With soaring gold prices, weavers are forced to compromise on zari quality. Will the patented kanjeevaram saree stay high on the popularity chart?

“Korvai” is a simple Tamil word meaning “in sync”. But in Tamil Nadu's textile circles the mere mention of the word sparks passionate arguments about heritage, history and handlooms, about tradition being replaced by “cheap” substitutes. Around this one word, it seems, spins the fame and future of the Kanjeevaram pattu (pure silk) saree which many feel is at a crossroads on and off the loom. Will korvai, a weaving technique, and by extension the silk handloom industry survive, they ask.

At the Weavers' Service Centre, Kancheepuram, RG Pannerselvam, Deputy Director (Weaving) makes a sketch to explain the technique. A korvai saree's border and pallu are the same colour, he says. They are in bright contrast to the “body” which is in a single or a family (shades) of colours with tonal contrasts. Weavers use the ancient craft of three-shuttle weaving and interlocking weft to get this effect. The saree is ornamented with pure gold zari. The motifs are from temple sculptures — religion, architecture or nature-based. The Petni technique changes colours, extracted from leaves, barks and seeds. The saree weighs 500g to1kg, 2/3-ply threads help increase the weight. Weaving a “Kanjeevaram” is tedious but korvai stamps it with splendour and durability.

“These were being woven during the time of Pallava kings,” Panneerselvam says, touching the saree's history. “Artisans from Tamil Nadu, Saurashtra and Karnataka, possibly invited by the king, congregated here to pursue their art.” The pattu-nool (thread) came from Karnataka, zari from Surat. Families wove together, as several hands were needed to wind the thread in the beam. Temples bought saris to drape goddesses, and kings for the boudoir. Temple tourists bought them as blessed memento. The sarees later went to Madras, the wealthy trading centre close by. Production and marketing combined seamlessly.

Rich inheritance

For centuries, the sarees reigned like queens. “Its sovereignty was shaken by the Child Labour Act,” says Ravesankar of the well-known Rajamanickam family of Kancheepuram. “This craft is learnt by watching and helping parents from a very young age. Banning child labour has washed out 99.9 per cent of korvai weaving.”

Panneerselvam acknowledged the blow to silk-saree weaving, but argued that modernisation in the industry was making good this loss. The SPS korvai sleigh developed by an award-winning artisan allows the weaver to do the inter-locking himself, he says. A jacquard spindle with a catch-card makes weaving of patterns easy and the tie-and-dye method has replaced Petni. Colours are lab-made. Computer-aided textile designing is now part of the Art-degree curriculum.

Things should have got better. But then MNCs brought manufacturing industries to Kancheepuram's neighbourhood. The young rushed to join the industrial workforce, leaving the hard loomwork to elders. Those with college degrees prefer punching keyboards to pushing shuttles through layers of thread. “During my grandfather's time, 400-500 looms in 12 villages did korvai work, in Kanchi alone 8-9 thousand handlooms made silk sarees,” says Ravesankar, adding caustically, “those travelling in air-conditioned buses to wash beer-bottles will not sit at the loom.” For Paneerselvam it's an outcome of a changing world. “Sons have moved out of many traditional occupations,” he rationalises.

The scions of the weaving families, shuttling to factory floors/ high-rise cabins overlook a mega irony: The Kanjeevaram saree hasn't lost one bit of its appeal. Sky-high wages and soaring cost of silver/ gold may have pushed the tag range to Rs. 6,000-60,000 and more, but no Indian wedding is complete without it. It is auspicious for a bride to enter her new home draped in one. Working women in salwar-kameez and biz suits step out in a Kancheepuram on festival days. Custom demands you wear one for pujas, when visiting a temple or attending a wedding. Would a kutcheri sound the same if Nityashri or Priya sisters appeared in anything other than dazzling works of silk? These sarees now travel abroad in huge lots to meet diaspora demands. If the price is up, so is the purchasing power.

The gap in the supply is being filled by powerloom sarees. “Powerlooms in Salem and Dharmavaram copy our saris, traders in Andhra Pradesh Xerox our designs,” said Ravesankar. “These have no contrasts, no attached borders. A Rs.30,000 hand-woven saree is sold for Rs.12,000. How do we fight powerlooms?” He added darkly, “I give pure handloom Kanjeevaram silk five years.”

Alarm bells? Panneerselvam sees a strong thread of survival for the silk handloom. “Handloom weaving may have declined in Kanchi but has gone up in places like Arni,” he says. “What is made in Kanchi district is still a Kanjeevaram saree, if it exhibits features (weight, amount of metal, traditional designs) defined by the Geographical Indication Act. Kanchi sarees are registered and patented.”

Cater to the customer-driven market, he says. Today's women want contemporary designs, motifs and colours. Mambazham (mango) and Arakku (brown) have given way to chicken-yellow and salmon-pink. Rudhraksham has morphed into kodi (creeper). Handloom, the poor man's fabric has become trendy, and is sold in a niche market. You have organic cotton, ahimsa silk, natural-dyes. “Diversify the soft silk into dupattas, stoles and casual Kanjeevaram for officewear,” he says. “Weavers should upgrade their skills, update technology. Adaptation is the way to go.” The Centre disseminates development/ health/ marketing schemes in co-ordination with state agencies. Its designers train students and supply designs for traditional looms. The mill-gate price scheme brings raw material to the weavers, cluster development scheme identifies clusters.

Narendra Babu, alumnus of the College of Fine Arts, with specialisation in textiles suggests that the government make it mandatory for weaving to include traditional methods and motifs. “Kalakshetra designs are the best,” he says. “No plastic, only beads. Why give up what is so beautifully ours?” Gnanasekaran, expert designer is confident silk sarees can be made for young women. “Check out TANTAVI,” he said.

Ravesankar isn't giving up either. “We go looking for weavers, train them in korvai, since some of the beautiful patterns can be woven only by hand,” he said, a fact endorsed by RMKV partner, K Sivakumar. “Government rules (one disallows powerlooms within Kancheepuram limits) aren't implemented well,” Ravesankar complained. “Where is the nurturing of the next-gen weaver? NID, NIFT teach dress-making, why not traditional weaving?” Pachiappa School taught him belt weaving with waste thread, he said. “Unless you vocationalise the industry, where will the weavers come from?” he asks.

Weaving helps concentration, he says. You will not get that drape in powerloom-produced sarees.

“Handloom weaving should be part of college curriculum,” suggests master-weaver Vejai Ganesh from Thanjavur. “Once students qualify, they can be brought in clusters to factories with 50-100 handlooms to do korvai weaving.” Handloom sarees have layers of fine threads in the border, he says. “Some shops are not averse to making a few sarees in handloom just for certification. Shops should give guarantees for handloom and zari.”

Traders do their bit to promote handlooms. RmKV, famous for its varnajalam, linolight and reversible bridal sarees, has developed the KV technique to get the korvai effect. “It reduces korvai to one weaver,” says Sivakumar. Young people think it's not a prestigious occupation, he rues. But the most complicated designs can be woven in very little time. His pneumatic looms will prevent knee-stress, and make weaving easy for women. “Skill-training and good wages will be the model,” says Sivakumar.

Go ahead, buy your Kanjeevaram. Insist on the Kanjeevaram label. See the weaver as an artist. Ask for a genuine hand-woven six yards. Check how the border feels. The handloom label indicates that the product benefits a weaver. “To make sure it's pure zari, buy one for Rs. 6,000 + in a reputed shop,” he says. “You can't go wrong.”