Part seven of the series contains some trivia about saree motifs from Kanchipuram, some more trivia about the weaving of mulmul, and an invaluable lesson from my Dad when I went saree shopping.
Saree #61: A Kanchi cotton saree with Annapakshi motifs
The pleasure or pain of buying a saree in any showroom depends entirely on the salesperson. Sometimes you are stuck with a person who simply keeps dumping sarees in front of you disinterestedly. But the day you find someone who is quick to grasp your taste, it is like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
On my last trip to Chennai, I went with my friend Deepa to Nallis. Everyone seemed to be interested in silks, while we both walked straight to the cotton section. Here we found bored salesmen who were passing off printed sarees with Sungudi designs as weaves. We were really put off by their lack of knowledge or interest.
So we decided to walk a few shops ahead to Kumaran Silks and found the shop full of customers. Deepa seemed to be tired and found a seat. While I strolled to the section selling Kanchi cotton sarees. I speak passable Tamil but am completely out of practice. I managed to convey my interest to this elderly gentleman. After seeing my choice in four or five sarees, he asked me to wait, and pulled out a stock of Kanchi cottons in unusual sober coloured double shades. By then Deepa joined me and I had a fluent translator by my side. Turned out that this man had been a weaver in the past. I trusted his choice completely as we got our Masterclass in Kanchi cotton saree weaving.
This was a dual toned Kanchi cotton saree I simply could not resist buying. The cost was peanuts compared to the work that had gone into the weave. Remember Kanchipuram is a city full of temples. So the inspiration for the weavers came from the tall temple towers and the recurring designs carved on pillars and walls of the temples.
The pallu of this saree was gorgeous and richly adorned with gopurams or temple towers, Annapakshi motifs and elephant motifs. Each painstakingly handwoven. A couple of peacocks made an appearance at the edge. And the entire length of the saree had these delicate negative image like weaves of elephant and Annapakshi motifs. Perhaps made by cleverly missing weaves. It was a masterpiece.
I had been looking for an Annapakshi in my collection since long. The Annapakshi is a mythical bird with the head of a swan and the crest and feathers of a peacock. It is supposed to be the heavenly vahana of Saraswati. It is believed that this bird had the discretion to separate milk from a mixture of milk and water. In other words it could distinguish between virtue and vice, righteousness and falsehood. This is considered to be an auspicious motif.
Enjoy these pictures and appreciate the richness of our heritage and tradition.
Saree #62: An off-white Brasso saree with a lesson for life
I don’t remember too many occasions when I went saree shopping with my mother. But I do remember the first time. January 1998. I had agreed to the alliance they had chosen for me on New Year’s Day. Finally succumbed to all that pressure to get married!
A few days later, during the weekend, they had come to meet me in my hostel in Nagpur. And my mother said she had already started shopping for my sarees in Patna. But after our mandatory outing at Haldiram’s, we spotted Roopam Silks while walking down Sitabuldi. And she said: “Why don’t you pick your engagement saree yourself?” The strange part was, it wasn’t a planned shopping trip at all.
I looked at all the bling and glitter and let her choose- as always. It was just not my taste. She chose a few bright Benarsis and I chose a yellow and red Kanjeevaram for the pheras. And suddenly through the corner of my eye I spotted this delicate off white saree with amazing thread work. I wasn’t interested in the pinks and magentas and maroons any longer. I yearned for this awesome saree.
“You can’t buy white for your wedding trousseau”- she warned me, knowing that I was going into a very traditional family. And so turned my face away quietly. But my father and I shared a wordless telepathy always. I was his most favourite child. He read my face. “Buy it,” he said. “You can always keep it at home and pick it up after the wedding.” And my face lit up with glee.
Remember, those were not the days of credit cards. And we ran short of money with these unexpected expensive purchases. My Dad paid the shop keeper whatever he had and promised to send him the remaining on Monday. Surprisingly the man agreed without a murmur.
“How could he do that? He doesn’t even know you! And you aren’t even from Nagpur!” I murmured to my Dad on our way out. “I hope you learnt your lesson on the value of trust today,” said my Dad as I looked at him in astonishment. “By and large, most people in this world are good. Trust people and they will return that trust.”
