The kanjeeveram saree imparts an elusive aura to the red carpet, plays a key role on the ‘D’ day for most south Indian brides, symbolises auspiciousness in Dravidian puja’s and is treasured as an heirloom - the kanjeeveram saree envelops the ethnic sense of belonging we all crave for with a dash of sophistication.
An intricately woven saree
Kanchipuram, known as the silk city dates back 400 years gaining a privileged reputation as the producers of the best silk weavers in the country.
The town does not deal in the manufacturing of raw materials. The co-operative societies in the city procure the yarn and dye them in accordance to the requirement.
The yarn sourced from Andhra Pradesh and neighboring cities like Salem and Dharmapuri are sorted.
The yarn is soaked in a boiling mixture of washing soda and soap to soften it. It is washed in cold water with the desired colour of dye and finally, rinsed in acidic acid.
There are over 100 different colours of dye
The thread is now ready to be distributed to the weavers
Vijayakumar with a loom in his house.
Vijaykumar G a master weaver, buys the raw materials from the society at Rs 60/gm for the gold zari and Rs 7/gm for the silk thread. The tread is first sorted, then made into spindles and ready to be used in the loom. The society also provides guidelines on the choice of motifs, patterns and colour combinations. Patterns are designed and generated on a computer – one of the few advantages of modernisation in this field.
Computer generated designs and spindles
The weaving itself is a captivating sight as Vijayakumar explains the process in rhythm with the loom.
The saree when ready, is sold back to the society, “We get Rs 4000 for a saree that retails at Rs 12,000 in a shop. We can weave only up to 3 such saree's in a month. The more intricate the design is, the more time it takes” says Vijaykumar proudly holding up his latest creation. The income they make from labour charges (approx. Rs 12,0000 a month) is distributed between the three members who helped generate the saree at various stages , from sorting the thread to making them into spindles to finally weaving them leaving them with Rs 4000 each for themselves.
Vijaykumar proudly displaying his latest creation now ready for sale
These helping hands are on the verge of disappearance due to industrial development around the district. ‘’Even my son Vinod is not interested in this family business, he helps out only when he comes home for the holidays, after my time I am planning to give away the loom’’ laments Vijayakumar who himself is a first generation weaver migrated from Andhra Pradesh 40 years go. He belongs to the Naidu caste like most other weavers living in the street, which he says brings about a sense of unity. ‘’Weaving was a matter of pride when I started the profession, now it barely pays for our living’’ he says.
Does his wife Shanti, Vijaykumars wife own a kanjeeveram saree? “Who wouldn’t want to have one of these but they are too expensive for us to buy” she replies.
With low salaries, rise in cost of raw materials, private players, mass factory producers and alternative jobs, is the pot on the other end of the rainbow brewing a slow beginning to the end of this beautiful profession?