This Mothers' Day, we bring you a very special edition of Vignettes, featuring Kanakavalli Founder Ahalya S, her mother Swathanthra Saktivel, and her daughter Anya.
In this conversation with Aneesha Bangera of The Kanakavalli Journal, memories ebb and flow, spanning three generations and weaving together stories of childhood and motherhood. Each of these incredibly spirited women has her own strong views on beauty, tradition and growing up, and yet many of the sentiments echo each other; in the invisible threads that connect mothers to daughters. Inspiring each other with kindness and confidence, discipline and determination, they remind us of all that we inherit from our mothers. Taking a moment to contemplate the Kanakavalli repertoire, Ahalya, Swathanthra and Anya curate a selection of saris that epitomise their enduring love for the kanjivaram craft and all that it stands for. Excerpts from the conversation below…
Mothers & Daughters
What was your childhood like? How different do you think it was from your own mother’s and/or daughter’s?
Swathanthra: I was fortunate to have a childhood with parents who were very loving. They wanted to instil in me the values they considered important, including integrity and punctuality. Both my parents were role models to me, and my father was a prominent public figure, something that influenced me as I grew up. I was very close to my brother and my sister, and we shared a very loving relationship while growing up. In fact, we were more like close friends than siblings.
Every summer, we would go to the Raj Bhavan in Ooty, as my father was a minister and the Assembly would shift to the hills at the time. We really enjoyed ourselves there, and I have fond memories of playing with the children of other secretaries, learning how to play badminton and spending time in the beautiful Botanical Gardens. We would also visit my maternal uncle in Dindigul, where my brother, sister and I would have a lovely time playing with all our cousins from my mother’s side and passing the time together.
I suppose Ahalya had a different sort of childhood, but I did try to pass on the same values to her that I had learned.
Ahalya: I had a wonderful childhood. I grew up with two sets of grandparents who were very different from each other. My paternal grandparents lived in the small town of Erode, while on my mother’s side my grandfather was in politics, and they were quite well known in Madras. So, there were these two very different kinds of environments. I spent most of the year in diligent study and regular play. My mother was a firm believer in discipline, and we focused on school work while taking extracurricular classes. I took art classes through my childhood.
Every summer, we’d spend half the vacation with my paternal grandparents, running about in the fields, swimming in wells, eating food, all without a care in the world. They rest of the holidays we would spend with my maternal side of the family – a far more structured month in Kodaikanal. We would wake up at a certain time, have breakfast, row around the lake, go horse riding, and take naps, all according to a strict schedule. These were two very diametrically opposite kinds of holidays, but I think both were special and valuable in their own ways.
I think my mother must have had a different childhood, with her father always in the limelight as a prominent statesman. And Anya’s childhood was quite different again. I was extremely young when I had her and I was a single mother. I was setting myself up with my work at the time, and I made sure to always spend quality time with her. She was a very serious child, able to comprehend large concepts, and I always spoke to her as an equal. She grew up to be very independent, as opposed to how sheltered my childhood was. I don’t think I had even stepped inside a bank until I was in college, but Anya has always made her own choices and stood by them.
Anya: I’m 18 and just doing my board exams, so I don’t quite consider my childhood to be in the past, but I do think it was lovely. I went to a Montessori school which was a wonderful experience. My mother and I both grew up on the same street – Harrington Road – and for me this neighbourhood was a big part of my childhood. It’s such a safe place, and my best friend lives just across the road from us. Ever since we were little we would run around together and go on adventures.
I think my mum’s childhood must have been very different, mostly because of how easily accessible everyone and everything is now thanks to social media. I think Amma danced as a child, something I never tried my hand at. We both did go to the same teacher for art classes – but Amma says he isn’t as strict as he was with her, so it doesn’t really count! Although I’m a science student, I’ve always enjoyed painting and crafts, and this has been a big part of my life and expression.
