This edition of my saree stories has hand woven sarees from Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Vidarbha. And a unique yarn. Have you heard of the phenkwa technique? Or futki yarn? Can you differentiate between various zigzag borders that line sarees? Plus there are loads of details about Gari Diya sarees, Karvati Kinar sarees, Kunbi sarees and Chanderis. Surely, that should interest you further!
Saree #161:A Banarasi khaddi georgette with phenkwa work
Some days you really want to get into Chandni mode. This was one of those days! Wearing white always makes me feel like I’m walking on the clouds. The effect on the soul is ethereal. You consciously stay away from anything which will ruin the purity of your outfit and the mind.
Ye raat hai ya tumhaari zulfe khuli huyi hai Hai chandni ya tumhaari nazron se meri raate dhuli huyi hai Ye chaand hai, ya tumhaara kangan Sitaaren hain, ya tumhaara aanchal Hawa ka jhonka hai, ya tumhaare badan ki khushboo Ye pattiyon ki hai sarsaraahat, ki tumne chupke se kuch kaha hai Ye sochta hoon, main kab se gumsum Ki jab ki mujhko bhi ye khabar hai, ki tum nahin ho, kahin nahin ho Magar ye dil hai ke kah raha hai, tum yahin ho, yahin kahin ho.
Those immortal lines from Yeh kahaan aa gaye hum. Recited in Amitabh’s baritone. Written by Javed Akhtar for Yash Chopra’s sensitive film Silsila. Why am I talking of Silsila, when the theme is Chandni? Because you can see Yash Chopra’s obsession with moonlight and white sarees long before the Sreedevi film in his earlier film Silsila. Why, even Rekha’s name in the film was Chandni!
But yes, no one else presented women in white sarees more elegantly than Yash Chopra. To others, white sarees were needed only when women played wailing widows, or when they needed them to play tantalizing parts in rain dance sequences. Not to Chopra. He presented them as pristine, pure and with minds of their own. So whether it was Silsila, Kabhi Kabhie, Lamhe or Chandni, the woman always knew what she wanted in relationships.
I have had my sights on this ethereal off-white saree for over a year now. I was sure it was unlikely to be sold as it was white. It kept recurring in my dreams. But finally I succumbed to the temptation of buying it.
This saree is a handwoven Banarasi khaddi (खड्डी) georgette. The distinctive feature of this saree is the exquisite latticework. The saree has delicate lattices in resham, tiny highlights of zari along the pallu and dainty tassels. Imagine after weaving this, the weaver has to carefully snip off the silk threads so that the delicate jaals are visible. This takes hours. In traditional parlance this technique is called “phenkwa“. The expertise of the weaver leaves you spellbound. The lattice cutwork is exquisite and painstaking. Such intricate handwork uplifts a simple white saree to sheer class.
Saree #162:A silk Chanderi saree with naqshi border
Who doesn’t like birthday surprises? And this gorgeous black and fuschia silk Chanderi with a naqshi border landed up unexpectedly at home in the mail. Securely packed and with a lovely heart-warming note in pretty cursive writing. From none other than the adorable Anupa Walia Lokwani. It reached me well in advance to get it ready to wear today. The colours are vibrant like the sender and the golden motifs will constantly remind me of her heart of gold. I wore this to work today. And everyone who came to wish me had an additional comment, complimenting me on the beautiful saree. Cannot thank you enough Anupa for this gift of love and for providing me such a warm memory.
So Anupa wanted me to describe this saree in what she calls my “Masterji style”. So here goes.
Chanderi is situated between two cultural hubs in Madhya Pradesh— Malwa and Bundelkhand. Chanderi sarees are renowned for their fine texture and lustre. If it is a hot summer and you still want to shine at a wedding while being comfortable, a Chanderi is the saree you would pick. Sometimes I feel it has the same status in central India that a Dhakai jamdani has in the eastern part of the country. There are two kinds of theories. One say that the weavers who were adept at weaving muslin sarees migrated to Chanderi. Another belief is that Koshti weavers from Jhansi migrated to Chanderi and started this trend. These weavers received royal patronage, both from the Mughals as well as the rulers of Baroda. As you can see most royal women love dressing in these diaphanous sarees until today.
There are three kinds of Chanderis: pure silk, silk cotton blends and cotton. In a silk-cotton Chanderi the warp is mulberry silk while the weft is made of cotton yarn. Ever wondered why Chanderi sarees have that extra lustre? That is because degumming is not done to the mulberry yarn. This non-degummed yarn is called ‘greige’. This makes it transparent and lustrous, which makes people call it ‘woven air’. This is also the reason why chanderis are not very soft to wear and feel a little stiff. However in recent times, weavers have started using pure silk in the warp and cotton in the weft. Like this saree has raw silk in the warp, and katan silk in the weft.
