K for Kanjeevaram

Each time she sat down to write her saree post, she would go through agonizing hours of research followed by hours of staring at the blank screen of her laptop. And each time she would come up with something reasonably nice. And that is how I think this saree blog chugged along. This time around, it was no different. Research—staring at blank screen—more research—staring at blank screen…and before I knew it, four weekends had passed. And then, when I saw her, head in hand, for the longest time, my patience and my forbearance gave way. I decided to step in and so here I am.

Hello everyone. I am the Kanjeevaram silk saree and I will speak for myself.

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A vintage Kanjeevaram silk saree that will speak for itself in this post

It’s not like you don’t know me. I know you do. I am the grand old dame of all the silk sarees of India. If you spotted a silk saree with bright jewel colours, thick, strong, generously embellished with gold or zari work, you are most likely looking at me.

It is hard to miss the silken sheen and strength of this saree - almost 40 years old. Still rules  parties.

It is hard to miss the silken sheen and strength of this saree – almost 40 years old. Still rules parties.

My most distinguishing feature is my heavily contrasted border and pallu. This contrast defines me in ways you cannot imagine. And I will talk about it a little later.

A pure white Kanjeevaram silk with a two-tone border. A classic.

A pure white Kanjeevaram silk with a two-tone border. A classic.

So as I was saying, my border and pallu are both quite distinctive. They are usually heavily embellished with gold or zari depicting traditional motifs like the lotus, parrots or peacocks – highly celebrated but rare motifs. And sometimes simple geometric patterns are used to add a subtle dash of glamour to me.

A simple gold geometric highlight on the border of a Kanjeevaram silk saree

A simple gold geometric highlight on the border of a Kanjeevaram silk saree

Traditional peacock motifs on the elaborate pallu of  a Kanjeevaram silk saree

Traditional peacock motifs on the elaborate pallu of a Kanjeevaram silk saree

You know some of my other relatives also have contrasting borders and pallus. With them, both the border and pallu, are seamlessly woven along with the body by changing the colour of the yarn, and in some cases with the same yarn. It’s nothing to write about from the rooftop.

But with me, my border and pallus are not woven seamlessly. They are attached to my body.

A korvai attachment leaves a jagged finish along the border. Look at the magnified circle to see the thread work.

A korvai attachment leaves a jagged finish along the border. Look at the magnified circle to see the thread work.

The technique of attaching the border to my body is called ‘korvai’, linked to the word ‘korai’ which means border. I am therefore sometimes also referred to as korvai pattu or the saree with ‘attached border’.  The origin of the korvai technique can be traced to the 6th century. Allow me to explain how this technique came about – it will perhaps help you understand why this painstaking and labour intensive technique is used even today to create me.

I was born in Kanchipuram, a small city close to Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Of course you know that. What you may not know however is the meaning of the word Kanchipuram and the story of its birth. The word Kanchipuram is made of ‘Ka’ – the creator, another name for Brahma and ‘anchi’ is a name of the worshipper Vishnu.

This city was built by the great Pallavas, as a place of intense worship and learning (called ghatiksthalam in the Tamil language).  Kanchipuram soon came to be known as the temple city. The Pallavas worshipped Shiva – the simple ascetic God – not known for needing grand ceremonial robes. His simplicity required nothing more than a white cotton veshti as an offering. This veshti was woven by the finest weavers of that land, from the finest cotton that grew in that region. And in many ways this veshti was my earliest predecessor. But there’s more, read on.

The might of the great Pallavas did not last forever. I think it was around the 10th century the Chola dynasty came to rule over Kanchipuram. Under their rule more temples were built making Kanchipuram a place of religious and spiritual nirvana. Now, the Cholas were Vishnu worshippers. Vishnu, the flamboyant lord, needed well, flamboyant robes. The cotton veshti had to undergo a change. First, the only change that was made to it was to attach a brightly coloured silk border embellished with a little gold. This little innovation was done by the expert master weavers of Saurashtra who, after fleeing their own land due Mohammed Ghazni’s invasion, had settled in Kanchipuram because of the huge demand for fine woven fabric. And thus the korvai technique was born. Gradually the cotton veshti was replaced with silk because silk was considered to be pure and hence necessary for worship.

