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The sari specialists

The sari as living heritagea new generation of textile enthusiasts is taking the popularity of the garment beyond Instagram hashtags to explore its archival value

Saris from Martand Singh’s Khadi collection, commissioned in 2002. Photo: Jithendra M/Mint
Saris from Martand Singh’s Khadi collection, commissioned in 2002. Photo: Jithendra M/Mint

Coimbatore’s 100-year-old Lakshmi Mills—one of the oldest textile mills in one of the biggest textile hubs in India—is now fully mechanized. The amount of yarn and cloth produced here is no longer measured in units of length, but units of weight—in quintals and tonnes instead of metres. Yet, from 20-27 January, a 30,000 sq. ft hall inside the mill’s compound will be given over to the display and study of handspun, handwoven cotton cloth. A week-long exhibition and conference organized by the Bengaluru-based Registry of Sarees, a resource and study centre for Indian textiles, will be held here. Titled Meanings, Metaphors, the event will showcase 108 Khadi saris and fabric swatches from a unique collection commissioned by the late textile historian, revivalist and conservationist Martand Singh for his Vishwakarma series of exhibitions that travelled the world between 1982-92.

The showcase will be accompanied by talks, discussions and workshops on handloom and weaving. It will also touch upon the dynamics between the so-called rivals, handlooms and power looms, and the need for both to coexist. The show, which was first held in November at a major weaving cluster in Chirala, Andhra Pradesh, will move to Bengaluru later this year.

Late last year, Bengaluru-based sari label Angadi Silks found itself in the spotlight when it dressed Deepika Padukone in her wedding and reception saris. As the ensuing discussion over the saris’ provenance showed, today’s sari lovers are keen to know more about where their favourite garment comes from—who designed this, who made this, which weaving tradition does it belong to, what is the name of the technique used? Angadi itself is mindful of this need to know—it has produced coffee-table books on the family’s own centuries-old textile history. Colourful, informative posters on popular sari weaving, dyeing and embroidery techniques line the walls of its flagship store in Bengaluru.

But the explosion of social media posts has also resulted in self-styled experts and inaccurate tags, and along with that, a certain amount of misinformation about the provenance of saris. Shows like Meanings, Metaphors are attempts to set the record straight and be as accurate as possible about a living culture and art form.

In Mapu’s footsteps

When he died at the age of 70 in April 2017, Martand Singh, or Mapu, as he is widely referred to within India’s design community, had created a vast and unique legacy. Not only had he relentlessly worked, since the 1980s, on a series of exhibitions, institutions and museums dedicated to preserving Indian textiles, his interventions had often been at a grass-roots level—he brought weavers and artisans in touch with designers and created a new awareness about textiles, embroideries and weaves among the fashion-week crowd. One of Mapu’s biggest contributions to the arts was the rigour he brought to the study and documentation of Indian design, not least through his celebrated directorship of the 70-year-old Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad, which continues to be the most trusted repository of textile knowledge in the country.

Ahalya “Ally" Matthan seems, on the surface, to be an unlikely inheritor of this legacy. A Bengaluru-based entrepreneur who runs a business that manufactures organic, handmade personal care products that retail under their own brand name, Areev, and are supplied to other brands, Matthan’s only association with saris initially was that she loved wearing them. In 2015, she, along with her friend Anju Maudgal Kadam, a content producer, started a social media trend that took them to unexpected places. The #100SareePact, as it later came to be known, started as a way for women like Matthan and Kadam to encourage each other to wear their saris more often instead of storing them reverentially in their closets. But as the pact drew to a close towards the end of 2015, not only had it created almost a revolution in the way urban women looked at saris—not as “occasion-wear" reserved for family weddings and stuffy official functions but as everyday garments with beautiful form and versatile functionality—it had also evoked a newfound appreciation of India’s vast textile landscape, and the handloom sari in particular. “It made me want to learn, and I sought out people who could educate me—not just about the design aspect of saris but their cultural, social and economic aspects as well," says Matthan.

Although today Matthan dismissively calls it a “vanity project", the 100 Saree Pact made her curious about the many different weaves and varieties of saris. Actually, “curious" is a mild word, and what Matthan experienced was closer to an academic awakening. This year, she started The Registry of Sarees Resource and Study Centre in collaboration with designer, textile historian and curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul, which will focus on handmade textile research and documentation, working with collections of saris that will be studied, catalogued and documented through print and digital publications.

Kaul, who has a special interest in the post-Independence era of Indian textiles, has headed several sari archival projects over the years—in 2016, he convened a seminar on the Baluchari from Bengal, as part of an exhibition that showcased Baluchari saris from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, and edited a publication on the subject, connecting the visual and material aspects of the “historical" Baluchari to the contemporary one. He is currently working on a project that looks at a century of Indian fashion through family albums and personal histories.

While Matthan and Kaul focus on collection and curation, the documentation effort at the Registry of Sarees is led by textile designer and academician Pragati Mathur, who is an expert weaver herself and plans to conduct weaving workshops as part of the Registry’s activities.

