THE HANDLOOM: KANJIVARAM SILK

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THE HANDLOOM: KANJIVARAM SILK

The founder of Advaya from The House of Angadi believes that tradition and innovation are part of the future of the Kanjivaram sari

By: Phyllida Jay

In 2018 Bollywood star Deepika Padukone wore two Kanjivarams for her wedding celebrations. One was a breathtaking red sari with the Gandaberunda, a mythical two-headed bird, and the second one had zari in both the warp and weft—it draped like molten gold. Both were by the Label Advaya from The House of Angadi in Bengaluru.

Kanjivarams are produced on jacquard looms, a technique introduced in the 1980s, and depend on punched cards with a simple binary of zero and one, in infinite formations. This is the algebra at the heart of one of the most sumptuous textiles within the Indian sari lexicon. The dynamic between aesthetics and mathematics inspired Chennai-born Radharaman Kothandaraman, a Cornell engineering graduate, to apply his skills to textile construction. In 2001, he founded The House of Angadi (with stores in Bengaluru including Angadi Galleria and Angadi Heritage). He also took on the role of designer for its luxury label Advaya. He says, “I’m fascinated by how just these series of numbers can create so much. You can render any from, a lotus, flowers, peacock: We express such powerful thoughts through textiles.”

The name Kanjivaram refers to Kanchipuram, the town where many of the weavers of this style live. Innumerable temples soaring far above the small, colourful houses point to Kanchipuram’s ancient origins. The temple architecture is an integral part of the weavers’ lives, its influence visible in the saris: Triangular motifs inspired by the stepped temple spires.

The term Kanjivaram itself only came into use after India’s independence. Before then, the saris were known locally as pattu-pavadai, part of a broader spectrum of brocaded silks specific to the Tamil Nadu region.

A key figure in defining and reviving the Kanjivaram in this era was classical dancer Rukmini Arundale Devi, who turned to South Indian brocaded textiles when she needed costumes for her Bharatanatyam performances. Her method of revival was eclectic. She chose a border from one sari, a pallu design from another, adding traditional motifs in the body. Radharaman emphasises it’s not a “weave” but a “genre” of saris with a common vocabulary of techniques, colours, and motifs associated with Kanchipuram.

Firstly, a traditional Kanjivaram uses, heavily plied silk, hence its luxurious formal drape and durability. Secondly, it uses real zari (silk covered with silver and a plating of gold) never synthetic substitutes. Thirdly, it involves the technique called Korvai, which incidentally is a term also used in Bharatanatyam that denotes a complex sequence in perfect synchronisation. Here, it means two weavers working side by side on the same loom in perfect sync, while seamlessly-attached borders and pallus in contrasting colours. Fourth, iridescent ‘shot’ colours are another defining feature as is a strong colour palette including combinations of parrot green, peacock blue, brinjal purple, marigold orange. onion pink, and mango yellow. Fifth the use of a distinct design vocabulary inspired by the temple architecture, checks, and local flora and fauna including rudraksham (round seeds), lotuses, or the annapakshi (swan) and yaazhi (a lion sphinx like creature) from mythology. Another often overlooked aspect of Kanjivaram saris is that they’re made from mulberry silk grown in Karnataka, not the imported Chinese silk in most Indian saris today.

Having established a ‘classic’ Kanjivaram saris, what role is there for changes within the ‘traditional’ form? This leads to a fascinating discussion regarding ‘authenticity’ and innovation. Radharaman emphasises, “there will always be the need for the classic bridal Kanjivaram, heavy three- ply silk, certain auspicious cultural motif, and appropriate colours.” Beyond this, he feels there is scope for innovation, for playing with the rules to create lighter saris for other occasions. “For example, I reinterpreted the traditional genre when I used linen as opposed to silk in the weft”.

Radharaman believes that sticking firmly to one notion of what is traditional belies the way in which new technology is embraced by successive generations. in his view, designs were less complicated in the past because there wasn’t the technology to render them, not because of any innate cultural reason. As he shares a folder of new design ideas including chintz and geometric patterns with the enthusiasm of someone obsessively passionate about their work, he adds, “I’m a traditionalist but not a conformist”.

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