Around the 13th century when the reign of the great Cholas ended, Kanchipuram came under the rule of the Vijayangar kings. It was the great king Krishna Deva Raya who commissioned my creation for women of the palace to wear for religious ceremonies, weddings and other festivities. The korvai was by then too inseparably entwined in the hearts of the weavers. And that is how I came into this world, in this holy land.

I was then and still am this beautifully woven, thick silk body with a heavy gold border attached to my edge, even if I may say so myself. The pallu, with design elements similar to the border but larger in scale, was also attached to one end of me. Traditional motifs inspired from temples, myths and legends were used to adorn my pallu.

This Kanjeevaram saree depicts a Ganda Berunda – a mythical two-headed bird known to possess magical powers. It is also one of the physical forms of Narsimhan – half man half lion – an avatar of Vishnu. Courtesy and copyright of www.jaypore.com

This Kanjeevaram saree depicts a Ganda Berunda – a mythical two-headed bird known to possess magical powers. It is also one of the physical forms of Narsimhan – half man half lion – an avatar of Vishnu. Courtesy and copyright of http://www.jaypore.com

My pallu is attached to my body using the ‘petni’ technique. The petni pallu is another of my distinguishing features. And no, I am not launching into the petni story today.

Any authentic Kanjeevaram saree will have the easy-to-spot petni – a strip where shades merge giving a beautiful new shade.

Any authentic Kanjeevaram saree will have the easy-to-spot petni – a strip where shades merge giving a beautiful new shade.

The underside of the petni weave. Unmistakably a Kanjeevaram.

The underside of the petni weave. Unmistakably a Kanjeevaram.

So I guess now you understand how korvai and petni are both tightly woven in tradition. These traditional techniques are so deep-rooted in the Kanchipuram culture, that any of me made in Kanchipuram will always have these ‘birthmarks’.

And what about me? What do I think of this tradition? I am of course immensely proud of having outlived the might of the Kings who made me. But I must confess that the future scares me. Modernization, coupled with easier ways of making a living has pushed the younger generations of weavers away from weaving. They find the korvai a hard task that does not pay well. Will I be me without my korvai and petni?

The korvai woven contrast is now my life and you will find this contrast all around me. For example I am a saree that graces the lady of the humblest of house-holds in Tamil Nadu.

The finest cotton makes the softest Kanjeevaram cottons. Image courtesy and copyright www.jaypore.com

The finest cotton makes the softest Kanjeevaram cottons. Image courtesy and copyright http://www.jaypore.com

And you will also find me adorning the lady of the most magnificent mansion.

Grand and stately, apart from many other adjectives that would fit here to describe these sarees. Image courtesy and copyright www.jaypore.com

Grand and stately, apart from many other adjectives that would fit here to describe these sarees. Image courtesy and copyright http://www.jaypore.com

I can be a simple cotton pattu – an adaptation to suit the warm and humid climate of Tamil Nadu.  Or I can be a resplendent dream in cotton fit for a bride.

A light pinkish peach cotton Kanjeevaram - fit for the summer bride

A light pinkish peach cotton Kanjeevaram – fit for the summer bride

The pallu of the same saree with real zari woven on extra fine cotton. A delight to dress up in during the harsh Indian summer

The pallu of the same saree with real zari woven on extra fine cotton. A delight to dress up in during the harsh Indian summer

One more attempt at trying to bring out the soft, billowy feel of this 'heavy' saree.

One more attempt at trying to bring out the soft, billowy feel of this ‘heavy’ saree.

I look fragile and feminine and yet my silk fabric strong is enough to be a family heirloom for generations. I despise laundries where I am doused with harsh chemicals. Wash me at home in plain water.

You think that wearing me will make you look like a ‘mami’ (Tamil word for an elderly woman)? Well, I am a traditional attire and if that’s how you view it, you might even look like a mami. Even though over time I have evolved and adopted newer design elements, I have not let go of my basic characteristics. So I will not be apologetic about it.