When I returned on Monday to pay the shopkeeper, he greeted me warmly on my upcoming engagement and made me feel so much at home.
Everytime I cross that road I look out for the shop. It is no longer there and I don’t know where it has shifted or whether it has closed down. But it reminds me of that valuable lesson. Everytime.
This is a Brasso Saree. Brasso is a delicate technique where parts of the fabric are gradually burnt out using acid. It imparts a different texture to a required pattern. I love the thick and thin feel of the fabric. That it is embellished with such beautiful thread work at the edges and pallu makes it extra special.
Most of the sarees in my wedding trousseau were stolen. But this is one of the handful of sarees that escaped. The only reason was that ‘white is an inauspicious colour’! Not for me! It is a treasure I have loved since last two decades!
Saree #63: A pink Sambalpuri Ikatsaree
This saree that I wore to work is a cotton Sambalpuri Ikat. The term ‘ikat’ is an Indonesian word derived from the word ‘mengikat’, meaning to tie. Ikat is an intricate and elaborate method of weaving which involves weaving of the loose threads after dyeing the loose yarn. The yarn already bears the impression of the pattern when the loom is set for weaving. India, Indonesia, Japan and China are the countries where ikat weaving is widely practised. In India, Ikat is woven in three states – Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha . In Odisha, ikat work is carried out in the regions of Bargarh, Sambalpur anf Sonepur districts.
You might have come across the terms ‘double ikat’ and ‘single ikat’. If both the warp and weft are resist dyed, the resultant weave is called ‘double ikat’. This is classically seen with the Patan patola ikats of Gujarat. When either the weft or the warp yarn alone is dyed, the weave is termed ‘single ikat’. This is more widely produced in Odisha. The two forms of ikat are strikingly different in design. The Gujarati patolas are recognisable through their bold outlines, geometrical grid-like overall design. However, the Odisha ikat follows a curvilinear style and has a feathery look with hazy outlines.
Ikat is called Bandha kala or Baandha in Odisha.It is believed that this art migrated to Western Odisha along with the Bhulia community who fled North India in 1192 AD after the fall of the Chouhan empire. In Bandha, the warp or the weft are tie-dyed before weaving. The yarns are tied according to the desired patterns to prevent absorption of dyes, and then dyed.
I love these handloom sarees for the formal touch they are able to provide even when they are in bright colours. Really makes me want to go to Odisha and spend a week splurging away on handloom sarees.
Saree #64: A Nagari handloom saree
This saree is a Nagari handloom cotton saree. Nagari is a town in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh which is famous for its weavers. The handloom industry here is well known for its dhotis, shirt fabrics and other material. This material began to be exported offshores and it was called Nagari handloom.
Later a gentleman called Ponnuswami Mudaliar introduced powerlooms from Bangalore to Nagari. He is called the father of the powerloom industry. Initially the sarees from Nagari used to be plain and in solid colours with borders. Another gentleman who was a drawing teacher experimented with more colours and introduced checks and stripes to these sarees. These are typical stripes that you see. I was hesitant about buying horizontal stripes but then gave in to the temptation as the colours were so soothing.
Saree #65: A Kerala silk saree adorned with desert(ed) maidens
This silk saree was a gift from my husband after one of his visits to Trivandrum. I loved the lovely desert belles and their camel which occupied the entire pallu and all along the edges. But how could I wear a silver coloured saree to work? Now the solution lay right in my head. I told myself I was wearing a smart steel grey formal saree, and hoodwinked my brain!!
Saree #66: An ivory and yellow Jamdani saree
This is a breezy ivory jamdani with a yellow thread weave. These are the finest muslin fabrics known globally. The name, Jamdani, is of Persian origin and comes from the words “jam” meaning flower and “dani” meaning vase. The name describes the beautiful floral motifs on these sarees. These sarees are diaphanous and soft making them easy to drape.
The quaint green necklace is something I wore on a whim. It is probably made from smoothened seeds of some plant which have been brightly painted and strung together. Some delegates from a West Indian island gave it to us in an international conference and I thought it was really creative.