It is one of the most interesting ongoing efforts to recognize the archival value of saris. “It is hard not to look at the sari as an important aspect of the country’s design landscape. Not only has the drape of the sari evolved over the decades, remaining one of the most innovative forms of dress in the subcontinent, but its use of textiles has itself reflected in experiments in the evolution of Indian textiles," says Kaul.

Mapu’s protégés, like textile historians Rta Kapur Chishti, Rajiv Sethi and Rahul Jain, are names that are familiar to anyone even remotely connected with India’s textile culture, though they remain largely unknown to the general public. Saris were a special area of love and focus for Mapu, and along with Chishti, he edited and contributed to one of the seminal books on the garment—Saris Of India: Tradition And Beyond (2010, Roli Books). Today, although the popularity of saris in Indian metros has soared and revival projects are doing essential work to preserve techniques and varieties, the study of saris as important, living bearers of cultural, technical and social knowledge is still quite nascent. There hasn’t been a new, non-academic and accessible sari book published in almost a decade.

Soapmaking and saris

The Registry is housed on the top floor of a three-storey building in Bengaluru’s Domlur area, right above Areev’s factory. Warm, sweet scents from downstairs envelop the space, which is dominated by a long wooden table surrounded by custom-made chests of drawers to store saris wrapped into long rolls—the best way to preserve them. There are over two dozen books on textiles and saris on bookshelves, and in one corner, a simple frame loom rests against the wall.

On our first visit in December, we found Mathur and Kaul bent over a Khadi sari stretched out on the long table, looking at it through a magnifying loupe—a small, foldable device, indispensable part to the textile trade, as it allows weavers, buyers and archivists to closely observe the fabric, noting its thread count, pattern details and any peculiarities in the weave.

The saris they were studying share a special provenance—they were all designed by Rakesh Thakore, of the Abraham & Thakore fashion house, under Mapu’s tutelage for the Vishwakarma series, in which Rahul Jain and Rta Kapur Chishti were also involved. The collection, which was in the custodianship of Chishti since then, comprises 108 varieties of fabric and 108 saris, the fabric swatches meticulously mounted on slides and annotated in detail. It was acquired by The Registry of Sarees in late 2018, and first displayed at the Chirala exhibition.

The Registry currently houses another collection of heirloom saris—these are from wedding trousseaus across the country, acquired by Matthan and Kaul over the space of a year during cross-country trips to small villages and towns; from individuals, dealers and sari sellers, and spanning over a century in vintage. This collection will be the second to be studied and displayed after the Khadi collection, and promises to be a vibrant documentation project. The Registry team will be releasing richly produced catalogues and books on each collection, besides holding regular talks, interactions and workshops at its studio. It also encourages interested people to drop in by appointment to view and study the archival saris.

A road map for Bharat Darshan

Saris Of India: Tradition And Beyond is possibly the only comprehensive compendium of different sari-weaving and wearing traditions in India, covering 15 states and countless variations of colour, weave and pattern from each state, besides documenting 108 methods of draping. In her foreword to the book, Chishti writes: “The sari has been our means of finding a pathway through the labyrinth of India’s inherited material/textile culture. The most fluid of worn garments, the sari reflects and communicates with all that we can see and touch, feel and experience. It takes us headlong into the intangible aesthetic, philosophy and technology from which it emerges. It is our road map for Bharat Darshan—a visitation of this land. Often enough, the underlying linkages are not fully perceived as they are too far removed from the overwhelming reality of the present in which they exist. Yet, as this is not a historical account but one based on living memory, it is the practitioners who provide the clues, however faint, through colour and material associations, names and meanings of symbolic patterns and usage of particular saris. In retrospect, the sari’s significance becomes clearer."

Malika Verma Kashyap, a former fashion branding executive who attended and was inspired by Chishti’s sari-draping workshops, is the founder of Border&Fall, a digital publication dedicated to India’s craft and fashion community and creating compelling narratives about these traditions through interviews, articles and visual documentation. In 2017, Border&Fall launched “The Sari Series", a digital anthology documenting India’s regional sari drapes through short films and how-to-drape videos. “The terms ‘relevance’ and ‘cultural documentation’ are charged and bear weight... However, in order to have a conversation about the future, a documentation of the past is equally important, as knowing where we come from informs where we are headed," says Kashyap, who believes the sari needs to be unmoored from the single, dominant draping style that has become the most common way of wearing it in the urban setting—the so-called “Nivi" style, said to have been developed by the social reformer Gyanodanandini Tagore in the 1870s following a visit to Mumbai. “As with all the sari drapes in the past, we believe the sari must continue to adapt to reflect our current lives—in which a floor-length sari with a blouse, petticoat and 15 safety pins may seem cumbersome to everyday living. The irony remains that most of the drapes do not have a petticoat, are often worn without a blouse and always without safety pins," writes Kashyap in an article introducing The Sari Series in Border&Fall.

Take the East Champaran Drape, for instance: worn with a plain black bandeau minus a petticoat in the Border&Fall video, the sari doesn’t have the usual front pleats but is draped progressively higher on the body with each tuck, creating a waterfall effect that displays the border. Or the Boggili Posi Kattukodam drape, worn by the Golla shepherd community and Gudati Kapulu agriculturists of southern Andhra Pradesh, in which a nine-yard sari is tucked and pleated in the usual style, but the ends are gathered and tucked at the back to create a butterfly-wing effect that lends immense grandeur.

