Bride in a Banarasi

I was part of the North Indian wedding procession which was being led by the groom on a ghodi (horse) while the rest of the marriage retinue followed him on foot. The face of the groom was not visible being totally covered with strings of flowers hanging from his turban to his chin. I followed the party to the marriage mandap to be be received by the bride's side with mangal arthi. The bride stood with the jay mala in her hand resplendent in a Banarasi saree waiting to garland the groom. I quite missed the rest of the ceremony as I gazed at the bride. My gaze turned from her bedecked face to her bridal attire. In shimmering red, the Banarasi saree she was wearing was extremely beautiful and without a doubt - exquisite.

Among Indians, Banarasi sarees are synonymous with weddings or celebrations. These sarees are considered auspicious and sacred. For centuries they have been an inevitable part of an Indian bride’s trousseau.

As the city of Varanasi which is also known as Benaras, is noted for the production of these sarees, these sarees take the name from its origins. Historically Banarasi sarees have been present in India since the Mughal era. A lot of Mughal influence is visible in the motifs used on the sarees. Weaving of brocades with intricate designs using gold and silver threads is the speciality of Banarasi sarees.

Traditional Banarasi silk brocade sarees are subtle and pale in colour, while later ones produced were bright and radiant. For occasions such as weddings and important events, the bright varieties are usually the preferred choice among women. Woven with a contrasting border with intricate embroidery in gold and silver, these sarees provide a metallic visual effect.

There are a variety of Banarasi saris available like zari brocades, tanchoi brocades, tissue brocades, jamavar, etc. Among the invitees there were many women in traditional Banarasi sarees in stunning hues. Each saree has its own special design in gold or silver, be it tanchoi brocade or a jamawar.

Wedding ceremony over, I left the mandap, filled with images of the bride in her bridal finery and of course her lovely saree. Surely, Banarasi sarees are one among the Indian sarees that have retained their charm for centuries.


Dancing to the tune of Bharatanatyam

My 8 yr old niece had her arangetram recently. I was amazed at the dexterity of the artiste and wondered at the meticulous details and planning that had gone into the child’s performance.

Arangetram or Rangapravesham is a dancer’s debut performance. It is here that the student blossoms into an artist and receives the first appreciation for all the painstaking efforts taken to become a full fledged dancer.

Arangetram can be performed only after the artist has completed the entire course of dance or Margam. Margam is a complete course of Bharatanatyam dances that are performed in a concert. The entire course is to be perfected by the artist to the satisfaction of the guru, before the actual performance on stage.

In between the performance, my niece’s guru explained the various Margam’s of the course which was very informative. Most of us enjoyed the recital but did not understand the concept behind it.

The performance began with a Pushpanjali, which means offering respect to the lord of dance with flowers and subsequently offering respect to the teacher and bowing to the audience.

How lovely it would be if she wore the costumes according to each song, I thought! A beautiful ‘Pitambara’ whenever she represented Krishna, a lovely ‘flower motif-filled’ saree for the Pushpanjali…

Coming back to reality, the actual performance begins with Alaripu where the artist displays his or her skill in footwork, head and eye movement that are a traditional part of the dance form. The Alaripu is followed by Jathiswaram with particular emphasis on intricate foot work.

Shabdam is the next stage of performance where the artist introduces Abhinaya or expression into the dance.
Shabdam is followed by Varnam. This particular recital involves performing to a theme which is elaborated with Abhinaya depending upon the Varnam chosen.

Padams are the next stage of performance after Varnam. They are performance based on songs by various composers. Yet again the artist uses a lot of facial expression and Abhinaya to express the meaning of the song. This is the time that the girl also changed her costume - to let us at the audience experience a variety of colour on stage. With the changing colour, the mood of the entire evening became much more vibrant.

The culminating piece among the events of performance is the Tillana which is a little complex. The concluding performance is the Mangalam which ends the performance, followed by Namaskaram which concludes the recital.

About the costumes

Bharatanatyam also places special importance on the jewellery and costumes of the dancers. Dancers wear costumes made of silk sarees with gold zari in colours that are bright and striking. The pleats in these costumes spread out like a Japanese fan when the dancer performs particular poses. The costume, the traditional jewellery and the hairstyle with the adornment of flowers all help in enhancing the performer’s apperance and expressions required for the dance.

No matter how many pieces of jewellery a dancer owns or how many costumes she has, the Arangetram ones are most remembered and treasured for the feeling they bring back to the dancer forever…


Charming Chikankari

Chikankari embroidery is a very delicate and intricate work from the city of Lucknow. Historically this form of embroidery came to India from Persia. The art particularly flourished during the Mughal rule and continues to be popular even today, due to its timeless grace and delicate appeal.

Chikankari embroidery is done with untwisted white cotton thread on fabric like muslin. Today of course the art is applied on all kinds of material even silk with the use of coloured threads of various types.

Chikankari is famed for around 40 types of stitches. The motifs commonly used are that of creepers, fruits and flowers. The mango motif is particularly popular. The design is etched on the fabric with design blocks dipped in indigo. Once the embroidery is completed, the fabric is washed to remove the indigo.

