PANORAMA: AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER FROM PRISM MAGAZINE'S "SISTERHOOD" ISSUE - AHALYA S. TAKES US INTO HER SPACES IN THE TEMPLE TOWN OF KANCHIPURAM, AND HER MANY EMOTIONAL CONNECTS THERE...

I fall in love a thousand times, every time I see an incredible sari, quips Ahalya S, founder of Kanakavalli, as she travels with us to Kanchipuram, allowing us a glimpse into the world that fascinated her, fascinates her...

Kanchipuram and I go back a long way… As a child, I remember being besotted by the richness of the silk sari; my paternal grandmother dressed in the choicest of Kanjivarams and the grandeur of it continues to fascinate me.

You know but Kanchipuram for me, is not always about the sari; it is equally about the temple culture that is ingrained in the very ethos of this noisy little temple and sari paradise, housed in Tamil Nadu, a hundred-odd kilometres from Chennai. As a child, I was smitten by the beauty of the Kamakshi Amman (the presiding deity of Kanchipuram and whose precincts people from across the country throng to). Visits to this temple were part of our annual summer calendar; we’d visit my paternal grandparents and we’d all head off to pay obeisance to this gorgeous goddess.

Kanchipuram was also a go-to town for all relatives who visited from outside Chennai. A wedding or an auspicious occasion in the family also warranted a day trip and I remember the colours and the motifs of the Kanchipuram capturing my imagination and almost enveloping my entire being.

Many years later, as an adult and an entrepreneur when I decided to marry my deep passion and appreciation for the Kanjivaram with my natural leaning for financial astuteness, I re-discovered how that relationship I had forged on as a child, had only blossomed with the passing of time. Everything about the Kanjivaram - its very fineness and texture, the varied motifs that define every sari and lend it character and a personality, the colours of the silk, the process of the zari being rolled on to the spindle, the entire experience of how these elements come together to create an incredible sari that goes into a woman’s wardrobe and travels through time, earning for itself a status worth tradition and legacy - are among the very reasons I continue to engage with the Kanjivaram.

As a curator of the Kanjivaram today, with my own label, Kanakavalli, my visits to this town have acquired the nature of a ritual. Fortnightly visits to collabrate with weavers and master weavers that dot this town’s landscape, are opportunities to not only appreciate the lineage of the Kanjivaram but also to draw inspiration and consciously curate a collection that is relevant and meaningful in the worlds that we women inhabit - worlds where we juggle many roles, wear many hats, traverse an array of spaces, blend in and yet retain our roots.

Early morning breakfast en route Kanchipuram is something I love and never miss. For those familiar with this highway, I recommed The Highway Motel, just outside Chennai, where the quality and taste of the ghee roast has altered neither with time nor a change of kitchen staff.

Kanchipuram is a lot like that; for me, it’s a relationship both of familiarity and of comfort; like going to another home where you are both secure and are never out-of-place.

My mornings in Kanchipuram are always filled with visits to the many weavers, the talented lot of people who continue to craft beautiful saris with pride and without compromising on tradition and process. In the three hours that I invariably bury myself in a tiny studio that is the office of one of my most favourite master weavers, I must confess I fall in love a thousand times. No, wait, I mean with the saris that my master weaver shows me… Don’t imagine a very fancy office or anything; this weaver, whose father was also a master weaver, has a small office in the centre of town. In it, he has set up a mini loom and on the walls are photographs of the many saris his father created along with a photograph of his father, who was also a master weaver. The contrast between the office, the simplicity of the people who weave the sari and the grandeur of the silk, is something I can never stop wondering about…

Weaving tools of the trade

The relationship of the weaver with the sari he makes, is a story of both great skill and great discipline. It’s also amazing how they allow you to participate in that very sanctimonious relationship and their generosity of spirit in letting people like me, work with them to enable the sari and its design, find purpose and meaning in the contemporary context.

After the meeting and a heavy lunch - invariably at Saravana Bhavan, where again, the meals are my staple - I wait for dusk to visit the kovil (the temple). For me, over the years, goddess Kamakshi, has become an anchor, a giver of signs, an integral participant in my journey with the Kanjivaram.

When I drive back, I watch darkness fill the large pond full of lilies; I can smell the tuberose; I return to my childhood… I’m glad for the fragrance, glad for the comfort, glad for the experiences. Thank you, Kanchipuram; thank you, Kanjivaram...
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