When I was small, I remember cuddling up to my mother’s cotton sarees for comfort (they smelled of her) whenever she traveled out of town on work. Perhaps that’s when I acquired my taste for the weight, fall, and texture of cotton. My mother’s cotton sarees were thick, and I could spend hours staring at the coarse khadi yarn, the supplementary weft patterns, and the designs on the pallu. The Kanjeevaram sarees were simple- wide borders and the familiar stripes in shades of parrot green, kungumam red and turmeric yellow. Then there were Bengal cottons with Jamdani work, beautiful red/terracotta sarees from Koraput, and, some of my favourites, the Orissa Ikat sarees with animals, snails, and flowers in Ikat all over the sari.
My taste is very simple and traditional when I shop for sarees. I go blind when I walk into a store with more georgette and crepe than any other fabric, and seeing thin, transparent sarees studded with jewels brings back bad memories of how students at my school used to decorate the covers of their history projects! I long for the thick cotton sarees that make me feel excited just being in them, the sophistication of an old craft in vibrant colours, and the subtle beauty of the traditional designs. However, the market is flooded with the thin, sheer kind, in fabrics that cling to your body, weighed down by heavy embroidery and stones. It is ironic, now come to think of it, that students decorated their history project covers that way. Were we giving a shout out to the visually stimulating Moghul era? Were we, at some subconscious level, more proud of that kind of aesthetic sense and stimulus than any other, or have we been conditioned from a young age to think of “rich Indian culture” in terms of what royalty did?
The other day a group of young adults (just out of college) came to my store. They were there to pick a top for one of the girls. I was trying to assess her taste as I went through each rack picking out suggestions. When I suggested Fort Greene, a very feminine (okay, maybe girly) pleated top from handwoven cotton and silk, her guy friend said “Oh no, that looks too much like Khadi”. I wasn’t surprised. I know that for many people khadi = old = frumpy = unglamourous. The top was actually made from Chinese silk and mercerized cotton, but there were lines of random tie-dye ikat throughout the fabric that gave it the “khadi look”. I fought hard to not feel defensive (“it is clearly not khadi- can’t you see the polished yarn?”), but I felt sad because his taste is reflective of how many must feel about thick sarees.
I have wanted to write about my love for thick sarees for a while, and when I learned about the Dastkar Andhra exhibition in town, I thought this would be a good time. If you live in Chennai, please go! They have a great range of khadi as well as mill yarn cotton sarees, including some that are dyed from natural ingredients. On display are photographs documenting the entire process of khadi, right from the cotton plucking to the woven sari, and the photographs are printing on handwoven cotton.
Exhibition and Sale of by Dastkar Andhra Marketing Association at
Lalit Kala Academy (#4, Greams Road, Chennai 600006)
From 6th to 10th August, 10:30am to 8pm.
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