A Kanjeevaram with new colours, contemporary designs. No you will not look like a 'mami'. Picture courtesy and copyright www.jaypore.com

A Kanjeevaram with new colours, contemporary designs. No you will not look like a ‘mami’

When you think of me, think of korvai and petni and how it binds multitudes – generations of cultural evolution have not been able to untie it. When you own me, you own one of the most enduring legacies of myth, history and culture. Thank you for your patient listening of my story.

A kanjeevaram with a Ravi Verma paiting woven in its pallu. No way of knowing the source or authenticity of the claim that this saree costs INR 30 lakhs. But here it is, since we are on the subject.

A kanjeevaram with a Ravi Verma paiting woven in its pallu. No way of knowing the source or authenticity of the claim that this saree costs INR 30 lakhs. But here it is, since we are on the subject.

 

Sources: Much of my early impressions about Kanjeevarams have been acquired from various well-informed shopkeepers who pointed out the korvai and petni to me. I would be so unaware about these aspects. My formal reading for this post has come from the following books and urls:

  1. Silk Sarees of Tamil Nadu by Nesa Arumugam
  2. An Advanced History of India by Majumdar, Raychaudhari and Datta
  3. A History of Civilization in Ancient India by R.C. Dutt
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gandaberunda#Story
  5. http://www.sandhyamanne.com/blogs/kanchipuram-silk-sarees
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanchipuram
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanchipuram_sari

Copyright: All the text and images appearing in this post belong to Punam Medh unless stated otherwise. These may not be reporiduced in any form whatsover.

 

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E for Embroidery Part I

I must have been around 10 years old when I saw this scene in a movie.

It is a Holi celebration. Men and women wearing colourful clothes are dancing gracefully in sync with the background music.  Lataji’s supreme voice anoints the scene with a Burmanda composition – ‘piya  sang khelo holi, phagun aayo re’. Lending face and grace to this beautiful song with a dance to match is Waheedaji.  The depiction of fun, gaiety and happiness is picture perfect. And then Waheedaji’s husband, played by Dharmendra, who has been away for a long time returns to surprise her. Right there, in the middle of the song, he sneaks up behind her and sprays coloured water all over her with a ‘pichkari’. Waheedaji stops her song and dance. A fraction of an expression of happiness on seeing her husband is followed by undisguised anger. She says to him “I am your wife and you have full rights over me. But my sarees are my own and you have no right to mess them up like this.” At this terrible insult, Dharmendra turns around and leaves. He walks out of her life, never to return again. Not until the interval at least.

In the 1973 film Phagun, the villain that tore apart the couple was a saree. This is how I interpreted this movie when I watched it at a young impressionable age. I am quite sure that it must have left a deep, indelible, wrong sort of a mark on my psyche. Because I think that if someone messed with my sarees, I would never let him go. I would first …. best left unsaid. J

Wish you all a happy Holi and store all your gorgeous sarees away on Holi day please.

Even though we have reached as far as E, I am conscious of the earlier alphabets I have left behind. And these are A for Arni (Tamilnadu), A for Ashavali (Ahmedabad) and B for Balarampuri (Kerala). I will definitely bring these and more to you once I have authentic photographs. And who knows, there are those sarees nestling between A and E that I still don’t know about.

In E for Embroidery – Part I the skill quotient goes up several notches high. First there’s a concept and design of a saree that is then painstakingly woven. Then it is further embellished with microscopic stitches. Although India has a rich tradition of embroideries as I discovered in  a book called ‘Traditional Embroideries of India’ by Shailaja Naik, in this post I will write about only those which I know well. And that is a comparatively small list.

A rich Kantha embroidery on silk

A rich Kantha embroidery on silk

Kasuti Embroidery

What Chikankari is to Lucknow, Kasuti is to Karnataka. I discovered this embroidery when my parents were doing an assignment in Dharwad, Karnataka. The lady who did our housework brought in a village woman who made these sarees on order. She took six months to make this saree for us. This is a favorite.