My childhood has also been defined by my evolving relationship with my mother. We’ve always been incredibly close, and this is one of the relationships I value the most. I never went through a rebellious phase when I didn’t want to open up to her, and I hope I never do. I’m leaving home in a few months to study medicine in the UK, and I think I will consider my childhood officially over once I actually leave.
Is tradition important in your family? How do you personally define it?
Swathanthra: I believe that traditions are the customs and beliefs that are passed on from one generation to the next. I think some of them might seem outdated now, but I have always tried to follow the traditions of my parents and in laws. These are often the simplest of things – gathering for prayers every morning and evening, or celebrating special occasions and festivals together.
Ahalya: I think tradition is important for everybody, but the way in which we define it has changed because of the way we now live. In the old days, traditions were closely tied to living in a community. In our nuclear families, it is often harder to follow traditions as they were. Tradition can be what you want it to be – how you celebrate a special milestone, or having an annual family holiday. I also think it’s important to create new traditions for yourself and your family.
Diwali has always been a special occasion for us, and we continue to celebrate it the way I did growing up. As a child, Anya loved the tradition of Saraswathi Pooja, when she had to place her book with the other objects of worship. A tradition my daughter and I have made for ourselves is having breakfast together – something that’s very special to the both of us. I think amid all the chaos of her upbringing, we have found ways to connect over certain things, and that is something we value.
Anya: Tradition is a big part of my identity and what keeps me grounded. Personally, one of the things I associate tradition with is the way I dress. I’ve seen children my age not really wanting to wear Indian clothes. I’ve always loved the sari, and never thought of it as being uncool. I’ve seen women I greatly respect and look up to embracing the sari, including my mother of course. I’m so glad she taught me how to wear a sari so I’m not tripping over myself like a lot of girls my age do! Tradition is important for me, and even though I’m going to be far from home in the UK, I know that it’s a part of me and always will be. One particular tradition that I’ve grown to love is the pooja we have at the temple in Kingsley once a month. Going there with Amma is a very grounding experience. It’s a pretty and quiet place, and I think it’s wonderful that we do it just once a month – neither too rare nor too often, but striking the perfect balance.
What does being a woman mean to you?
Swathanthra: I always associate women with being patient and caring. I think caregiving is in our nature. I worked in the field of education, and I found that most primary teachers were women who were kind, tolerant and patient. I think things have changed since I was younger, and women are growing more independent and have more freedoms than my generation did. They are going out and working, and often struggling to find a balance between work and family life. I believe that being a mother becomes an important part of being a woman; a person who envelopes children in love and care, making a big difference in their lives especially when they are small.
Ahalya: In today’s times, for many of us, being a woman represents the opportunity to be both a caregiver and to be someone in a professional world. I think those of us with this opportunity are fortunate, and it is an exciting time to be a woman.
Anya: I think all the women I look up to, whether my mother or friends my own age, are strong and independent people. And to me, that’s what being a woman means. I think everyone is their own person, everyone is unique, and being a woman is a celebration of that.
Above (left to right): Swathanthra at age 7 in her Church Park school uniform; Ahalya as a child in her grandparents home in Kotturpuram where she spent every weekend; Anya on her 6th birthday.
What are your thoughts on the journey from being a girl to being a woman, and transitioning from being a daughter to a mother?
Swathanthra: As children, we are very carefree and we depend so much on our parents as they look after us. As a woman, I think, we take on more responsibilities, and we begin to care for others. Being a mother has been a delightful experience, and it has been even more delightful to have a granddaughter. I feel fortunate to have such close relationships with both Ahalya and Anya. Anya is so affectionate and loving, I have always found her to be a very empathetic and understanding child. Not all children have the sensitivity she does. She was always particularly kind and helpful with my own mother. And now she’s a teenager, and it’s wonderful to watch life take its course.
Ahalya: Ever since I was little, I had two favourite games – playing shop and playing home. And I’m happily willing to play both of those even now! From having such a sheltered childhood to becoming completely independent, this has been quite the journey, and one I constantly learn from.
