CLASSIC Korvai has become rare, weavers finding the traditional process unviable. Kausalya Santhanam

The Korvai of Kanchipuram is one of the prized textile techniques of the South. It involves a specialised process where the borders and pallu , in contrast colour with the body, are woven separately. They are then skilfully woven into the body of the sari. Owing to various factors, including the fact that two people are generally required to operate the shuttle, this handloom sari is rapidly fading away. Many weavers have now turned to the powerloom to produce silk and cotton saris. Even those which are hand-woven do not follow the ancient process.

Korvai can be distinguished from the much easier type of weaving, i.e., the portion where the border meets the body is slightly rough and if examined closely, the meticulously woven attachment can be discerned; so too the portion where the pallu meets the body of the sari in a process called “ petni.”

Twenty five year old S.R. Vejai Ganesh belongs to a family of hereditary weavers belonging to the Saurashtrian community that settled in Thanjavur more than 400 years ago. Vejai is passionate about making Korvai flourish. He was in Chennai with his collection of recently revived classic Korvai sarees at an exhibition held by Crafts Council of India.

“It was textile expert Sabita Radhakrishna of CCI who made us start weaving Korvai sarees,” says Vejai. Standing by his side is his brother, Viswananth who is also a master weaver involved in the process. Chettinad checks in bright oranges , reds and yellows, zari checks on blues, greens and oranges either with self or contrast borders, blues with vazhaipoo design, and creations in emeralds with deep red borders were among the saris displayed by Vejai and his brother.

Vejai's forefathers would take their beautifully woven saris to Singapore, Malaya, Indonesia and Burma and return with sugar crystals and textiles made in those countries. Trade flourished. But then the huge extended family went through divisions and its prosperity received a setback. Propitiously, Sabita who was interested in reviving the technique of Korvai came in contact with Vejai. She provided him with designs from her personal collection and encouraged him to start producing traditional type of saris using this method. “We make the saris with pure gold and silver zari.” The thread is dipped in silver and thinly coated with gold. “In this pristine type of weaving, 1 kg of zari when melted will yield 2 grams of gold,” he explains.

“We were weaving saris with only one side border till Sabita maam introduced us to Korvai. Two persons are needed to weave the Korvai; by the drawbox technique however, one person can do it.”

Family art

Vejai's father S. V. Rajarethinam and his uncle S.V. Krishnaraman are experts in handloom silk sari production. “We belong to the Saurashtrian community which came from Gujarat to Tamil Nadu,” says Rajarethinam. “Thanjavur district has various centres of silk weaving such as Thanjavur, Arni and Thirubhuvanam. We call these saris “Kanchipuram saris” because that city earned a reputation for producing saris of thick silk with solidly worked borders. The Korvai skill was taught by weavers who came from Andhra Pradesh.”

“We employ 35 weavers,” says Vejai. “We do not use child labour,” he states. “The heavy weight saris are in demand - 650 gm-1 kg. Our prices begin at Rs. 3,800.The main problem is that powerlooms copy our designs.” The Government should step in to allow master craftsmen to set up handloom clusters, he feels. “The banking sector too does not encourage weavers; the interest rate is very high. It will be good if central sheds are set up for weaving; it will help even physically challenged weavers. Now, since the income is so low, weavers are leaving the sector to take up construction labour.” Vejai can be contacted at 9344133330.

“Design intervention is absolutely necessary”, says Sabita. “And though it is important to provide a weaver such as Vejai with designs, he should ultimately become self-sufficient for that is the key to success,” she adds.