Kancheepuram idlis, delectable athirasam, sundal on leaf cups and brass-filtered coffee; copper venneer thavalai and kolu dolls as corner décor and Sabita Radhakrishna as the chief presenter; the topic could only be pattu pudavai, that symbol of grace and grandeur in Chennai's gatherings. In its second edition of the Namma Chennai meet, a very interested group assembled in their Kancheepuram best to know about the Kanchi heritage and its fabric of international fame.
“Pattu is not made of just threads, these are dreams of the weavers,” said Sabita, in a flawless presentation that traced the history of traditional pattu weaving that journeyed into Kanchi some 400 years ago. With stunning pictures as supporting material, she traced pattu's history, its patronage from the local deities and kings. She gave the audience a glimpse of the magnificent sari collection of Rukmini Devi Arundale whose crafts centre at Kalakshetra makes those beautiful Kalakshetra saris.
“River Palar flowed in Kancheepuram and its pure waters covered the threads with fine sheen. This patina along with the quality of weaving, weight and durability made Kanchi pattu a must-have in Tamil weddings, gave the textile a niche it so richly deserves,” Sabita went on. Woven into the pattu's history are these facts: Kancheepuram allowed space for the spread-out weaving, had close-knit families and water in the form of Vagvathi. It blossomed when the local deities wore the hand-woven silks and cottons, when the royals gave it patronage. In Kanchi, religion and weaving melded, hand-weaving was done with a sense of bhakti. All activities of the household, preparing the dye, loading the bobbin or twisting the thread, went on around the loom that was the centrepiece of the house. All the members were engaged in the creation of the masterpieces. In an oral tradition, the “secrets” of the art were passed on in a father-son lineage. It was in that sense a truly cottage industry.
But all is not well with the industry now despite the crowds at the stores, said Sabita. Saris are not worn regularly and those who wear them choose synthetic yards over Kanchi cottons and silk. Even at weddings, the preference has shifted to other “dresses”.
Weavers have started encouraging their children to look for occupations with guaranteed income and job security. Those who still weave have moved on to hybrid threads where wages are higher. Weaving these saris is hard work and the returns are low.
“This beautiful art with its wealth of designs will languish,” said Sabita in a fervent appeal to the audience. “Don't let it die. Buy a few, patronise them.” She had suggestions for making Kanchi cottons and pattu a contemporary high-fashion fibre. “Traditional weaving could be a studio craft, weavers can be trained and paid a salary and the yardage can be used to make what this generation prefers to wear, for modern silhouettes.” It can be used for furnishings and accessories, anything, as long as the craft is kept alive.”
Anaka Narayanan, the young designer/boutique owner of Brasstacks, is keen to make that experiment. “Sari is figure-flattering, I love the silhouette, like the aesthetics of the handlooms,” she said. “But to me, design is about what the market wants.” Having tried hand-woven material in her designs, she promised to introduce Kanchi silks and cottons to the young as everyday wear.
Also present at the venue was Vijay Ganesh, a seventh generation weaver who has been persuaded by Sabita not to give up his craft. He didn't have to say much. The saris from his family looms in Thanjavur were part of the surrounding décor. Stunning in colours and traditional borders, they got the women leaping to have a look at the end of the presentation. “Exhibitions in metros have not been successful. Their only salvation is to hitch their wagon to young designers,” said Sabita, making a final request. “Don't melt your old saris for their silver,” she said. “You can use them to replicate the designs. The craft is irreplaceable.”
* Pure zari is red thread wrapped in pure silver and dipped in 24-carat gold.
* “Korvai” is when the border and pallu are woven separately and then into the body. The fine weaving between body and border makes the joinery invisible. Here Pallu and border contrast with the main colour.
* It takes a week to a month to weave a pattu sari.
* The setting up of a loom costs Rs. 80,000 and an extra Rs. 10,000 each time the design changes, so order 3 at a time.
* Heavy saris weigh 700-1000 grams.