Chic goes the Kanjeevaram...

Chic goes the Kanjeevaram

Originally inspired by the grand temples of south India, the traditionally heavy silk has today evolved into a breezy, contemporary weave.

Pics courtesy: Madhurya Creations

Transport yourself back to the time when M S Subbulakshmi mesmerised people not just with her music but also with the stunning Kanjeevaram silks that she wore as a mark of respect to the handloom weavers. ‘MS Blue’, a shade named after her in the early 1960s, is said to have been created by Muthu Chettiar, a weaver in Kancheepuram who cherished the doyen’s music.

The aesthetics of weaving has evolved over thousands of years and every generation has a bearing on the multiple transformations brought about for gaining relevance. The classic Kanjeevaram silk is a case in point. Kanjeevaram silk has reconstructed itself from time to time to indeed remain timeless. One cannot help notice its spanking new palette of colours. The motifs, originally inspired by temples and Tamil scriptures, have evolved too with the weave itself celebrating resourcefulness and enterprise. 

Reaching out to all ages

Kanjeevaram has managed to connect itself to people of all ages, says Padmaja Sakhamuri, Committee Member of the Crafts Council of Karnataka, and Convener, Vastrabharana. Every weave has to evolve, she says, otherwise one cannot expect a prolonged survival. “Look at the doors that have opened for Kanjeevaram! The silks now even come with a Paithani-styled border; there are Kanjeevaram sarees inspired from Ikkat and some have even adapted a Pochampally border. Mind you, these are not copies, but innovations with an overpowering Kanjeevaram stamp. Today, even kalamkari and bandhini designs can be found on Kanjeevarams,” says Padmaja.  

Timeless artistry

Several textile revivalists and brands dealing with Kanjeevaram weavers have created custom-made sarees to help preserve its timeless artistry.

“As they say, there’s more to the sky than just the stars; similarly, there’s more to the Kanjeevaram saree than just the silk,” says Bharathy Harish who runs a revival boutique in south Bengaluru.  

Pointing at a rich bottle-green with contrast rani-pink pallu with striking motifs of 44 parrots worked upon with zari and thread work, Bharathy elucidates the motif-connotations: “The parrot is a positive symbol, a parrot is able to repeat whatever we say with love and devotion, one is able to parrot the ways of the divine... The Yazhi motif is a symbol of harmony. Yazhi is typically a combo of lion and elephant or peacock and swan...a harmonious coming together of diverse energies.”

Kanjeevarams have almost become a cliché; it’s a common term used for South Indian silks, according to textile revivalist, research scholar and designer Sabita Radhakrishna, an active member of the Crafts Council of India. “Women who drape Kanjeevarams will hardly know how old this silk is or how it represents a coming together of traditions that thrived under the royal patronage of dynasties such as Chola, Pandyas, the Vijayanagar empire, nawabs of Arcot and the British. While the kingdoms rose and fell, the Kanjeevaram silk industry continued to thrive, because of its distinctive splendour.”

The looms of Kancheepuram  

Popularly known as the ‘City of Silk’ and the ‘City of 1,000 temples,’ Kanchipuram, 70 km from Chennai, is synonymous with handwoven silk sarees. The Kanjeevaram silks take their name from the old British reference to the town, ‘Conjeevaram‘; this silk was recognised with a Gl tag in 2005. The sarees are made from mulberry silk procured from Karnataka, which adds to the dense fabric’s rich lustre and smooth finish; the rich zari (silver threads coated in gold) is sourced from Surat in Gujarat.

There are more than 7,000 families and 60,000 weavers involved in producing silk sarees in Kancheepuram, apart from other parts of Tamil Nadu such as Mannargudi, Kumbakonam and Rasipuram. Built-in looms are part of every home here. 

A play of colours

While most Indian textile genres are woven with a single warp, the Kanjeevaram silk has its finer points typically using two or three warps dyed in distinct colours and woven in the long-drawn-out interlocking technique, locally known as the Korvai weave. “This technique ensures that the body is woven separately, and the pallu and borders are woven independently. They are later joined so sturdily that even if the sarees get worn out, the joints don’t detach,” says B Krishnamoorthy, a third-generation weaver and a 2010 national awardee settled in Kanchipuram.

Loom Chronicles is a monthly series on India’s diverse handlooms, their signature elements and the history hidden within their folds.