutely agree. There is so much beauty, sensuality and a charm in a fabric that is made by a human hand as opposed to a machine. You can see where there was a pause, a change in the pattern, a reconsideration and sometimes a minor correction here and there. The threads speak volumes.
Perhaps, because I am a South Asian, I find that nothing is more sensuous than a saree and by that I mean pure either silk or cotton hand woven yards of magic. Don’t get me wrong, I do love high fashion and beautiful tailoring and I love its modernity and simplicity but I do not fall in love with them with the same fervor as I do when I see a traditional handloom saree. It is perhaps part of my cultural makeup or the influences I grew up with. Be it a Benarasi, Baluchari, Chandheri, Maheshwari, Kota, Ikat, Patola, Uppada or Paithani , they are all are treasures with their rich heritage of master craftsmanship but the queen among all of these is a pattu (pure silk) Kanjeevaram.
Kanjeevaram’s are woven in a small town 60km from Chennai in South India called Kanchi. These sarees are woven in pure Mulberry silk in bright resplendent Indian colours, there is a lot of history behind the colours and motifs that the weavers use but I will leave that for a separate post.
The Mulberry silk is extremely fine and durable. It has an astounding luster, sturdiness and finish. The silk thread used for weaving Kanjeevarams is actually three strands of silk that is twisted together to form one single thread. This is what gives the Kanjeevaram its durability that will last for thirty to forty years.
To weave a Kanjeevaram saree three shuttles are used. While the weaver works on the right side, his aides works on the left side shuttle. The border color and design are usually quite different from the body. If the pallu (the hanging end of the sari) has to be woven in a different shade, it is first separately woven and then delicately joined to the main saree.
Weavers use the ancient craft of three-shuttle weaving and interlocking weft to get this effect. The saree is ornamented with pure gold zari. The motifs are from temple sculptures — religion, architecture or nature-based. The Petni technique changes colours, extracted from leaves, barks and seeds. The saree weighs from 500g to 1Kg, 2/3-ply threads help increase the weight. Weaving a Kanjeevaram is a tedious task but the hard labour is an imprimatur of its grandeur and luxury.
Strangely enough none of the raw material used for these sarees come from Kanchipuram itself. But sarees these were being woven from the time of the Pallava kings. Artisans from Tamil Nadu, Saurashtra and Karnataka, possibly invited by the king, congregated here to pursue their art. The pattu-nool (thread) came from Karnataka, zari from Surat. Families wove together, as several hands were needed to wind the thread in the beam. Temples bought saris to drape goddesses, and kings for the boudoir. Temple tourists bought them as blessed memento. The sarees later went to Chennai, the wealthy trading centre close by. Production and marketing combined seamlessly.
Paradoxical as it may sound (when you look at the pictures you might agree) for me there is a strange minimalism in wearing a Kanjeevaram and traditional temple jewelry as opposed to heavily embroidered sarees. There is something pure and non-fussy about it that is timeless and classic. I guess that’s what resonates with the purist in me. I am not one for much embellishment and surface ornamentation and although I see most North Indian brides in beautifully embroidered heavy lehengas and cholis I prefer the artistry to be embedded in the fabric rather than sewn on top. Most of the time you hardly see the fabric and hence cheap synthetic ones are used and covered in heavy threads baubles and diamante. Although modern Indian brides prefer designer lehengas with their heavy embroidery in the South no wedding will be complete without a traditional Kanjeevaram . With ample use of pure zari (gold dipped thread) and intricate motifs inspired by temples which are a blessing to the woman who is getting married, it is like looking at a tapestry spun from gold. There is something so simple, so minimalist about that decadent silk and the temple jewelry (which is actually intricate and heavy yet somehow miraculously muted) seem to only bring out the sheen of the silk even more. Recently I attended a wedding in South India and I spent the greater part of my time taking pictures and admiring the beautiful silk sarees of the bride and all the guests and instead of concentration on ceremony!.
In the West you hear a lot of fuss about couture and artisan work and there is a lot of value placed on craft but Asian women sometimes forget that we have exquisite artisan work that is much more rich and intricate and a whole lot more affordable. Kanjeevarams are not cheap but there is a vast price range that makes if obtainable and for such a piece of art that will last you a lifetime I think it is worth it rather than a trend that will fade quickly.
With changing times younger people sometimes think that these designs are too old fashioned and are more suited to their mothers or grandmothers. I have a lot of friends who think these are old school and the blouse designs are archaic etc etc. But if you look closely at some of the pictures you will see real beauty and a kind of sensuality in the modern avatars of the saree that we see, the so called art silks and the cocktail versions. A lot of new designers are reviving the old crafts and bringing in contemporary colour palette and I am so heartened to see these being celebrated. We need more patrons for these dying crafts. Many of the younger generation of weavers are leaving the looms for work in the cities and this is a tragedy because these is so much beauty and heritage here that should be preserved.
There is depth and hidden power in this weave, there is luster and the patina of centuries of artisan-ship. It’s opulent and at the same time subtle. I remember listening to an interview of one of my favourite designers Manish Arora, who is truly Avant garde and modern in his designs, when asked what should a bride pick up for her wedding he said, “A traditional Kanjeevaram, you can never go wrong with that”.