Currently, besides three short films on the sari’s past, present and future by three independent filmmakers, The Sari Series consists of 89 how-to-drape videos, almost all of which show different varieties of saris, from handloom saris to nylon ones, worn without cumbersome petticoats or even traditional blouses (replacing them with shirts, kurtis and bandeaus—as they are in fact still worn by the women of many communities in India.) They make for fascinating viewing, especially with the attendant details of where each style originated and insights into the draping culture of different communities.

Dynamics of an engineered garment

On 1 December, Abhay Mangaldas, who runs an Ahmedabad-based hospitality group that has converted the heritage properties owned by the Mangaldas family into boutique hotels, threw open the doors to an tightly curated exhibition of saris at the Ahmedabad Trunk, a textile gallery located at their signature property, The House of MG. The show, curated by Aditi Ranjan, a textile designer and archivist and senior faculty at the National Institute of Design, was put together to showcase saris from the personal collections of Abhay’s grandmother, Leena Sarabhai Mangaldas, an educationist and founder of the alternative school Shreyas, and his mother, Anjali Mangaldas.

The 25 saris selected for the show, Art Of The Loom, were not only chosen for their beauty and craftsmanship, but also because they reflected the culture and lifestyles of their wearer. Ranjan says she was inspired by visual documentation work such as the Indian Memory Project. The show focused on the Sarabhai ladies’ “ceremonial saris"—Ikat silks from both Odisha and Andhra, Benaras silks and brocades, Jamdani cottons, Ashavali saris, and muga silks and mekhla chadors from Assam.

Ranjan, who, with her husband M.P. Ranjan, wrote the monumental work Handmade In India: A Geographic Encyclopaedia Of Indian Handicrafts (2009), says: “The sari is often not just a beautiful artwork—in it are embedded many values and linkages, many symbiotic and often even exploitative relationships. From a design perspective, saris are vital to understanding the dynamics of an engineered garment that is unique because it comes ready to wear from the loom…studying how the weaver maps it, structures it, where the border will go, what motifs the pallu will have, and how its structure is related to the way it will be draped is fascinating."

The evolution of saris—from those made on handlooms and power looms to factory-made “synthetic" ones—tells a story of changing sociopolitical dynamics, and is not necessarily a negative or lamentable phenomenon. In all the excitement over the revival of handloom and lost weaves, it is important to remember that power looms and factory-made saris brought a certain amount of democratization to the garment, besides providing employments to hundreds of thousands of textile workers, says Bessie Cecil, a Chennai-based textile historian. “Mechanization changed everything. There was a phase when nylon saris were the rare ones—our grandmothers and mothers treasured them. I cannot say that power looms are evil—the possession of certain kinds of saris was a mark of privilege and exclusivity, and about making sure that large sections of the population did not have access to them," she says.

One example of this is the very sari Cecil studied as her PhD thesis—the Kodali Karuppur, which has now more or less vanished from mainstream production though there are attempts being made to revive it. The saris were made exclusively for the queens of Thanjavur up to the 19th century in the village of Kodali Karuppur in Tamil Nadu. Expensive to produce because of a long and laborious process executed by highly skilled artisans, the Kodali Karuppur sari was the ultimate sign of privilege. “Treat handlooms as distinct from heritage; they are separate things and have separate value. One is part of a living culture and economy while the other has historical and academic value. The government and other organizations should have different approaches to preserving them," says Cecil, who is working on a book called Weaving India, which will be out sometime this year.

Notwithstanding these efforts to bridge the gap between dry academic work and Instagram hashtags by creating resources for serious appreciation, the number of documentation projects falls short of the need. Why don’t we have museums (or even digital repositories) dedicated to each and every variety of sari created in India—surely a worthy objective?

“I think textile historians find that studying or writing about saris is less rewarding than other historical material. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that so many traditions of saris in India are living, reflecting a broader tendency in the country to ignore more recent histories?" says Kaul. “There are some outstanding collections of saris in museums across the country—both governmental and private—but they are inaccessible to scholars, as well as the general viewing public," he laments.

There are also companies and designers in the country who work with saris, and have profited enormously from the commerce, but have not taken the initiative to invest in museums and private study centres. “I think Varanasi is a case in point: it has helped companies amass turnovers of hundreds of crores, but there isn’t a single publicly accessible collection which reflects the history of the region’s saris," says Kaul.

A few years ago, a pop-up exhibit from the Levi Strauss Museum in San Francisco came to Bengaluru. Beautifully curated and presented, it showcased the history of the brand through its iconic products. Historian and archivist Lynn Downey showed visitors around, lovingly pointing to pairs of frayed blue jeans in glass cases. “They are fragile," she said.

Levis—indeed, blue jeans—are barely 165 years old. Yet, there are several museums across the world dedicated to their history, and the company has invested time and effort in archiving their evolution. It seems obvious that each of the thousands of variations of saris deserve a dedicated effort to archive the knowledge coded into its warp and weft, and be recognized as an artefact of history and living culture

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