Traditionally these sarees were made with undyed yarn with zari borders. But then the soft pastel shades became very popular. Red and yellow are favourites as they are considered auspicious. And as you can see, now the weavers are experimenting with all kinds of shades and contrast borders. The popular colours have quaint names inspired from nature: gulabi (light pink), badaami (beige), dhaani (green), angoori (grape green), dalimbi (deep pink), jaamla (purple), kesari (saffron), anandi (cobalt blue), pista (pistachio green), aamrak (golden), firozi (turquoise), mor gardani (peacock blue), tapkeer (dark brown), katthai (maroon), and rani (magenta).
The borders of the silks and silk cottons have intricate handwoven zari work. There are distinctive designs on the borders or kinar which have their own names like dandidar, naqshi, baanebar, chataai, and mehndi rache haath. The extra weft work is elaborate. The motifs are inspired from nature and include flowers, birds, animals and everyday things. You can also find geometric designs. I loved the motifs of creepers and vines on my naqshi border saree. The same kinara pattern is placed vertically to form the pallu design. The pallu consists of the border elements repeated twice in the form of two parallel bands, with narrow woven lines and many butis woven between them.
The body of the saree can be plain or it can have delicate extra weft motifs like this saree has. When these motifs are small they are called butis, when they are large they are called butas. The most popular motifs are of course the coin butas, which are traditionally called asharfi butas, as they look like gold coins. Depending on the weave, the butis are called iknaliya and dunaliya. This saree has dunaliya butis all over the body.
Traditionally most of the weaving is done on pit looms, or dobby and Jacquard looms. Today, though weavers have started using modern fly shuttle looms, the magic of the master weaver has not been lost. In earlier times, it needed two weavers together to weave a Chanderi saree. Now the techniques have changed at it just needs one weaver. It takes ten days or more to weave a Chanderi depending on the pattern. The saree has a border woven on a Jacquard loom. A number of women are involved in weaving as well. In fact there is a colloquial saying which I find very sexist. It goes: “Shaher chanderi mominwara, tiriya raj, khasam panihara”. It loosely means, “In Chanderi town, in the weavers’ quarter, women rule while the husbands draw water from the wells.” But there is another school of thought which says that weavers need their hands to be soft. So the men of Chanderi do all the drudgery, so that their wives’ hands remain soft and supple to allow them to weave well.
So how’s that for a deeply researched birthday post? Now I am craving to explore more Chanderis thanks to Anupa’s lovely gift.
Saree #163:A saree made out of futki yarn
I have been discussing the weaves of India all this while. Today let me describe an unusual yarn. This saree is woven from futki yarn.
What is futki? Futki is a rare muslin handwoven yarn from West Bengal. I first came across this term a few weeks ago and was eager to learn more. I got in touch with Sonali Bhattacharya who has founded Love for the Loom, and she gave me more details of how futki is made.
Sonali came across this unique yarn in 2016. Futki was first made in the 1960s when muslin was being revived by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) under Shri Kalicharan Sharma. This was usually used in the weft for making shirt material. She experimented with it and made a completely different fabric which used futki both in the warp and the weft.
The term futki comes from a Bengali expression that means resembling drops. This is because fabric woven out of this coloured yarn has a scattered drop-like pattern to it. Why do you see such a pattern? Perhaps the technique of making futki will make this more clear.
The process of weaving cotton first involves separating cotton from the seeds by a process called ginning. For this the cotton fibres need to be beaten, after which the fibres are aligned parallel to each other. The long strips of cotton or slivers are then spun into yarns. In futki, two such undyed slivers of cotton are taken. Dyed cotton is inserted between the undyed cotton slivers on the ambar charkha and then spun into yarn. Alternatively, one can take two kora or undyed slivers, and one dyed sliver, and these can then be spun into yarns. This gives it the khadi-like texture and finish.
Sonali Bhattacharya creates these sustainable fabrics and elegant sarees. This saree that she has created out of futki yarn with beautiful traditional patterns on the borders has been woven on a Jacquard loom. This saree is thin, lightweight and a very comfortable drape which allows your skin to breathe.
Saree #164:A Kunbi saree in Santeri pattern from Goa
The last time I wrote about Kunbi sarees (Saree #80), designer Wendell Rodricks was alive. Sadly, he passed away a few weeks ago. He was one of the people responsible for the revival of these sarees from Goa. This is my second buy from Goa, simply because I found the first saree so convenient to wear, and affordable too.
