Documenting Kalakshetra sari

THE SIX-FOOT-long, 48 inches wide seamless cloth, which has draped Indian women for 3,000 years or more is also a singularly undocumented garment. Through the millennia the only recorded testimony to its flowing grace and its variegated textures were the paintings of Ajanta, stone sculptures, friezes on temple walls and stupas, old bronzes, and, much later the etchings, watercolours and written records of the early Raj period. Yet ancient texts and classical Indian literature were alive to the vitality and creativity of Indian textiles.

The Rig Veda mentions celestial weavers, and the existence of a vibrant textile tradition can be gleaned from the epics and the 3rd-5th Century Sangam literature, while the 5th Century Brihatsamhita mentions textiles made out of wool or Avika, `khsama' or flax and `patta' or silk. That cotton was the exclusive preserve of the subcontinent and the object of great admiration can be seen in the Greek and Roman trade records and the 5th Century B.C. Greek traveller to India, Megasthenes, who spoke of the `fine flowered muslins worn by Indian men ....'

Documenting Kalakshetra sari

Yet there is no mention of the sari anywhere. Draped, pleated and tucked in without the benefit of any stitched accessory — the stitched `choli' came in with the advent of Victorian prudery and the petticoat during the Mughal times — the modern sari, as we know it today, dates back probably to the 15th Century or so. It existed then as now in many regional and caste variations as also in a plethora of distinctive motifs, weaves and drapes.

The first path-breaking and scholarly documentation of the sari is Marthand Singh's series on the "One Thousand And One Saris of India" sponsored by the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, Government of India, and the Handloom and Handicrafts Export Council. The landmark series — only three have so far been published — take into their overview the mind-boggling regional variations and significance of the sari, the great sari textile traditions of the country, the fabled weaving centres as well as the evolving nature of the sari itself.

`Sari. The Kalakshetra Tradition' by Shakuntala Ramani is about one such tradition, which though rooted in the Kanchipuram metier gained an identity of its own, as Rukmini Devi Arundale put it, "by absorbing and incorporating all that is best and beautiful in the Indian weaving tradition". The Kalakshetra sari was an amalgam of the traditional weaver's superb craftsmanship and Rukmini Devi's design brilliance, which delved into a rare collection of Kanchipuram saris gleaned from family and friends and set about mixing and matching colours, selecting borders and motifs and developing striking innovative formats. And thus within the framework of traditional design, a whole new design identity was evolved, and the Kalakshetra sari was born.

The first sari created at the Weaving Centre at Kalakshetra, set up by Rukmini Devi, was a stunning magenta pink with dotted line checks and maroon pallav, featuring Kalakshetra's innovative parrots. It became wildly popular with the cognoscenti exposing them to the infinite, innovative possibilities of their great textile heritage. As more and more saris came off the loom with perfect harmony of design, colour and weave — and the distinct Kalakshetra touch — the saris became a synonym for elegance and impeccable taste. To quote Rukmini Devi "The Kalakshetra sari is a form of art and is true to its genius ..."

As a background to the book on the Kalakshetra sari, the author traces the link and the significant contribution that handlooms played in the Freedom Struggle. The sociological and historical aspects as well as the techniques, tools and technology, which have sustained handlooms, have been dealt with as a background to a history of sari weaving in the South and the sari itself.

The main part of the book has beautiful photographs of the Kalakshetra saris, each of which dazzles. Soft bluish grey body contrasts with lemon yellow border, traditional `Vazhaipoo' stripes are set off to perfection with red arakku and deep violet checks contrast with `pavan pettu' border. There are vivid red and yellow `puliankottai' body saris, a beautiful `mubbagam' in purple and green, and Rukmini Devi's favourite, a deep golden orange sari with an elaborate zari pallav featuring a horse and rider motif.

The saris have been taken from Rukmini Devi's personal collection. Incidentally, many of them form the nucleus of special designs of which 50 have been given to the Tamil Nadu Handloom Directorate under a licence agreement. The author, Shakuntala Ramani, is chairperson of the Craft Education and Research Centre of the Kalakshetra Foundation. A close associate of Rukmini Devi, her first-hand knowledge of the whole Kalakshetra sari process gives her an intimate insight into its history and creation. A notable addition to books on the sari tradition, of which, alas, there are only a few.


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