Saree #67: A maroon mul cotton saree
A morning when everything around me is stunningly beautiful and yet everything goes wrong. It has been pouring through the night. I have been swamped with work and went to bed at 2 am, with deadlines still pending. Get up an hour later than my usual time in the morning. Only to have hubby snapping at me for something. He is clearly stressed too. My eyes haven’t even opened enough to understand the context which has caused the outburst. Not willing to escalate the needless discussion, when everything around me is so stunningly rain washed, I step into the bathroom.
Then I remember that I had planned to wear white. No way. Rain plays spoilsport. I hope it will go away. I change into something darker. This plain maroon mul cotton saree which drapes in a jiffy. Now the bigger problem remains. How to get the grumpy husband to click some decent pictures. The first few are disasters. He is clearly not in the mood. But then I distract him with the rose, and phew! Finally some satisfactory ones are salvaged.
Here is some interesting information on the making of mul cotton that I found online. Mul cotton is better known as mulmul or muslin. It is believed that this method of weaving cotton can be traced back to even before the Indus valley civilization. What makes this fabric special is the almost magical process of weaving it. Cotton fibres are separated and spun into strong threads. The lightest and the most delicate fibres are separated and are then spun into muslin thread. These are then woven into fabrics by skilled weavers.
Muslin weaving was much more complex in the past and involved many unique tools that look primitive but worked like magic. The upper jaw of a catfish was used to initially clean the cotton before spinning. To separate the lightest fibres, a Dhunkar (a bamboo bow) was used, which when strung in a distinctive way made the lighter fibres rise above the heavier ones. This process gave the title ‘woven air’ to the muslin fabric. Weavers famously wove on looms that were at ground level and operated the looms from pits dug in the ground. Even during the Mughal era, the muslin fabric was seen as a symbol of power for its finesse.
History is full of anecdotes to prove the awe that the muslin fabric generated. Emperor Aurangzeb is said to have chided his daughter Zeb-un-Nisa for appearing naked in the court when in reality she had been wearing several layers of the muslin cloth! Such was the fabric’s delicateness. The almost invisible fabric had made an Arab traveller in the 10th century remark that the degree of fineness is such that a garment can be drawn through a ring of a middling size.
Saree #68: A mehendi green art silk
This saree is an art silk in contrasting colours of mehendi green and navy blue. I wore it to a morning wedding. Artificial silk or art silk is any synthetic fibre which resembles silk, in its lustre but typically costs less to produce.
Saree #69: A Bhagalpuri tussar saree
These are photographs from 2010 when I was in Philadelphia as a FAIMER Fellow. FAIMER stands for Foundation for Advancement of International Medical Education and Research. The first picture shows the entire Indian contingent from the two batches. Sucheta Dandekar and I am wearing sarees. Mine is a Bhagalpuri tussar silk. The second pic is with John Norcini who is the wonderful President of FAIMER. The third is with some of our international friends and faculty. The last one is with Ray Wells, our faculty at Philadelphia. Memories of a fun evening after all the hard work.
Saree #70: A Chettinad handloom saree and a Presidential visit
17 August 2019 was a special day for us at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences at Sevagram. 2019 is our Golden Jubilee Year. The Hon’ble President of India, Shri Ram Nath Kovind visited our institute and inaugurated a new auditorium complex. The First Lady, Mrs Savita Kovind, the Hon’ble Governor of Maharashtra, Shri C Vidyasagar Rao and the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Shri Devendra Fadnavis also accompanied him.I was lucky to get the opportunity to compere the whole programme. Thankfully everything went off smoothly. You can see the whole programme here. As always the Doordarshan cameramen don’t think the compere is important, so I am not seen, but my voice over can be heard throughout.
What was the icing on the cake was when President Kovind suddenly paused on his way out, praised my compering and turned more effusive with compliments than I expected. It is the longest I have spoken to any President of India. I was beaming for the next two hours thinking of his comments! Sorry about posting more photos than necessary, but I was excited!
The saree I chose for the occasion was an off-white Chettinad handloom with pink and gold woven motifs. Accessorized with some clay jewellery.