This extremely comfortable saree is a Goan Adivasi parampara Kunbi saree. In the original Kunbi drape, this six-yard saree, which the locals simply call Kapad has no pallu. It is pleated at the waist, and what would normally be the pallu is drawn across the chest and back over the right shoulder to form a knot locally called a dethali. Traditionally, this saree was worn without a blouse.
History professor Dr Rohit Phalgaonkar and art historian Vinayak Khedekar have successfully managed to revive the weaving tradition of the Kunbi community of Goa. These were traditionally farm workers who grow paddy. Dr Phalgaonkar has tried to popularize these sarees by giving them names of Goan goddesses like Shantadurga, Navdurga, Shitalai, Bhumika, Mahamaya and Kamakshi.
This particular checkered pink cotton saree is called the Santeri. I was curious to learn about this goddess called Santeri, so I went on a Google hunt and fished out some interesting stories.
A tradition of worshipping termite hills or ant hills is still prevalent among the Hindus in Goa. This practice may have originated from the aboriginal tribes of Konkan. The ant hill was considered sacred and was worshipped as the Mother Goddess. This goddess was known as Santeri or Sateri. It is believed that this deity was born of the anthill without parents and she does not have a consort. In fact such temples with ant hills in the sanctum are still present in several villages of Goa— Carambolim, Corlim, Calapur, Cumbharjua, Marcela, Talaulim, Taleigaon, Mapuca, Aldona, Anjuna, Morjim being some examples.
The Goddess Santeri is also referred to as Ela or Bhumika. ‘Bhumika’ is perhaps because she arises from the earth (bhumi). A farming community worshipping the earth goddess seems very logical, as she is the source of their income and sustenance. Another notion is that the word Sateri comes from the Kannada words sapta (seven) and teri (layer or wave), as ant hills are believed to have seven layers. The popular Shantadurga temple in Goa is a more modern derivative of this ancient goddess and she is colloquially still called Santeri.
I found this whole idea of worshipping a ‘svayambhu’ ant hill very intriguing. Several communities consider ant hills are symbols of fertility and newly married couples are asked to do a parikrama around them. And then there is that very familiar story of a robber who turned into Valmiki by meditating inside an ant hill. Indian mythology never fails to excite me.
I loved the simplicity and convenience of this saree. And just as I was writing this I found a picture of Priyanka Gandhi in the same saree! Says something about good taste in sarees, doesn’t it? Hers, not mine!
Saree #165:A Gari Diya saree from Assam
Today I decided to celebrate Assam. With a weaving style that is very popular and affordable in Assam. The Gari Diya saree.
Gari Diya or Garhi Diya is a weaving style with missing checks pattern in self colour. Traditionally these sarees were woven in white as this is a sheer, light and airy summery drape. The size of the checks is variable. The concept of missing weave is to deliberately create a negative space. This is done by removing warp and weft yarns intermittently.
This saree is a cross weave of nuni pat silk and cotton. Nuni is the local name in Assam for white mulberry. And nuni pat silk is silk derived from silk worms feeding on local mulberry leaves. This silk is coloured bright white or off-white, unlike Muga silk which has a golden yellow hue.
Embellishing this saree are thread work butis in red, green and yellow. The pallu is particularly spectacular. There are rows and rows of woven conical Assamese hats called jaapi. The jaapi was first traditionally used as headgear to protect farmers from the sun. But now it has become a cultural symbol of Assam. Guests are honoured by giving them jaapis. If you remember from your history books, Hiuen Tsang is always pictured wearing a jaapi. Maybe it was his souvenir which he picked up from his Assam visit, who knows!
Saree #166:A handwoven Padmini cotton from Assam with goch-sorai motifs
This saree is a handwoven Padmini cotton from Assam. I fell in love with the colours and weave. There were some gaps in translation because of the language but I was told it was “miri gosh”. I tried to figure out what that meant and was told that it was the name of the tree. I couldn’t get any confirmation from the internet. Except that the Mising tribe of Assam are also called Miris.
The Mising are an indigenous tribal community inhabiting 11 districts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In Assam they are scattered in the districts of Dhemaji, North Lakhimpur, Sonitpur, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sibsagar, Jorhat and Golaghat. They were earlier called Miris and the Constitution of India still refers to them as Miris. They belong to the Greater Tani community that comprises many tribes in Arunachal Pradesh in India and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China. All Tani tribes share linguistic, cultural and ritual similarities. All Misings trace back their root to Abutani or Abo Tani (the first man on earth) like all other Tani tribes. I believe that these designs are inspired by the Mising tribe.
