KANAKAVALLI JOURNAL

Roots - The Kanjivaram unravelled by Sreemathy Mohan

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Over the years, the queen of silks, the Kanjivaram, has remained an epitome of grace and stood its ground, supported only by its traditional and cultural inspirations and influences, says Sreemathy Mohan

A Kanjivaram sari evokes an instantaneous response from the heart; the motifs and patterns speak through the woven fabric. What sets it apart as the Queen of Silks? The sari, as an article of dress, is very unique in the world of fashion; unaltered for years, the only change is in the way it is draped from region to region. The discernible features in technique, design, colour and fabric quality set the Kanjivaram apart!

According to the Geographical Indication Description, India, an original Kanjivaram should be in the lustrous three-ply silk (called murukku pattu), real zari (thread made of gold or silver), with contrast borders (karai) in Korvai (an interlocking weaving technique by hand), and the pallu (thalaippu) in contrast to the body of the sari, joined by a technique called Petni. Do you want to see how a korvai or petni looks? Simple. Reverse your sari and have a look at the interlocking joints.

The traditional colours of the Kanjivaram, before the advent of synthetic dyes, were just a handful – arakku, green, olive green (pasa pachai), brown (paakku), turmeric yellow and indigo. The Coromandel Coast dyers were well-known for their dyeing techniques, and especially for the brilliant indigo blues, and the bright and deep reds of the madder root called Manjista. In 1868-1869, the synthetic dyes were introduced; the base was coal tar, and their wide range of colours, formulated replications, and ease of use, made them popular.

Only in the Kanjivaram, one can find delightful local names for the colours used – vadamalli (bachelor’s button flower), kathiripoo (brinjal flower), elumichai (lemon), aanatha (bliss) blue, elaikai (cardamom), kesari (saffron), naval pazham (java plum), pon vandu (golden beetle), srichurnam (traditional yellow/red line drawn in the middle of a man’s forehead), manthulir (violet with green: a shot colour of tender mango leaves), ennai arakku (a shot colour of violet and brown). These colours, no wonder, have a visual and emotional impact – both on the garment and the person wearing it.

If we delve into the history of the Kanjivaram sari, it becomes apparent that the motifs and designs are closely interrelated to the temples of Kanchipuram. For instance, the lions and yalis (mythical creature), the mango motif from the Ekambareshwarar temple, the classic temple borders from South Indian temples, the rudraksham (holy beads), hamsam (swan) chiselled on the walls and pillars came alive in weave.

The Yazhi motif on a kanjivaram

The patterns in the body of the sari may sport buttas or motifs. Malli moggu or the jasmine bud design, coin butta, mango or paisley are amongst the vintage ones. The stripes and checks, the veldhari (representing the spear of Lord Murugan), neli (a type of finger ring), aathi vazhai (horizontal stripes); the different kind of multi-coloured checks, ranging from kottadi or small zari checks, vaira oosi (diamond needles), and muthu kattam to larger checks called papli are very special designs. The geometric precision of a Kanjivaram can be seen in a muppagam or arai pagam sari; muppagam, means three parts and arai pagam means two parts.

An example of Muttu Kattam

The border rettai pettu is a classic design of the Kalakshetra, an institution that revived Kanjivaram designs in a big way. The solid colours and contrasting ganga jamuna borders of the Kalakshetra kick-started a trend and still remains an evergreen classic.

Kanjivarams have a default structure defined by tradition. Enjoy the look and feel of the designs that are deeply influenced by the holiest of cities, temples, spirituality and architecture!

Temple architecture reflected on a kanjivaram through the ubiquitous temple border inspired by gopurams

(All words in italics are words from the Tamil language)

The contributor is an IT professional with a deep fondness for textiles, travel and research

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