Some of the common stitches are:

  • Bakhiya is a herringbone stitch worked on the wrong side of the cloth and this provides a shadow effect enabling the design to be viewed on the right side.
  • Phanda and Murri are basically French knots stitches used to embroider the centre of the flowers in chikan work motifs.
  • Rahet is a stem stitch worked on the wrong side to make thick lines. This provides a raised effect.
  • Hool is a fine eyelet stitch like a button-hole stitch.
  • Zanzeera is a chain stitch which is applied to outline leaves or shapes of the petals.
  • Taipchi is a simple running stitch and often serves as a basis for further enhancement of the design.
  • Jali work or the mesh effect is created by cutting or drawing the thread.
  • Khatawa is an appliqué work similar to bakhia, which produces a flat appearance.
  • Turpai stitch produces a thin thread like stitch used to embellish specific designs.
  • Gitti is a combination of buttonhole and long satin stitch, used to make motifs which have a tiny hole in the center.

Mesmerising collection of sarees from Andhra

My friend wanted a Gadhwal saree and I ventured to get one for her.  Having quite forgotten the name I asked for an Andhra saree and was surprised at the mindboggling array that was displayed!! Venkatagiri, Mangalagiri, Gadhwal, Pochampalli, Narayanpet…..  Amazing!! I was quite at a loss to pick one form the exhaustive collection.
Let me recount the ranges that were displayed. The shopkeeper was only too willing to enlighten me about the sarees and their sources.

The state of Andhra Pradesh produces exquisite varieties of sarees from its many hamlets, making the state a flourishing center of handloom industry.  Each village specialises in its own special technique.  

Let’s begin with the ‘Pochampalli’. Pochampalli is a small but prominent village in Nalgonda District of Andhra Pradesh, especially famous for its pure silk sarees. These sarees are unique in terms of its intricate designs and wonderful colour combinations.

Gadhwal sarees originating from the village of Gadhwal, are famed for its silken boders and contrasting pallus.
Venkatagiri sarees from the village of Venkatagiri blend the simplicity of cotton with the ornamental zari butas.  Again, these Sarees are elegant in their own special way.

Located in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, Dharmavaram produces silk sarees that are known for their ornate designs and elaborately decorated gold borders.

Uppada is a beach town located, in the East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh.  Uppada sarees in cotton and silk are well known for their durability and softness.

Mangalgiri is situated in the outskirts ofVijayawada.  Woven with a lot of care and effort, Mangalagiri sarees are noted for its dense weaving technique and colours.

The town of Narayanpet specializes in sarees of superior silk and cotton with handcrafted designs.

I was totally floored by the display of the mesmerising collection!

What richness of texture and colours from the state of Andhra Pradesh!


Kanchi Pattu Saree

Every time I showed a saree to my grandmother, she would react in a typical way, wring up her face and ask, “What kind of a saree is this?” I would explain the intricacies of the jamawar, jamdani, Bengal cotton, embroidered silk…. she would never appreciate it.  A synthetic would be discarded by just one look at it.  No!! She wouldn’t be fascinated by these varieties at all.
The one variety that would draw her attention was a kanchipuram pattu pudavai.  A saree is not a saree till it was kanchipuram silk with zari.  That’s what to her a saree is in the real sense.   I wondered if she would ever be satisfied with the sarees available currently, what with all the fancy designs and unique colour combinations.

She opened her cupboard and fondly brought out all her pattu sarees and explained the events for which they were bought; each being a very special and memorable one.

“You know this MS blue with ‘arraku ‘or maroon border saree” she said “was bought for our house grihapravesham”.  The blue colour of this saree was popularised by singer MS Subbulakshmi who was considered and still is considered the epitome of grace and beauty in a woman of her age and times.  The colour became synonymous with her name.    “In those days a South Indian woman’s wardrobe would be incomplete without it” she added.  “Nobody produces sarees of these colours nowadays” she said. 

She picked up a yellow saree and went on to explain how she obtained it. “Mambazha yellow with green border” she stated stroking the saree affectionately (mango yellow - the colour of the ripened mango fruit).  “This saree was bought on the occasion of the upanayanam of your uncle (her first son)” she stated proudly.  “Look at the colour and sheen.  It is now 30 years old. Tell me! are the sarees of your generation as everlasting as these?” she queried.

I picked up a brown one from her collection and immediately her eyes turned lovingly at it.  “This ponvandu colour (colour of the jewel beetle) was bought by your grandfather for Deepavali.  You know I never went shopping.  I would just name the colour and others would buy it for me. The saree would be just what I had in mind;” she said reminiscing the days when shopping and choosing colours were easy.  How come? I wondered?  The explanation of the colour seemed to be so precise. May be that’s the speciality of the Kanchipuram silk.

“ This maanthulir saree with rudraksha border is one of my favourite” she went on, picking up a saree in green - an exact shade of the green leaves of the mango tree which has just started sprouting leaves with a touch of pink added to it.  No wonder she wore it for all our family gatherings.  “Only Kanchipuram sarees can replicate the exact shade” she stressed with a lot of conviction. 

