The Indian sari has, for time immemorial, been associated with the persona of an Indian woman. Not the easiest to wear, it nevertheless is the quintessential part of women's wardrobes in the country across ages. Perhaps it has as many weaves, prints and fabrics as India has states. And when it comes to luxurious silk, the kanjeevaram steals the show. Native to the town of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, this weave has caught the imagination of women across the country, despite its weight and stiff drape. The traditional sari is created after a painstakingly long weaving cycle, where the border, pallu and the main sari are woven separately and then intricately woven together into one piece. With peacocks, tigers and other animal motifs, the weave itself pays tribute to folks and legends in South India. It is also believed to be a tribute to the Vaishnavite cult, since myths hold true that Lord Vishnu preferred silk over cotton.
One only has to watch reruns of the popular Filmfare Awards to spot the who's who of tinseltown donning this bright, gold-enriched weave. While younger actors like Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra opt for georgette and chiffon saris, the 59-year-old Rekha has proudly flaunted her love affair with the kanjeevaram. Joining her are Kirron Kher, Jaya Bachchan, Hema Malini and from the younger brigade, Vidya Balan. But that's the thing about kanjeevaram - while around 10 to 12 years ago, it was quite popular with the youth (remember Karisma Kapoor in David Dhawan's Biwi No. 1?), it came to be identified with older, married women. Even Kapoor with her kanjeevarams and gajra-clad hair portrayed the character of the Indian housewife who changed to more 'modern' outfits when she went out to conquer the business world.
Many designers would argue that the kanjeevaram never entirely went out of fashion. While that may be true, the six-yard-wonder is weaving its way back onto ramps and into younger celebrity wardrobes. Top designers are now finding fresh ways to add a glamour and contemporary quotient to its timeless appeal. For Mumbai-based designer Neeta Lulla, the kanjeevaram is a "versatile fabric, with great scope to work with design motifs, the demand for which has definitely seen an upsurge in the last couple of years." While the saris usually occupy the bright, jewel-toned Indian colour palette, the more Western pastels are also finding their own with the zari borders. For Lulla, kanjeevaram has been relegated to the wardrobe of older women only because of the thickness of the fabric, which also grants it "a typically South Indian, vintage feel." She works with the weave and tries to reinvent it to slimmer and thinner fabric, which then also have scope for "avant-garde and contemporary designs like polka dots", with which she hopes to accommodate younger tastes.
When it comes to a younger generation of buyers, Hyderabad-based designer Gaurang Shah suggests that the trick is to work with a younger colour palette and broad borders. While older women prefer thinner borders and deeper colours for their saris, younger women can carry bolder borders, sometimes as wide as 20 inches, with ease. Neon colours have made a huge comeback on the ramp, and kanjeevarams are not immune to this trend, adding to their younger appeal. Shah also points out that women are now looking at kanjeevarams as an alternative to chiffons and georgettes to wear to parties and weddings, especially when one innovates with the blouse and its cut to dress up or keep it subtle. His collection at the Lakme Fashion Week was a tribute to traditional weaves and he prides himself on being one of the very few designers who showcase kanjeevarams on the ramp.
Designer Sabyasachi, while calling himself a "purist", suggests that the key to making kanjeevarams more contemporary is to "play around with the drape". He also sees the revival of the kanjeevaram and other weaves in the "modern day threat of mechanisation", which has sparked enough interest in artisans and buyers to want "potential heirloom gifts". It is no wonder then that designer Tarun Tahiliani chose to dress Oprah Winfrey in a modified kanjivaram sari on her visit to India, allowing her to flaunt a style that instantly speaks of an Indian, cultural connection.
But considering the loom and the workmanship that go into each production cycle of a kanjeevaram, is there any scope for bespoke designs? Shah suggests that it is impossible to ensure that a sari will not be replicated, especially since each loom creates about 12 saris. The best, according to him, is to ensure that a designer store only sells one sari of the same design per city. He also suggests that not many women in South India opt for kanjeevaram dresses since they feel that if one is spending almost ~2 lakh on something, it would rather be on a sari than a lehenga or anarkali suit. And in North India, he says, women would rather go for embroidered, embellished outfits rather than one that is created with a kanjeevaram weave. For Lulla though, there are immense possibilities for bespoke designs, but only if the weave is treated like a fabric and not a sari. Her collection featuring lehengas and pant suits in jewel tones use the kanjeevaram exclusively. A designer kanjeevaram, either a sari or an outfit, can cost anything upward of ~50,000.
Whether it's paying a tribute to one's grandmother's wardrobe with a designer pant suit or creating that perfect wedding trousseau which is both young and timeless, the kanjeevaram is moving upwards and onwards fromits off-the-rack Nalli and Pothys existence.