Saree #167:A kantha embroidered saree with Jamini Roy style motifs
Conducting training workshops for faculty is familiar territory for me. Took out this grey tussar silk saree to wear and the skies turned grey from six in the morning. Tried to do too much on a busy morning when I needed to leave home early. Wet hair, and a dark sun-less morning meant miserably monstrous pictures.
Left for work glum and morose. Not a single picture good enough to post! And that too when this saree was embroidered with the most gorgeous Kantha work in such intricate detail. Straight from Santiniketan. I couldn’t resist the Jamini Roy style figures on the pallu. It was such magnificent handicraft.
But then my session went off superbly well. And so did the workshop. We managed to make exciting interactivity happen on a full day online workshop. It was so satisfying to make this happen.
And when I got home the two gentlemen at home decided to make amends for the morning mishap. Made me pose in weird hitherto unexperimented poses for an hour. Till my request of showcasing the saree pallu was fulfilled. It is strange when guys get excited about getting the perfect pose. Rarely happens. But I loved being their muse despite my aching knees! And now they warn me: Roz roz aise photography sessions nahin hone wale. Itna khush mat ho!
Saree #168:An ilkal saree from Bijapur
Today’s saree is a blue ilkal which my friend Dr Medha Joshi picked up for me from Bijapur so throughtfully. Comfortable and cool. It has the typical chikki paras border. The special silk pallu of this saree is woven with the signature striped bands of red and white popularly known as the tope teni seragu. Ilkal sarees have the unique and ancient weaving technique where the cotton warp for the body and art silk warp for the pallu are externally knotted and joined.
Saree #169:A block printed crepe saree
It’s raining incessantly. Sevagram is beautiful and green. This light crepe saree with block prints reflects the grey skies. But then the skip in my stride is light. There is something about symmetry in prints which always grabs my attention. Unfortunately everything in life is not as symmetrical. When there are highs, the ebbs accompany. Praying for the life of a loved one who is battling the virus.
Saree #170:A Karvati Kinar tussar saree from Vidarbhawith a twist
Today I decided to choose a saree which showcases my karmabhoomi. From 1984 I have lived in different parts of Vidarbha. I completed the second phase of high school, graduation and postgraduation from here. And since then I’ve earned my living through my profession as a pathologist in this region. So today’s saree is a Vidarbha special — a Karvati Kinar tussar saree.
Weaving of these tussar sarees began under the patronage of the Chand kings somewhere in the 18th century. Tussar is more expensive than other forms of silk because it is not made from silkworms cultivated on mulberry; but from wild silk worms which belong to the moth genus Antherea. These silkworms live in trees belonging to the Terminalia species and Shorea robusta, which abound in the forests of Vidarbha. Weavers trained in making the Karvati Kinar saree have settled around Bhandara and Nagpur districts.
This saree is generally woven on a pit-loom. The uniqueness of this saree is that it is woven using three fly shuttles which makes the entire process tedious. As the story goes, the weaver community here is called the Saoji community. At one point of time, polyester and other mill fabric being available at cheaper rates affected their sales, so they shifted to the food business. So if you are in Nagpur and have ever tried the fiery Saoji chicken curry or Saoji mutton curry, you must know that their origins are from these talented weaver families.
This particular saree is a tussar saree but with a twist. It is blended with banana fibre. So one fibre of silk is woven with one of banana fibre. Banana fibres are derived from the stem of the banana plant and this lends it flexibility, and strength. Hence this process of weaving imparts softness and strength to the saree.
I have always been fascinated by zigzag borders, perhaps because of my growing up years in the South where temple spires always attracted me. So I decided to make a slide to compare the different zigzag borders in sarees all across India. Karvati means ‘saw’ in Marathi.The border of this saree has a typical saw-toothed motif. Most of these designs are derived from the sculptures seen at the famous Ramtek temple nearby. The most famous temple border of course is based on the gopuram borders of Kanjeevaram sarees from Tamilnadu. An almost similar pattern is seen in Berhampuri silk sarees from Odisha. When this temple spire design is developed by interlocking the ground weft with three shuttles it is called phoda kumbha. When this design is developed by tie and dye method without serrated lines, it is called badi kumbha. The last is the border seen in Manipur’s Moirang Phee saree. Locally Moirang Phee is called as Yarongphi. Ya means tooth, rong means long, and longba means pronged. So essentially it stands for the long thin and pointed teeth of a mythical Manipuri pythonic God called Pakhangba.
Have fun discovering India’s magnificent textile heritage as I am doing! Catch up with my previous saree stories, if you haven’t done so already.