Monday, 9 March 2015

Sari lore: When the classic is contemporary

Chimy Nanjappa at Vimor

 (This article was originally published in The Hindu Metroplus supplement in Bangalore on July 28, 2003)

        "LOOK AT this antique pooja sari," says Pavithra Muddaya, holding up a rich red silken length. "Unlike the popular ones today, its orange checks are ikkat or woven tie-and-dye, so are the white butas within each. Working with Tamil weavers over the past 28 years, we've taught them to create the butas with a single strand of silk, so that they don't have to combine local weaves with ikkat from a different region. The result is two silk versions and one in cotton that the market can afford, and that sustains the weaver community." 

       Pavithra should know, as she holds up a more contemporary avatar of the classic pooja sari, distinguished by its wavy white mailikanne or peacock's eyes border. She's grown up with natural fibre weaves ever since her mother Chimy Nanjappa set up Vimor (that's Indonesian for "pure") at their inconspicuous home in the Victoria Layout in 1974.

         "I used to sell saris on my trips abroad. So, the idea came to me: if I can sell to a foreigner, I can sell here too," reflects Chimy, a former general manager at Bangalore's Mysore Arts and Crafts Emporium, often assigned overseas by the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation (HHEC). Initially, she travelled to small south Indian weavers, and coaxed the local Weaver's Service Centre (WSC) to replicate her exquisite collection of temple saris. In time, Vimor's clientele grew to include Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Begum Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Pupul Jayakar, and Shabani Azmi.

          But big name clientele means little to either Chimy or Pavithra. For Vimor's reputation has grown by word of mouth, instead of advertising. Why? Probably because the experience of shopping off a large bed, picking saris out of cupboards, makes you feel completely at home. It's comparable only to diving headfirst into your grandmother's sari cupboard, and emerging full of wonder over every singular weave.

        For the timeless saris at Vimor, adapted to the skills and resources of today's weaving community, speak subtly of history and geography. Through the gandaberunda or double-headed eagle that was the Mysore royal insignia, or the mythical annapakshi that recalls Tamil lore. Through the procession of elephants on a pooja sari pallu that evokes a Mysore Dussehra or temple friezes at Belur, through untold stories of legendary weavers' guilds in mailikanne or mokalmoru weaves against shimmering grounds sumptuous as peacock feathers or dusky skies. Through a Manipuri pallu that turns up in a Karnataka sari, signaling peregrinations of style. Through an antique magenta sari enlivened with butas of bi-planes, vintage cars, and gramophones.

      Vimor's success links intrinsically into a second generation of both buyers and weavers today. Buyers who know they will not find an eyesore among its woven treasures, priced between Rs. 350 and Rs. 14,000. And weavers from the Kancheepuram belt, from Raidurga in Karnataka who trust the outlet for, as Chimy says: "We're here to encourage the weavers, to help them come up in life."

       How? Sharing her mother's stunning yellow-checked black cotton sari with red and ochre Ganga-Jamuna borders, Pavithra points out: "It's so easy to keep antique pieces in the cupboard, to bring them out to exclaim over every few days. But we have to give something back to society." So, she's shown the Raidurga weavers how to create a heavy cotton, minimal-care black sari with yellow woven borders and a contrasting pallu. An office-goer can afford it for everyday wear. And the weavers have learnt to innovate from its colour and design palette, instead of merely replicating an old sari.

      Take the case of the original temple cotton sari, which has flooded the market in its Chettinadu avatar. Simplifying the concept of a checked or striped ground with contrasting big borders, Vimor taught weavers in Salem, Kancheepuram, and Andhra Pradesh to adapt the sari with a single shuttle, instead of three. This cut weaving costs, sustaining whole villages, and ensuring that the elegant sari survived. On a parallel track, weavers in Durgam and Arni learnt to weave lightweight silk saris on a single shuttle in stunning combinations such as rust shot with golden yellow and green, promising personality-plus at Rs. 1,500 to woman executives tired of look-alike power dressing.

      Instead of monopolising traditional weaves or patenting their own innovations, Vimor has ensured that lakhs of weavers live with dignity. "I've tried to impart that multiples of one or two beautiful saris should sustain and feed their families," Pavithra stresses. "That sets the weaver free to experiment for the home market and for export. But most important, it builds up his self-confidence." For award-winning C. Shekhar, a towel weaver, she conceptualised a deep blue cotton sari with a silk pallu, interfaced with jute, banana or pineapple fibre interweaves from his export surplus stocks.

      Pavithra, who trained at the local WSC while studying law, shares warm memories from Vimor's times past. Of taking their rich cottons to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, the late doyenne of the post-independence Indian crafts renaissance, who lauded their documentation of kasuti stitches on a red cotton sari sampler. Of Jnanapith awardee U.R. Ananthamurthy's comment in the 2002 National Handloom Expo visitor's book, comparing their revival of weaving traditions to a resurgence of music. Of an Andhra weaver who waited hours for "Chimy amma" to bless his wedded daughter, despite a delayed train at Katpadi junction.

      Together, they share the story of a Tamil weaving family ruined by an avaricious son. He collected orders that they were unable to execute, plunging them into insurmountable debt. The skilled father is currently a daily wage earner at his nephew's loom. "The weaver's pride is of paramount importance in our polycot age," says Pavithra earnestly. Weavers like Shekhar, Balasubramaniam, and Rajendran, whose lives they have touched, could not agree more.

      What makes Vimor's buyers return time and again? "Good aesthetics and minimal costs appeal to common people and the sophisticate alike," notes Pavithra, as she folds a divine brinjal-hued Kancheepuram silk with golden checks, vivid against a deep green border with two streaks of patterned gold.

(Vimor can be contacted on +91-80-25551514). 

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