I always wanted children, and becoming a mother is an experience I truly enjoyed. For the first few years of Anya’s life I didn’t work, and it was like having a real-life doll to play with. I loved to bathe her and feed her. I’d take her to the zoo or the beach every week. As she’s grown up it’s been interesting to see how the tone we set for our relationship when she was a very small child has moulded her into the person she now is. I’m very glad Anya’s childhood was marked by a focus on independence from an early age.
Anya: For me, whether you call someone a girl or a woman, I just think it’s such a beautiful thing. We are strong and fiercely independent while also being gentle and loving and caring. I personally don’t think there’s a big difference between being a girl and a woman. I feel like every girl is also a woman, and every woman has a girl inside of her. I don’t think you can transition into something you never were, or change completely from who you have always been.
As for being a mother, it is something so far in the future that I can’t even think about it. But don’t tell my mother that!
What are your most cherished memories of each other?
Swathanthra: I vividly remember taking Ahalya to the children’s park here in Chennai every week. They had a really huge slide, and Ahalya would go running straight to it. She loved being at the park, and we loved to spend time with her, watching her enjoy herself.
With Anya, one of my fondest memories is reading stories to her every night. She was always very particular – I had to read her exactly three stories every night and she would choose them herself. Most often they would be the same stories, again and again, and my niece once asked me why I didn’t just record them and play them back to her! But I loved reading to my granddaughter, and that was a special time we shared together.
Ahalya: One of the strongest memories I have of my mother and daughter is of the day Anya was born. I remember my mother and I looking at this tiny creature with something like wonder. I have also realised how special those long carefree summer holidays of my childhood were. I was lucky I got to spend so much time with my mother.
With my daughter, I think my fondest memories are of her birthdays – each one so special. And I think every conversation we’ve had has been memorable. Ever since she was a child, Anya has had a lot of things to say, and we’ve had the most wonderful conversations.
Anya: My grandma used to read to me before bed, and she would always let me pick three stories. I remember reading the Amelia Jane stories by Enid Blyton for the longest time. I had looked at the page numbers and figured out which were the longest stories with the most pages, and I would insist that she read those same three stories every night. I will always remember this.
I have so many beautiful memories with my mother, but it’s actually something more recent that I think will always stay with me. I had my formal graduation from school a while ago, and have been at home for the last month studying for my board exams. So, I have been at home in the mornings, and often Amma and I will have breakfast together, just the two of us. It’s such a simple thing, and yet it’s genuinely one of my favourite times of the day. This is one of my favourite memories right now, and I can’t wait to spend many more mornings with my mother over breakfast.
What are the most important object and the most valuable lesson that you would want to pass on to your daughter?
Swathanthra: I think the single most important lesson that I would want both my daughter and my granddaughter to carry with them is of being honest to oneself, above all. I would also want them to have a positive attitude to life, and to surrender to God.
Ahalya: Most people know that I love to buy furniture and other beautiful objects, and I always have heaps of things stored somewhere or the other. Anya is quite the opposite – she does not value things beyond their functionality. People often tease her saying that if she decides to sell off my treasures, I will come back to haunt her! So, I think I would like her to keep all the things I have collected over the years.
The most valuable lesson I think that I would want Anya to learn is that one has to be responsible for oneself. I think this independence is the most powerful lesson.
Anya: My mother is the kindest person I know, and my grandmother is so very sweet. I think I would want to pass on the best traits of my mother and grandmother. Kindness is so important, and something I strive for as well.
I have a teddy bear that I’ve had since I was two years old. My grandfather brought it back for me from his travels, and it still sits on my bed. I’m not sure I’d want to give it to anyone else, but I think it’s the thing I love most. I also think jewellery is a nice way to pass on memories in a family, and I’d hope to do that as well.
Above (left to right): Ahalya and her mother Swathanthra at their home in Chennai with one of their first pets; All three at Kingsley on a day when Swathanthra and Anya both visited Ahalya at work; Anya and Ahalya both dressed in saris after an event at Kingsley.
