“While in Rome, do what the Romans do.” And when in Chennai, you cannot go wrong with a saree. Look around you and the ubiquitous saree is everywhere, carried with elan by women of all ages and hues. If you were to look for a place that would be a testimony to the resilience of this garment, Chennai would be at the forefront.
The young and the old sport it, each in their own style. The older women wear it with the nonchalance of long practice and the younger mince along in this attire they are experimenting with, giving it new twists and avataars that their fertile minds conjure up. But neither gives up on the saree. From boardrooms to treadmills to operation theatres, most Indian women wear it with Panache and find no discomfort in the process.
Ranging in length from six yards on to as much as ten yards, the fabric goes on a woman’s body, and stays in place without a stitch to hold things together. Perhaps this was why a top designer, when asked how the saree stayed in place, replied with a mischievous grin: “Meditation and sheer will power.” It does seem a mystery to the uninitiated, but to those in the know, a saree is comfortable attire, and one that whispers elegance and ethnicity.
And if you thought a garment couldn’t get any simpler, think again. There are over 20 commonly practiced ways of draping the saree. Depending on which region or community you belong to, you will drape your saree differently. And walk into a saree shop and you will first be hit by the sheer variety, that is even before you get down to the colours and the motifs.
Perhaps the best place to see all about sarees is in a wedding hall. Kanchipurams rule the roost, of course, and there can be no missing the quick assessing glances that go around the hall. Truly, a saree is a symbol, and each has many stories to tell. For instance, walk down the roads of Chennai, and the saree cognoscenti will tell you which nine yard clad lady is an Iyengar and which is an Iyer. Identifying Mangalagiris, Narayanpets and Pochampallis can be done with one hand tied behind the back, and the style of wearing is a dead give-away of your caste. Borders speak volumes. Large gold borders indicate rich upper class wearers, and a mango or peacock motif on the border is meant for a younger wearer. White has a lot of negative connotations in the South, and dark colours, specifically rich reds and maroons are considered auspicious. Black to some is inauspicious, and to some is very auspicious.
The origins of a saree go back far into the past, but this length of material seemed to have a way of adapting to changing circumstances and to every kind of material that was in fashion – cotton, silk, jute and a variety of synthetics. Innovations in weaving and printing techniques have given the saree a whole new vocabulary, but there are still dozens of places where the saree creating technique is the same as was done a couple of hundred years ago.
There is this fascinating story of the Kodali Karuppur saree. There is only one of its kind in India now. Apparently, it was woven for the Mahratta royalty in Tanjore and used techniques of weaving, painting and printing – all in one saree. So special were these sarees to the Mahratta kings of Tanjore that they stored it in the palaces and gave it as gifts to those who pleased them, and nobody else got to wear them.
And then there are the glorious Paithani sarees of Maharashtra. Woven of lustrous silk with rich jari borders, there is a romantic story attached to these sarees. Since the saree was so opulent, only kings and royalty could afford to wear it. The story goes that there were special families who alone had the right to grow their nails long and slit it lengthwise into thin sections, rather like a comb with very fine teeth. Gold from the royal treasure would be beaten into fine sheets, and these special people would run their nails through it, cutting the gold into thin wires, which would then be woven into the silks. Such families do not exist now, but the sarees are still available, and many of them are heirlooms, so sumptuous are they.
The Gharchola of Gujarati wedding fame is a red silken saree, with a checked pattern on it and each box has traditional motifs woven into it –mango, elephant, swastika, kalash or parrots. A person in the know would only need to look at the pallu of a traditional Kancheepuram to authenticate it – the pallu is woven separately and attached and the line is visible. So too would a Bengali be able to identify a handwoven Tangail – the interlocking design at the pallu being a dead give-away. There are Lucknavi sarees in cotton and silk, exquisitely embroidered, and all done by hand. There is the Gadhwal, a cotton saree with a silk border, woven separately and attached together. And there is the Bandhani, dotted to glory, each dot a work of intense labour. A simple bandhani can stop at a meager 2000 to 5000 knots, while a truly inspired bandhani can go up to three lakhs of dots. And if you remember that each dot is the result of the cloth being hand tied into a small packet, tightly, and then dyed, the saree transcends into the level of art. At the other end of the spectrum is the Kerala Kasavu, an off white and gold affair, exquisite in its simplicity.
Sarees are constantly reinventing themselves and quirks in them come and go, while classics stay on for ever. If one saree shop in Chennai came up with a saree that had over fifty thousand colours on it in a mass of psychedelic checks. another came up with a built in cell phone pouch, in matching or toning shades. And recently, one shop has come up with a saree which has a quotation woven into it! Despite predictions of dying an unsung death, the saree continues to flourish in Chennai,
Did we say you cannot go wrong with a saree in Chennai? Well that is oversimplifying things a bit. To get it perfectly right, takes years of persistent effort. No, we are referring to the art of weaving sarees, we are only talking about picking the right saree for the right occasion. But we say once again, when in Chennai, go for the saree. Just pick a colour that pleases your eye, a material that feels comfortable, and a budget that suits your pocket, and you are ready to go!