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The lure of the Kanchi silk

Rich and traditional...

THE YEAR 1942. The world was caught in throes of the Second World War. Madras city was being evacuated, for fear that it might be bombed. The women of the city were greatly concerned but for a totally different reason.

A rumour was doing the rounds that Kanchipuram silk sarees would cost anywhere between 200 and 300 rupees that Deepavali.

Kanchipuram silk, because of its durability, was being used by the British Air Force for their parachutes! Hence the scarcity and a consequent increase in the price of Kanchipuram silk sari.

In spite of their women's abant the disruptions caused by the war, the women could not help themselves about their Kanchipuram silk sarees! Such is the hold of the stuff on the psyche of the women of Tamil Nadu.

One does not know if indeed Kanchi silk was used by the British Air Force for their parachutes. But there can be no two opinions on its durability. The durability of Kanchipuram silk comes from the fact that it is made of twisted silk yarn-three yarns twisted together into one. This is what gives Kanchi silk its sheen. The raw silk comes from Bangalore and China, and the zari comes from Surat. The zari is made of silver dipped in gold and does not lose its lustre over time.

The appeal of the fabric is universal. In 1994, Lady Hope, wife of the then Governor of Madras-Sir Arthur Hope, visited the Madras Handloom Weavers' Co-operative Society's `emporium' in Esplanade, Madras. This co-operative society had two other `emporiums' one in Walajah Road, and the other on Pycrofts Road. Lady Hope was so impressed by the Kanchipuram silk she saw, that the observed that a visit to the showroom must be on the itinerary of every visitor to Madras!

In the early 1900s, Chennai ties shopping for Kanchi silk sarees made a beeline to Town. Joshi, N.C. Baluswamy Iyer and Sri Lakshmi Silk House both in Nainiappa Naicken Street, and Kewalram's `The White Shop' in Rattan Bazaar were some of the popular shops in the area. Natesa Iyer and Sampoorna Sastri in Mylapore were also popular.

The traditional designs were pevan pettu, vaira oosi, hamsam, mayilkannu and rudraksha. There were also what were called `poothotti pudavais' which were a must for brides from affluent families. These had rich floral patterns in zari in the body of the saree.

But in tune with the demands of women for novelty, manufacturers began to come out with new designs, especially to coincide with Deepavali. They experimented with different colours and different designs, and even gave every new Deepavali saree a unique name. There used to be a particularly beautiful shade of blue introduced in the 40s called `M.S.' blue, named after the great singer M.S. Subbulakshmi! In the 50s `uzhavar' pallus were famous-with the pallu showing a farmer ploughing his field. There were the equally popular `hamsa Damayanthi pallus' too. Soon after the LIC building in Mount Road came into existence, `L.I.C.' borders were a big hit for sometime, although the design in the border bore no resemblance to the L.I.C. or any other building for that matter.

The Kanchi silk saree of today has innovative ideas in design. A visit to any of the shops in the city shows the extent of innovation. In each saree we see creativity and originality at their best.

There are sarees with different kinds of embroidery-kasuti, kantha, zardosi, kundan, to name a few. There are all kinds of themes on sarees. If it is the Tirupati temple vimanam and the Rameswaram corridor on the pallus in one shop, it is the photo saree in another, where a photo of an important event in the family is digitised, and incorporated in the pallu.

A golden moment framed in silk! Even fairy tales from the West find a place on pavadais! If one saree charms with its painted pallu, another overwhelms by the fact that two different scenes are seen when the same pallu is viewed from two different angles!

From one angle one sees an elephant hard grazing contentedly, from the other a group of Bharatanatyam dancers in difference poses!

Aesthetically modern

The Silk Mark Organisation of India attests to the purity of silk in a saree by assigning to it the `silk mark.' Sarees that have this hologram are of pure silk.

The Kanchipuram silk sarees has retained its old world charm, and yet has assimilated modern trends. It is resilient enough to retain its primacy in the traditional scheme of things, and yet pliant enough to accommodate innovations.

It is rather like Tamil Nadu itself, a beautiful blend of tradition and modernity.


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