What is the quality that most inspires you about each other?
Swathanthra: What I admire most about Ahalya is her courage, her self-confidence and her perseverance. When she is determined to achieve a goal, she does not get discouraged, a trait I think she might have inherited from my father. I am inspired by Anya’s self-confidence, and her ability to express herself so beautifully. She is also so empathetic and willing to help anybody. I always remember the time she came out of a store to find one of my friends having some difficulty with her car. Anya immediately ran up to her and asked if she needed anything. My friend was touched, and for me this incident represents who my granddaughter is.
Ahalya: I have always been in awe of my mother’s ability to maintain routine. I think one has to have a great sense of discipline, and I understand how valuable it is for children to grow up with a routine. My daughter’s confidence in herself has always been very inspiring.
Anya: I am always inspired by my mother’s kindness, her drive and her work ethic. She is so good at prioritising and making things happen, and I’ve never seen her give up. I don’t think I’m even close to having this quality, but she inspires me to work towards being more like her. My grandmother’s discipline and commitment to routine are things I admire very much.
How do you define beauty?
Swathanthra: I believe that when you live a life true to yourself and your values, that inner beauty is reflected on your face. And it is this inner beauty that I admire.
Ahalya: To me, beauty is a kind of harmony.
Anya: I think that beauty is relative, unique to each person. Personally, I believe that beauty is so much more than superficial qualities. It lies in your personality, how you relate to other people, how you carry yourself. There’s so much beauty in that, and not just in how you look or dress or talk or walk.
What is your relationship with the kanjivaram?
Swathanthra: Ever since I was very young, a new kanjivaram sari or paavadai was something I associated with a birthday, wedding or special occasion. For festivals and functions, there was no question of buying anything but a beautiful silk sari. In those days, we believed that pure silk was good for the body and it was our favourite garment.
I am amazed at how Ahalya has been able to revive the kanjivaram with Kanakavalli – by supporting the craftsmen and focusing on the craft. She has introduced colours to suit a modern age and I’m so happy to see younger people choosing to wear saris now. Ahalya has always been so creative, and she has a very good sense of colour. I’ve always said that Ahalya could never copy anything, she can only create. And I’m glad she has brought her talent to the kanjivaram.
Ahalya: The kanjivaram represents a time in my life when I chose to adopt it as my everyday garment. It was a period that sums up the start of my professional journey, and so it is woven with very special memories. I designed jewellery for many years before I began to work with saris, and yet the kanjivaram was always an important part of my journey. As a child, if I was bored, I would play dress-up. And the kanjivaram and paavadai represented dressing up for me. The kanjivaram is a symbol of celebration, and it’s also a fantastic fabric if you want to work all day and not look crumpled in the evening. My relationship with this sari has been a long and intensely personal one.
Anya: For me, when I think of the kanjivaram I think of my mother. It was the first sari I ever wore, and it was such a thrill. Ever since that day, I have been in love with the kanjivaram. I don’t think of it as an uncomfortable garment, but something that is freeing and looks so beautiful. It is so simple and yet so elegant.
Over the years I have talked to my mother so much about what the kanjivaram means and what it represents, and this has made it all the more important to me. It is so much a part of tradition and something that I would never want to lose touch with.
Left to right -
Swathanthra is wearing a red kanjivaram with dotted checks in gold zari and mustard yellow. The border features twill patterns while geometric stripes in gold zari adorn the pallu.
Ahalya’s sari in red shot with mustard yellow is dotted with peacocks and chakrams in gold zari. The ganga jamuna border in green shot with mustard and mustard yellow are embellished with gold zari. Parrot and deer motifs adorn the pallu.
Anya is wearing a gorgeous orange kanjivaram with gold diamond patterns and off white neli stripes on the border. The pallu is adorned with peacock and winged horse motifs, alongside twill and geometric patterns, all in fine gold zari.
- Swathanthra, Ahalya and Anya in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography by Raghuram Vedant
View their curation here