“What about this saree pati?” I asked. “Ah! This paasi pachai (moss green) saree was bought on the occasion of the birth of my first grandchild – you! It’s for you now!”She said affectionately, giving it to me. 

“But before that pati”, I said “here is a birthday gift from me”. I handed her the saree I had bought for her from RmKV.   She opened it and her joy knew no bounds when she found a pattu saree to her liking.   “I always wanted this colour” she cried joyfully. “This was not available in my days.”  Are kanchi pattus of my days still available ……?   She was so delighted to receive the mayil kazhuthu colour saree (a shade of the peacock’s neck) and a colour which is yet to be coined in the English language.

Finally, she was happy with a saree bought for her!


Insight into Ikat

Did you know Ikat sarees are also known as Sambalpuri sarees? Sambalpur is the name of a place in Odisha from where the Ikat sarees originate.

Like all traditional fabric woven on handloom, Ikat sarees are also handloom sarees. The most distinguishing feature of these sarees however are the traditional craftsmanship of the tie and dye art, where the threads of the weft and warp are first tie-dyed and later woven into a fabric. Thus the entire process is often labour oriented, meticulous and time consuming.

Knotting the threads of the weft and the warp ensures that the yarns do not absorb the colours. The yarns are tied according to the desired patterns to prevent absorption of dyes, and then dyed. This art is known as Baandha kala meaning art of tying. The common colours or dyes used are black, white, red and yellow. Another very interesting feature of this technique is that the designs obtained from the weaving are almost identical on both sides of the fabric.

Skilled craftsmen in the art of Ikat weave beautiful patterns and images that stand out among others. Most patterns and motifs are adopted from nature but Ikat sarees are particularly noted for their incorporation of traditional motifs like shankha (conch), chakra (wheel), and the flower – probably an association of the symbols of Lord Vishnu who is the presiding deity in Odisha, revered as Lord Jagannath.

Ikat sarees are produced in places such as Bargarh, Sonepur, Sambalpur, Bapta, Pasapali, Bomkai, Bolangir and Kosal in Odisha. Among them, Ikat sarees from Sambalpur and Bomkai are extremely popular.

Next time you wear an Ikat, you will be more aware of its origins. Won’t you!!


The Magic of Jamdani

Certain techniques and designs in weaving never go out of fashion and the Jamdani is one of them. I am a Jamdani saree at the RmKV store in Chennai. Let me tell you about my ancestors and origins.  

Jamdani is a weaving technique that originated in Bengal, traditionally woven around Dhaka (when Bangladesh was part of India).  It is basically an inlay technique woven on hand loom on fabrics that are light weight particularly cotton.  Historically these light weight cottons were referred to as muslins.  Jamdani Muslin saree prides itself for being once produced for the members of the royal family. 

In fact my great great aunt was part of the trousseau of the Maharani of Cooch Behar in West Bengal.  The elaborate and intricate designs in gold and silver threads on her made her so beautiful that she soon became the favourite of the Maharani.  

Due to the pain-staking methods used to create the exquisite designs, only aristocrats and members of the royal families were able to afford us -Jamdani sarees.

I don’t know much about my ancestors and how they were part of history, but I have often heard my grandmother say we reached our zenith particularly during the Mughal Era.

I will tell you how we were created in the past. Weavers used looms that were very basic and used needles made of buffalo horn or tamarind wood. The patterns were drawn from imagination or from the original designs retained in the memory of the weaver, and handed down from one generation to the other.   The expert weavers had no copy of the designs, but instead worked from memory. Wasn’t that a real wonder? Considering we can’t remember our own phone numbers in the present day?

Let me tell you about our relatives and how we were spread out.  Many of my ancestors belonged to Bangladesh like the Dhakai Jamdani.  They were unique creations.   After partition the technique of the Dhakai Jamdani is now practiced in West Bengal. The speciality of this type is that there is an abundant display of floral motifs spread over the entire saree.  The multicoloured designs on a subtle base made these sarees look exquisite.

Some of my relatives are from the Shantipur clan.  They belong to the Shantipur region of Nadia District in West Bengal. Jamdani sarees of this region are distinguished for their fine-grained texture and extreme softness.

A few of us hail from the Tangail region in Bengal-known as the Tangail Jamdani, which is popular for its traditional borders of the sarees which had designs of lamps or the lotus flowers. Dhonekhali Jamdani is yet another clan from Dhonekhali in West Bengal. The speciality of this particular variety is the contrasting borders in dark colours on opaque surfaces.   

Today of course current day fashion designers are trying to adapt the elaborate and intricate designs of Jamdani on other varieties of fabric besides sarees, but let me tell you recreating the magic of the past is still a painstaking effort.    

I have now been picked up by this young friendly girl, as part of her trousseau.  She is going to be a bride in a few days.  She has taken a special liking for me which I can understand from her fond looks. I am sure she will take care good care of me just as the Maharani did to my great aunt.


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