Sarees of Memory is an initiative that was born in collaboration with Malvika Singh, publisher of ‘Seminar’ and a lifelong patron of handloom sarees.
Malvika Singh shared nine, intimate memories* that manifest her relationship with traditional Venkatagiri sarees. These vignettes trace the life and times of this saree as it moved from one generation to the next, delicately traversing space and occasion. This initiative attempts to archive the fusion of memory and imagination, reflecting on the sensibilities of those who played a crucial role in shaping the contemporary, post Independence history of textiles in India.
Venkatagiri has had a fine weaving tradition for over six centuries. In recent times the traditional cotton sarees of Venkatagiri have morphed into a lesser quality product, using inferior quality of cotton and gilt metal yarn (zari), the two primary materials that are essential to the structure of this textile. Rather than lead the market as these textiles did in the past, the modern crop of Venkatagiris are being led by what the weavers believe are the demands of the market. Delicate motifs have mutated, changing shape and size, creating disproportionate patterns that have engulfed the entire length and landscape of the saree. This project attempts to reintroduce the essence of a Venkatagiri saree, through interventions in material and design, using Malvika Singh’s memories as the guiding force, reinforcing that memory by also studying our in-house collection of textiles to restate and recast the traditional, feel, look, weight of cotton, of silver and gold, combining to create the translucent beauty of the Venkatagiri as our grandmothers knew this genre to be.
Sarees of Memory celebrates and salutes the Venkatagiri saree.
*Malvika Singh’s memories of the Venkatagiri Sarees:
1. The muted eggshell white with a dull sheen across its seven yards swathe, encased in parallel strips of threads that were woven like a border running along its horizontal length, defined strength, energy, power and sheer beauty. The memory of my mother, draped in this simple stunning sari, with her solitaire diamonds bookending her radiantly beautiful face, a single string of graded basra pearls, contrasted against her long, lush black hair that was pulled back into a large bun resting on the nape of her neck, symbolised an aesthetic sensibility that I grew up with. She was dressed to go to the wedding of the daughter of a dear friend. Jasmine flowers wrapped around her hair, a brocaded clutch bag in her hand that carried her silver cigarette case, a lighter, an embroidered handkerchief and a lipstick, wearing the traditional kohlapuri chappals embellished with gold threads and a red pompom, completed the visage. As she walked out into the driveway, with the sun setting behind her, she epitomised the true essence of elegance.
2. Shades of white and weights of pure gold stayed with me as that which was special, extravagant, rich in texture, contrast, feel and comfort. It could never go wrong because it was a palette that was pure and pristine. Sacred. Although my first ever sari was a Chanderi, and not a Venkatagiri, it was also white and gold with occasional butis red and gold scattered across its length. Eight years later, aged sixteen, I got my first Venkatagiri from my mother as a gift to wear for a Divali dinner at home. It had fine gold lines in the warp and weft that created wide checks and with mathematical precision, in alternating checks on the diagonal, sat a woven peacock. The surrounding border was inch inch in width, outlined with an opaque white ‘jamdaani’ strip, a subtle line that emphasised the gold border and delineated it from the body of the sari. The palla had two broader bands of gold separated by half a metre of the white of the sari. It was the white of the conch shell, a lighter hue than the eggshell. Twenty green and yellow real glass bangles on each hand, slate grey Vijanti beads around my neck, and gold baalis, the traditional hoops, hanging off my ears, I believed I had entered the world of glamour. Decades later, I drowned the sari in a bucket of tea and stained it. The gold took on a superb patina and the conch shell became the colour of soft sand on a remote beach.
3. Many years ago, at a beach wedding in Chennai, where a majority of the women were in heavy Banarasi saris, overladen with ‘modern’ motifs woven in tested zari, maybe some were the real Mccoy, one woman stood out in the crowd. Prema Srinivasan, an icon from Madras from the days of my youth, was wearing a white and gold Venkatagiri that was unusual. It has stayed firmly etched in my mind's eye from the moment I saw her enter and greet the grandmother of the bride. Memory is powerful and it also remains ethereal, something you want to reach out to and capture but which may escape your grasp. With her tight cropped hair, contemporary and confident, she was wearing one of the most resplendent saris I had ever seen. Bands of sheer gold interspersed with the white of an August moon, moving in scale from broad to narrow so that when draped, the sari would appear like a sheet of gold gossamer, this sari made a statement like no other. Gold and diamonds, traditionally jewellery of the Tamil community, as embellishments, glistening against the August moon reflecting on the horizon beyond the beach and expanse of sea, made a quiet but emphatic statement. The colours of the universe had come together. The Ganga-Jumuna synthesis of the diversity that is India, jostling together on a canvas of unquestioned purity - the colour white.
4. I always found the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma quite extraordinary for the manner in which they captured the sheer grace and style of Indian women. Portraiture at its best, using the ‘technology’ of hand skill and an eye for delicate detail. What could be more precise and, in many ways, humane. Black and gold; red and gold; white and gold; primary colours offset by the confidence and power of the metallic threads spun from gold, all within one frame, described the Devi for me, the matriarchal mother goddess, a deity that ruled mankind from within the core, from within the garbh-griha. The carefully placed gold bands, interrupted equidistant by bands in the pale hue of a jasmine flower, covered the length of the unstitched fabric. Imagine a profusion of blossoming jasmine flowers hanging off the burnished gold branches of the creeper, winding its way to infinity. Dedicated to the age and times of Ravi Varma, this sari salutes the collective ethos of the Indian woman.
5. Venkatagiris were what we wore at weddings, festivals and grand parties. The white of the surf as it hits the shore stood out in a dimly lit room and added a radiance to both the person and the space around. The colour glowed. A chevron pattern crafted into a single stripe, in alternating colours of opaque white and indigo blue, interlaced with the base fabric at regular intervals, was the imagined conversation that the sea was having with the sky as it flowed onto the earth and then ebbed away, to return again. For me it symbolised the fluidity of style within the frame of tradition that was tried and tested through millennia. A tradition that outlives us but one that changes with motifs of modernity. Within the grid, colours can change, textures can move from coarse to being very fine and translucent, motifs can mark the time and period and, an orchestra of geometrical patterns can be reinvented, all within the frame and structure of the loom.
6.With the rising clouds of the power loom age, and a change in market demand for a cheaper sari, interventions began to happen on the looms of Venkatagiri in an attempt to join the new band of products that were replacing the sensibility of past ages. Large, unwieldy and disproportionate floral and animal motifs entered the realm of the pallas, the end of the sari, patched together in bright contrasting colours of parrot green and fuchsia pink, defying the earlier gravitas of delicacy. This was done to cater to a transforming marketplace, one that was reaching out to a n illusion of ‘modernity’ and also, a more affordable price point. The gold threads of my memory were being replaced by fake and imitative alternatives. The gentle malleable feel of handspun Indian cotton, woven with real gold and silver threads embellishing the sari, was fast fading into memory. The austere extravagance of the Venkatagiri sari embodied in my mind and soul, was morphing into becoming something alien. That was when I began to dream of a reinvented.