Through design intervention and harnessing tradition, Bengaluru-based label Advaya by the House of Angadi is breathing new life into, Kanjeevarams, a centuries-old weave
There is the kind of Kanjeevaram sari you’re familiar with—rich, like sunlight itself caught and woven into fabric, viscous, like tar made of gold. Beautiful, yes, but a little intimidating. The weave that draws its name from a little town in Tamil Nadu is crafted in pure silk yarn and real zari, factors lending it the durability and eternal appeal that make Kanjeevaram saris the stuff of heirlooms. More recently, Deepika Padukone was in the news when she chose a red and gold Kanjeevaram for her Konkani wedding ceremony, soon followed by an all-over gold one at her Bengaluru reception. The source of her much talked about drapes? Advaya by the House of Angadi, the latter a Bengaluru-based company with a 600-year-history of being in the textile business.
But aren’t we a little too precious with our Kanjeevarams? Storing them away for distant occasions that hold promise, an insurance against ordinariness when the event is anything but. But what if you wedge open the window a little bit, air things out? Take the best that traditional know-how has to offer and tinker with it, introducing a little gene that will make the fabric behave a little differently, feel different, but not so much that it’s rendered unidentifiable?
A gold Kanjeevaram sari from the ‘Advaya 2019 Chapter 1’ summer sari collection
What if, for instance, you play around with the weight and opacity of a traditional Kanjeevaram? Or introduce a new yarn into the silk? For K Radharaman, design head and CEO of Advaya, the limited-edition label that focuses on Kanjeevaram, jamdani and Kota saris, the path to be treaded is between glorious tradition and necessary innovation. So while you will find the coveted 100 per cent silk Kanjeevarams at Advaya, there have also been innovations like the organza Kanjeevarams, linen-blended Kanjeevarams and khadi Kanjeevarams.
“The point of design is to differentiate,” says Radharaman, “It’s not just about taking a fabric and creating a garment; this process [of innovating on a fabric] starts before even a single thread is in place. It’s an abstract process, there is no visual proof… What we house in Advaya and the designs we develop there are a radical departure from convention. A typical textile designer plays with motifs, colour, whereas I go a step beyond that. When you think of a Kanjeevaram, for instance, you’d automatically imagine silk that is shiny, that drapes a particular way, that is meant for certain occasions… I believe most people have a wrong notion of even that, because most of the Kanjeevaram you see in the market is not real; it’s a very poor representation of what a Kanjeevaram is and what it should be… The techniques have to be followed.”
Linen-blended Kanjeevaram saris
One of the most radical innovations at Advaya were the linen-blended Kanjeevarams that took almost 18 months to develop. Recalling the process, Radharaman says, “The first step was to conceive of something like that. And obviously by a series of experiments, to arrive at the best way to do it. There were multiple challenges to getting the technique right, and we had to start from the very basics. All the things that we are known for, all the things that we generally follow, had to be challenged.”
The weft would be linen, but what warp to use? They decided upon kora, but what about the results of mixing a certain warp with a certain yarn? How would that affect the property of the end fabric? How do you overcome the problem of the fabric becoming too stiff and crisp?
Gold Kanjeevaram saris
“There is a whole series of experiments that we had to do, which required a lot of thought, because you begin with the outcome that you’d like and then work backwards. That process was followed multiple times and then we arrived at a sample which we thought was worth taking to the next stage. There’s a lot of prototyping before we actually go into production,” says Radharaman.
There is another crucial link—the human factor. How does one convince a weaver who has worked with the same warp, weft and yarn for decades to become open to new ways of thinking? Says Radharaman, “That’s the thing about handwoven fabric; you can do everything, but finally if it has to be implemented, it requires a person who can use his hands and do the actual work. His input in the whole thought process may be zero, but at the end of the day we need him to sit physically on the loom and do it, and that is a process. There is a difference in the way the weavers in the north and south operate. In most north Indian clusters the weaver is the entrepreneur; he does a lot of the thinking. In our area of work, the weaver is actually the weaver. His main job is to understand what is required and to execute it, but that’s crucial because if the execution is not right, you don’t get the desired outcome. So you have to explain to a person who is inherently non-technical that this is what you have to do, this is how you have to do it, and then he has to buy that argument because by no means is that a given.”
Once there’s a physical prototype, there is a collective sigh of relief. “You have to improvise on the spur of the moment. Once there’s proof of concept everybody is happy, but until that stage is crossed, it is just a figment of my imagination… Of course, the proof of pudding is in the eating. Your customer has to agree with you. Selling it is connecting the final dot.”
A precursor to Advaya’s linen-blended Kanjeevarams were the organza Kanjeevarams. “A Kanjeevaram has always had this perception that it can look only a certain way, but that’s not true. I respect that tradition more than most people, because I come from a family of weavers—I’m not someone who got parachuted into this subject. I appreciate these traditions, but even so I felt there was a need for change. Change can always coexist with a tradition… I was thinking we needed this to be a little more in sync with the times, and something that is sheer has a certain appeal. Today, among all the bridal attire you will find, this is possibly the lightest. Therefore, it has a certain otherworldly property that doesn’t come from a six kg lehenga,” explains Radharaman.
A yellow jamdani sari
This, again, came with its own challenges. By weaving it the conventional way one would lose the translucence they were seeking, since there would have been a layer behind it. “To eliminate the layer, we had to do everything by hand, which is essentially a technique called kadwa in Benares and buta otherwise. All the motifs were done by hand so there was no layer of yarn behind it. This way we could maintain the transparence but at the same time have the embellishment and motifs on the body. One also has to remember that the Kanjeevaram is not known for the buta or kadwa; that’s more of a Benarasi technique. So there was a lot of cross-pollination of ideas… Fortunately, with the organzas acceptance from consumers was a bit more instantaneous. People were looking for something like that…”
The motifs used on Kanjeevaram saris traditionally draw from Pallava temple architecture and the scriptures, with common motifs being the mayil (peacock), hansam (swan), yazhi (mythical creature), malli moggu (jasmine bud) and the gandaberunda (two-headed bird). How much do they experiment with those?
An orange Kanjeevaram sari
“I definitely prefer using the traditional elements as much as possible, as that is the design language that defines the genre. Having said that, we do introduce other motifs to fit into the overall theme because, again, we need change there,” says Radharaman. “For our summer bride collection, for example, we did a whole Birds of Paradise series, where we just used birds as an inspiration… We do things in a particular handwriting, and that handwriting has to match. It can’t look like something that’s alien to a genre. That’s the job of a designer—one has to always look at the creation objectively, and also look at it through a filter. For instance, I don’t do very intricate designs on kotas because motifs on the textile tend to get spread out. It tends to look different when rendered from paper to textile—most people don’t understand that part. When I do kota saris I do bold, geometric patterns… My work there is reflective of the technique.”
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