A 'Gopuram' motif using Kasuti embroidery

A ‘Gopuram’ motif using Kasuti embroidery

Kasuti is a combination of two words ‘kai’ meaning hand and ‘suti’ meaning cotton. Kasuti is a type of embellishment done extensively on Ilkal and cotton Mangalgiri sarees. Created mainly by women folk in the villages near Dharwad and Bijapur in Karnataka, the stitch looks similar to the cross stitch, but it is quite different.

The striking feature about Kasuti work is its neatness and pattern – so neat that it looks the same front and back. Further more, the stitch has the same start and end point. Fabulous! Can you spot the difference?

An Kasuti elephant motif. It is difficult to tell the difference between front and back.

An Kasuti elephant motif. It is difficult to tell the difference between front and back.

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An abstract geometric Kasuti motif. Clean work done in both front and back.

Another typical Kasuti motif. Observe the start and end point of the stitch.

Another typical Kasuti motif. Observe the start and end point of the stitch.

A traditional Kasuti saree has a border and different traditional motifs like parrot, gopuram, lamps, palanquin and geometric abstracts and spread across the body. The pallu is filled with different types of motifs with no pattern or theme as such. This feature actually makes a quaint and interesting saree.

A pallu of a traditional Kasuti is a mix of motifs.

The pallu of a traditional Kasuti is a mix of motifs.

The most interesting Kasuti saree is the Chandrakali saree done on plain black silk. How wonderful for those who love black like I do. This saree at one time used to be a mandatory part of a bride’s trousseaus! Kasutis also look best on pale neutral shades to bring out the brightly coloured embroidery.

Kasuti embroidery is now machine-made and can be made to order from shops in cities.

Kantha Stitch

The word ‘kontha’ in Sanksrit means rags. The stitch called Kantha today came about when Buddhist monks used to stitch together rags from old clothes to cover themselves. This idea was carried forward in households where women folk stitched old cloth pieces in their spare time to mend them. The thread used for stitching was also taken from old cloth. A beautiful art form emerged from a humble practice unlike many others that were commissioned by royalty. And here’s your rags to riches story!

A splendid single colour Kantha stitch done on pure silk.

A splendid single colour Kantha stitch done on pure silk.

Popular motifs in Kantha are village scenes, animals, birds and daily objects. Abstract patterns like the mandala are also popular.

Warli village motifs done using Kantha.

Warli village motifs done using Kantha.

Kantha is done using different types of stitches like running, darning, satin and loop stitch. These are used exclusively on a saree or in combination.

An outlined Kantha motif.

An outlined Kantha motif.

For example a stem stitch maybe used to outline a motif. The most popular Kantha sarees are those done with colourful threads on beige Tussar silk. Softer fabrics like Mulberry silk and Matka silks  can also take the weight of a heavy Kantha embroidery.

Kashmiri Kashida

Something beautiful from a land so beautiful – the Kashmiri Kashida is a melting pot of art influences from local art, Mughal and Persian art.

Kashmiri Kashida work (machine-made)

Kashmiri Kashida work on georgette (machine-made)

Once again, the stitches used are similar in Kantha – stem, chain, satin and occasionally herringbone. The motifs are similar too – birds, flowers and animals. But see how different it looks.

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A hand-made Kashida motif on black chiffon

A closeup of the motif above reveals the stitches.

A closeup of the motif above reveals the stitches.

A typical Kashida border and jaal pallu

A typical Kashida border and floral jaal pallu

The saree is at best 6 or 9 yards. But its history covers the length, breadth and depth of this country.

E for Embroidery continues next week with Kutchi, Kamdani , Phulkari, Pattiwork and Chikankari. Until then…

All photographs in this post are copyright Punam Medh and are not available for use anywhere else.

Sources:

http://www.iisd-ngo.org/attachments/File/Hat_-making_process.pdf

http://www.rbcsgroup.com/OT/April-2004/kashida.htm

http://www.art-of-threads.com/indian-embroidery/kantha-embroidery

http://thecolorcaravan.blogspot.in/2013/05/kantha-embroidery.html