Vibrant, luscious and most importantly, relatively untouched and unfettered by external influences, the South Indian textile trail is historical and terrifically exciting, all at once. We’ve tracked Pochampally, Kalamkari and Kanjeevaram back to their origins and dug out their contemporary definitions today.
Pochampally – the Pride of Deccan
Pochampally, or what should rightfully be called the pride of the Deccan, hails from the town of Bhoodan Pochampally, situated in the Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh in India. The town of Pochampally, with its rolling hillocks and lush fields, was a cluster of about 80 villages that originally began weaving the intricate patterns with traditional looms. The beautiful artwork that adorns a Pochampally can be traced back to the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that this textile rose to the occasion, so to speak.
While cotton weaving already existed, the silk blend only started in this period when a board of village headmen took the decision to weave cotton and silk together to improve their standard of living. In no time, the town of Pochampally came to be popularly called the silk city of India.
This textile is woven with delicate patterns and motifs that imprint the fabric with the finest cotton and silk marriage. The geometrical patterns are coloured onto the warp and weft threads and then beautifully woven onto the Pochampally textile. The essence of this textile lies in the lovely blend of silk and cotton also known as ‘sico’. Designer Krishna Mehta, says, “My all time favourite is Pochampally silk. The intricate geometric and ikat motifs and designs are hand woven with the smoothest and finest thread-work of cotton and silk and the end result is mesmerising. Besides the comfort, the contemporariness that this most ethnic fabric can portray makes it stand apart from the rest.”
Today, the patterns, motifs and designs that make this fabric have come a long way from conventional times. Fast-paced changes in fashion sensibilities and the race to keep heritage textiles alive have called for innovations in fabric, silhouettes and styles. Now, apart from the sari, one can also see Pochampally textile usage in bed covers, bed sheets, telia-rumals, dresses, cushion covers, handbags, potlis and so much more. Krishna says, “Pochampally fabric is so special because it absorbs and blends colours beautifully. I have made kimonos, jackets, shirts, tunics, pants, you name it. Besides, the most elegant saris, Pochampally walks the ramp at every fashion show of mine, in some way.”
Has Pochampally then stood the test of time? Krishna says, “You don’t need to revive something that is living. The weavers have worked hard to keep this textile alive with the mixing of cotton and silk and controlling costs, besides modernising the designs and creating them in today’s fashionable colours. It is an amiable textile to work with and as long as there are ardent lovers of hand-woven textiles like me alive, it’s not going anywhere.”
The ‘Kalakari’ of Kalamkari
Over 3,000 years ago, an art form originated that’s still the centre of many a wardrobe’s attention. Kalamkari, when broken down is Kalam meaning ‘pen’ and kari meaning ‘work’, the literal translation being pen-work.
Now, fondly popular as a textile art, Kalamkari’s epicentre was Machilipatnam (or Masulipatnam) along with Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh. The two places have inspired different design concepts in Kalamkari.
From the older of the two, Machilipatnam, that was for centuries, a bustling port on the eastern coast, came the ‘Tree of Life’ concept. Due to its strategic location and export trade, Masulipatnam Kalamkaris were also open to a lot of influences, in both design and technique, from outside. Srikalahasti is a well-known temple town that saw swarms of pilgrims and hence, the designs here were reminiscent of religious canvasses portraying life from the two Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Here, Kalamkaris were viewed as items to be worshipped akin to Jagannath Puri pattachitras or Nathdwara picchwais.
Bright yet Rustic Look
The prime colours that take centre stage on a Kalamkari are red, black, blue and yellow. Did you know other colours are a result of over-dyeing? The main ingredient in preparing these colours are jajakku leaves and root of the madder boiled in water to acquire the natural colour pigments. The kalams are, in some instances, blocks that are helpful with outlines or in other instances, balls of yarn are wrapped around a bamboo or a date palm stylus to design freehand-style.
Today, Kalamkari is practised on cotton, silk as well as other fabrics and the art includes both printing and hand-painting.
