The whole six yards

S Ulaganathan is bent over a graph sheet, marking dots and crosses. As you watch him work, a bird’s neck takes shape. In front of him is a sari with an intricate motif of a parrot. The zari is frayed in parts — the sari is over half-a-century old. It’s one of the many that dance doyenne Rukmini Devi Arundale wore, and is among the 15 saris that have been revived by the Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC) at Kalakshetra Foundation, the institution she set up.

It will take Ulaganathan at least three to four days to decipher the details of the design that went into the motif. It’s painstaking work, but one that leaves the weavers filled with amazement, for it employs techniques, many long-forgotten.

Did athai, as Arundale was fondly called, draw her designs or narrate her requirements orally? How is it that each of the saris sports motifs that merge beautifully yet stand out individually? How do the myriad designs — one sari has a zari temple border running through the sari, besides 24 deer in flight, across two rows, and four parrots on the pallu — never look over-the-top?

The revival is an attempt to understand her philosophy, says Deepa Ganesh of Kalakshetra’s outreach programme. “The journey began when the advisory and executive committees wanted to see how athai envisioned the components of a sari. Yes, the colour combination was important, but so were the motifs and the overall look. We wanted to explore and understand the elements that came together to make it a Kalakshetra and a Rukmini Devi sari.”

The committees journeyed within to get everything as close to the original — from the colour to the motifs. S Ramachandran, manager, CERC, says it sometimes took them a whole day to get one colour right. For instance, even a yellow or green that was a minor element had to be that exact shade. One of the challenges was that the dyeing traditions had changed. German colours were used half a century ago. How does one replicate that effect? Or, the oily mustard or green of Kalakshetra’s saris?

Says Ganesh, pointing to a sari with a border bearing lines in red and green. “How she’s used colour makes for a fascinating study — a shade of red, one of green, another of yellow; such little nuances. Also, the kind of weaving. Even if one line of yarn is out of place, everything changes; even the point of two designs intersecting is perfect.”

Right now, CERC is not in the process of reproducing or copying the original. What it aspires to do is to understand Arundale’s thought process and the value of the detailing that went into it, says Ganesh.

Cotton revival, next

Ramachandran says that the weavers — there are 15 looms on campus now — were put through workshops to learn old techniques and the design process. From 2016, they’ve been working with silk. And next year, he hopes to begin reviving certain elaborate creations in cotton too.

Meanwhile, the ongoing exhibition at CERC draws a number of people interested in the craft tradition of the institute. Ramachandran says most are amazed seeing looms clacking away in the city. Each of the saris takes anywhere between two and three weeks to create.

Ulaganathan, who hails from Kancheepuram, is at work again, this time looping the silver zari supplied by Tamilnadu Zari Limited, a State Government undertaking. He brings out sealed packs of yarn bearing colour specifications. A yellow yarn has a card with four colour components — the result of hours of testing. A magenta has an equal number of components. There’s a lot of math and calculation at work.

What this initiative does is readily make available to weavers what goes into a sari, and make replication relatively easy. It is a documentation of living heritage that was once worn by Arundale.

To know the scope of this revival, you need to look no further than one end of the weaving centre. Pinned to tables are Arundale’s saris, some tattered. These were saris that the world wowed over when she wore them. Each of them speaks of possibilities. And, the recreated saris that hang in front of every loom, speak of what happens when that possibility turns into reality.

Spool of memories

The launch of the exhibition was a trip down the ages. Many grew nostalgic, reliving their moments with Arundale, says Ganesh. “These are people who handled her saris, folded them, felt them….”

Ambika Buch, who was in Kalakshetra from when she was five years old, and has been closely associated with athai, recalls how her arangetram sari was chosen.

“She chose an arakku from a sample and a border from another. She wanted the rudraksham motif on either side. And, just like that, a lovely sari was created. Athai chose from different patterns, old saris, and her favourite motifs were the rudraksham, kili and yaazhi. She showed a preference for colour; as far as my memory goes, she used monotones just twice — a red on red for Sita’s agnipariksha and an olive green for Sita in Ashokavanam. She had a fondness for yellow, and she loved contrast blouses. She would wear a green for a red-and-mustard sari and pull off the look.”

A Janardhanan, a long-time associate, speaks highly of Arundale’s ability to imagine the end product. “She would meet skilled weaving personalities brought in from different villages and discuss colour and design, before the final version was passed on to the weavers. She would visit the weaver’s centre and even if she found one yarn out of place, would ask the weavers to start afresh. If it was a sari for which an order had been placed, she would either ask for more time or refund the money.”

CK Balagopal, the dancer who made a name for his portrayal of Hanuman, was at CERC with a red-and-mustard checked sari that Arundale had gifted his wife. “I want to get this recreated. The design must live on,” he says and speaks about the time they were on a tour of a foreign country. “The hosts refused to let us wash the saris. They learnt to do it by hand.” And, her saris fluttered in a clothesline in a land far away from where they were woven.

(You can place orders for the saris (silk and cotton) at the weaving centre at Kalakshetra Foundation. Details will be up on the website after the exhibition concludes)

Inspired Revisit the exhibition curated by Ranvir Shah of Prakriti Foundation, is open to all.


Kalakshetra Foundation, Thiruvanmiyur

Till March 25, 10 am to 5 pm

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 1:57:27 PM |

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