The Fabric of India


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The Fabric of India

By: K.Radharaman, Founder, CEO & Design Head, House of Angadi

Ninety Kilometres South West of the modern City of Chennai – lies a town that lends its name to one of the most celebrated textile genres in the history of our civilization. Few cultural relics can claim to represent the historic values of our nation as done by our different forms of attire. Among these, there can be none that have enshrined the customs and traditions of this country (our civilization)better than the Kanjivaram.

For several generations, this temple town has been synonymous with the most glamorous and resplendent article of textile that has been produced in the Indian Subcontinent.

The “Kanjivaram” Sari – derives its name from the temple town of Kanchipuram – that once served as the capital city of the great Pallava Dynasty. The Pallavas along with the Cholas, Cheras, and Pandias were among the great dynasties of southern India and were among the wealthiest sovereigns of their time.

The town of Kanchipuram – was long regarded as an important place of religious worship and was home to many monasteries and scholarly institutions and was revered in the holy texts of the Sangam and Vedic periods as one of the Great Ancient Cities of importance.

Styles of Sari by Artist MV M. V. Dhurandhar, 1928

An artistic representation of an Agraharam in Kanchipuram Picture Credit

Kanchipuram and the hamlets that surround it were home to many great temples – all constructed in a distinctly Dravidian Style of Architecture in keeping with Agama Sasthras prescribed in the scriptures.

The weaving communities of the town were originally cotton weavers – who practised their craft on simple pit looms with no real shedding mechanism. The advancements in Cotton agriculture and the popularity of the yarn made the entire Coromandel coast and the Dravidian Hinterland hubs of weaving and textiles developed into one of the mainstays of the economy.

It was with the advent of the Padmasaliyas, a Telugu speaking Silk weaving community with their roots in Warangal (in modern-day Telangana) that silk weaving was first introduced to Kanchipuram, a few centuries ago.

Styles of Sari by Artist MV M. V. Dhurandhar, 1928

Warangal Fort Entrance

While it is almost impossible to deduce the exact period in which “design” came to be introduced into the textile – what is self-evident is the source of their inspiration. To the trained observer the Kanjivaram sari is almost always typified by its use of elaborate motifs in the Border and Pallav (Tailpiece) of the sari. Designs such as the ‘Peacock’,’Temple’ or “Yaali’ were almost always derived from the stone carvings and other architectural elements of the local temples.

The “sari” is beyond doubt one of the oldest surviving forms of attire in human history. In its most basic form – a Sari of any description remains a simple piece of cloth. Six yards in length and forty-four inches in width – its dimensions slightly varying, depending on its place of origin.

A handloom with warp set

Devoid of its distinct design vocabulary the Kanjivaram sari would have perhaps remained a glorified vestment used to cover the wearer from head to foot. It is however through the use of its distinct design language that the Kanjivaram differentiates itself from the myriad drapes and weaves of the rest of India.

The Kanjvaram school of design derives inspiration from a treasure trove of religious and social metaphors. The Classical Design Language of a Kanjivaram Saree can be broadly classified into 3 segments – The Mythological & Religious, The Literal and the Abstract.

The Depiction of mythological forms such as the Yaali (Half Lion and Half Elephant), The Gandaberunda (two-headed bird), Vel (a divine weapon of Lord Karthikeya) and the Rudraksham (holy bead) – are directly derived from Hindu Mythology. Supplementing these are the Literal interpretations of flora and fauna – such as the Pulliman (The Spotted Deer), The Elephant, the Mallimogu (Jasmine Bud), Annam ( Swan), Killi (The parrot) and Mayil ( The Peacock).

An excerpt highlight quoted from The Kishkinta Khandam, mentioning Silk Fabrics

Yali Motif woven in gold zari on a Kanjivaram Saree

An excerpt highlight quoted from The Kishkinta Khandam, mentioning Silk Fabrics

Gandareunda motif woven in gold zari on a Kanjivaram Saree

It is interesting to note that most zoological and botanical forms that are referenced for the purposes of design are almost always local in nature and therefore create a set of self-imposed rules that circumscribe the definition of a true “Kanjivaram”.

It would therefore not be entirely wrong to conjecture that the introduction of any design outside of the native library of motifs, such as for instance a Zebra or reptilian-inspired design element would be presumed blasphemous by true practitioners of the craft.

The use of simple “weaves” and their attendant geometrical motifs was given great importance in the Kanjivaram tradition. A recurrent theme in all Kanjivaram sarees is the use of such elements that are imaginatively named in vernacular Tamil such as the “Vanky”, “Mayilkan” or “Aramadam” – many of which are abstractions of more elaborate forms. Thus the “MayilKan” is said to be a woven representation of the eye of a peacock while the “Araimadam” is said to be a simplistic version of the Goat’s Eye.

These and other forms constitute a symphony of ‘weaves’ that have withstood the ravages of time, making the Kanjivaram saree an eternal genre that gives life to the most ancient cultural ethos of the subcontinent.

Another important aspect that has come to distinguish the Kanjivaram saree from all other handloom genres is the use of contrast borders through the “Korvai” and “Petni” techniques. While most Indian textile genres are woven with a single warp – the Kanjivaram Saree is typified by its use of two if not three distinct warps that are dyed in distinct colours and are woven together by the most painstaking interlocking technique. This technique though not unique to Kanjivaram – is definitely an exception in other genres. It is this technique that permits the play of colours that is a signature of this genre and elevates each Kanjivaram Saree to a work of art.

It has often been argued that we are what we wear. A piece of clothing represents a far greater sense of value to its wearer than merely to cover his or her anatomy. The Kanjivaram as a textile genre is representative of the truest values of a land that at its zenith was the cradle of all civilization.

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