What makes this textile and this art form so attractive to designers in the contemporary context? “I love the complexity of Kalamkari, the motifs and the way it all is so busy yet so beautiful. I have made Aladdin’s pants, lehenga skirts and kaftan tops, crop tops and kurtis,” says Mamta Mamta from Buzzaria. The natural organic dyes are another reason that this textile art looks as great as it does. Ashish Parikh from Virtues explains, “The beautiful formation from nature and the usage of natural as well as organic dyes and fabric inspired my spring summer collection this year. Utilising the craft and maintaining its traditional essence is the responsibility of the designer. Silhouettes make a lot of difference in the craft; we’ve brought a twist with different cuts like kedia, short dresses, trousers etc., keeping the craft traditional but using in a contemporary/fusion style.”
On the question of surviving the test of time and technology, Gautam Gupta of Vinayak Couture says, “No matter how much technology advances, the touch of the hand is very essential to keep the art in fashion alive. We get a lot of Kalamkari saris developed from artisans as it’s a beautiful art work done with very natural technique. We do Kalamkari patchwork on chiffon and georgette saris and pair it with contemporary blouses. Earlier we used to design jackets and tunics using Kalamkari as well through patching.”
Kalamkari, as Shilpa Sharma from Jaypore puts it, has remained in the people’s collective consciousness by virtue of being such a visually arresting technique of surface embellishment. “But it has come a long way from being used as temple scrolls and decorating chariot banners. More than being revived, Kalamkari has been re-interpreted in different times to keep it a part of the current artistic narrative. In the recent times, it has been used on everything from wall art to women’s bags,” she adds.
Kanjeevaram – The Heir-loom Weave
The town is Kanchipuram. The weavers—legendary. The ancestors of these weavers—sage Markandeya. Folklore has it that Markandeya took lotus fibre and wove tissue from it as gifts to the Gods. This opulent textile has thrived due to royal benefaction right from the Pallava dynasty in the 7th century to the support of Vijayanagar Emperor Krishna Devaraya who encouraged time-honoured weaver groups, the Saligas and Devanghas to settle in Kanjeevaram in the 16th century. “The Kanchipuram cluster of South India is famous for its heavily plied silk saris, ornamented by silk yarn interlaced with pure metallic gold and silver (zari). The luxurious use of silk and gold is representative of the affluence of the great dynasties of the south, the Cholas, Cheras, Pandias and the Pallavas. Incidentally, Kanchipuram, the great religious town (90 km off present day Chennai) was the capital city of the great Pallava dynasty. The popular motifs used to adorn these saris draw direct inspiration from the visual artistic symbols ofthe area. Popular motifs such as the ‘temple’ border for instance are inspired by the grand entrance gateways that dot this famous temple town of South India,” explains K Radharaman, CEO, The House of Angadi.
Circa 1999—Biwi No. 1, Karisma Kapoor, complete with ethnic Kanjeevaram and jasmine-covered bun. But she came before the Kanjeevaram clad Vidya Balan and after the stunning Rekha, dream-girl Hema Malini and Kirron Kher, to name a few. The quintessential Kanjeevaram with its expansive borders, vivid colours and quirky motifs are a spin on the Kornad temple saris of Tamil Nadu that were customarily used to drape deities. This beautiful textile comes into being only after a long, scrupulous weaving process wherein the signature temple border, the wide pallav and the main body of the sari are woven individually and then delicately woven into one single piece. The traditional patterns depicted local fauna like tigers, elephants, peacocks and fabled creatures such as the yali and annapakshi, surrounding flora such as jasmines, temple flowers, mangoes, trailing vines and temple architecture.
The abstract and the elaborate also found space on a Kanjeevaram as time went by. Designers Ashima-Leena brought an entire Kanjeevaram collection, obviously called Dakshna, on ramp at the last BMW India Bridal Fashion Week that paid tribute to temple worship as a glorious tradition and elements of South India via motifs, jewels, fabrics and drapes. Tarun Tahiliani sent a beautiful Shilpa Shetty in a gorgeous Kanjeevaram lehenga, Neeta Lulla has taken inspiration from this traditional textile and translated it onto fabric such as net. Needless to say, the Kanjeevaram has been reinvented to suit the modern palate. You get semi-draped saris these days making this heavy sari easy to wear. Style it with a modernistic blouse or wear with a kurta, get a Kanjeevaram dupatta, try wearing it like a lehenga sari, or wear it in Gujarati style—there’s just so much you can do with the Kanjeevaram that’ll make sage Markandeya proud, we hope!
Written by Shruti Tomar