I was one of the thousands who followed the #100SareePact on social media, which did the rounds in 2015. This pact was started by Ahalya Matthan, founder and director of The Registry of Sarees (TRS), Research and Study Center, in Bengaluru, along with her friend, with the idea to encourage women to get their saris out of the closets, wear them and talk about them. I loved following the updates online. What amazed me was the wealth of knowledge that emerged and the innumerable variations to the sari that I saw. For someone like me who couldn’t tell a cotton Dhakai sari from an Ikat, it was a lovely way to gain insight and knowledge.
What started perhaps as an online exercise in creating a renewed interest in saris evolved into the creation of TRS in 2016, with the objective of creating learning, awareness and events, as well as weaver engagement programmes. “With time, we found that we were doing it at a very superficial level and realised that to actually tap into the textile knowledge wealth that we have in our country, we needed to work with experts,” explains Ally, as Ahalya is fondly called. This saw Pragati Mathur, textile designer and academician, come on board. As a weaver herself, Pragati is able to decipher a sari as well as demonstrate to a weaver the intricacies of a design she has in mind — a rare combination that fits in perfectly with the kind of work done at TRS, which has now expanded to add on the Research and Study Center.
Curating and documenting
The work at TRS can be understood as three-fold. One aspect of the TRS is the curatorial work they do. TRS along with with celebrated textile historian and curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul work on bringing out projects in a curatorial manner. In fact, TRS is home to the collection Khadi: The Fabric of Freedom, first commissioned by a series of exhibitions in the early 2000s and curated by the late Martand Singh, a famous textile revivalist. This comprehensive body of work is a path-breaking study of the many technologies and cultures of cotton cultivation in India. Through this collection, conversations emerged about the relevance of hand-spun and hand-woven cotton fabric — qualities that remain unique to India and the sub-continent even today. Now stored at TRS, the objective is to keep the collection dynamic by adding to it other material and documentation by way of field research and academic study.
“We do documenting and publishing, which is the bulk of our research work. Which means when textiles come to Pragati, she will literally take them apart, look at them under the microscope and be able to decipher everything down to which era, how it was worn, what is the significance of the motifs and more, giving it the rich context that it was actually made in,” says Ahalya.
A meeting place of traditions
Pragati's skills as a designer help TRS move into another aspect – the designing and creation of unique sari collections that marry different geographical identifications. As someone who hails from Rajasthan, which is a huge resource for handcrafted handloom, Pragati has always been very drawn to colour, format and weave. “And having lived in Karnataka for the past 30 years, my other passion is Kanjeevarams and also other South Indian sari forms. In one collection, I have brought together Kota Doria (a distinctive woven cloth of silk, cotton or a blend of the two, with a characteristic square pattern) of Rajasthan and Kanjeevarams (woven silk saris with distinctive borders) from Tamil Nadu," says Pragati. Customised Kanjeevarams were taken to Rajasthan where they were printed with blocks and had embroidery added on as embellishments, creating massive value addition as well as an entirely new language of saris.
One would think that such marriages of technique would not go down well with the traditional weavers, who have been practising their craft a particular way for generations. “On the contrary”, say Ally and Pragati, “there is a happiness in discovering a new medium of expression. Weavers from both sides are amazed to find common ground, where they can relate to another weaver community, with Pragati travelling between the two, to facilitate this."
One example of this is the use of the lotus motif. Weavers in Kancheepuram have a sense of what the lotus is, and the motif is not alien to the block printers of Rajasthan either. Pragati visited Kancheepuram weavers, discussed in detail the kind of sari she wanted – from the intensity of colour to a weave that would show off the fluidity of the block. This same conversation was had with artisans in Rajasthan, and the reactions from each side were very interesting. The final result was a lotus block, done with discharge printing on a woven Kanjeevaram — a product no one will take the trouble to replicate believes Pragati, thanks to the several layers of work that have gone into it.
This is the kind of work TRS is facilitating, consequently getting different communities of people to start talking to each other. In fact, Pragati says that going forward she is going to ask sari artisans to include a small signature on to their creations, because each one of these is a work of art.
Inspired collections such as those at the TRS have the potential to rekindle the interest in saris – and that, says Ally, is how they hope the curatorial work and the designer collections will generate interest among people to buy saris like these, when they already have a cupboard full of them. The walk-in tours (conducted only on prior appointment) is how TRS introduces these ideas to the people.
While on this tour, Pragati laid out a range of Ikat saris for me to look through. Each of these saris were rolled down on display, covering the length of two walls. I walked through the fabrics on display, touched them and observed them closely. I was told the story of Ikat, and found out that there are just 4 known double Ikat centers in the world — Japan, Indonesia and two in India. I learnt that single Ikat is also done in South America. It is speculated that a trade route could have facilitated the spread of this art form to regions outside India. I was taken through the wonder of mathematical precision that double Ikat is. I was shown a rare double Ikat that has been done on tissue, and was told the story of how the design of the Teliya Roomal (a woven scarf created for Middle-eastern traders and dipped in oil to waterproof them) of the Nelagonda District of Puttapartha went on to become a prominent feature in saris.
During the course of the tour, Pragati placed a peep glass on a sari and asked me to look through it, to see the weave of the sari. What I saw took my breath away and out came an instant squeal of surprise. So clear are the weft and warp of the sari, it makes you see things in a whole new light — like an architectural wonder, giving you new-found respect for the weavers.
Pragati lays out a range of saris for these tours. Guests are welcome to come in and browse through their collections, study them and look through a growing library of books on traditional textiles that are available at the TRS. Pragati encourages you to bring saris that you have with you on these tours – particularly those that have been in the family for generations. She will help you discover much more than you know on them. “If I get even one person to look at saris and what goes into them from a whole new perspective, I think then that our objective has been achieved,” says Pragati with a smile.
To schedule an appointment to visit The Registry of Sarees, call Aditi Naik at +91 7022795003 between 10:30 am and 4:00 pm. Visits are scheduled for Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Address: The Registry of Sarees, 18 & 19 Krishna Reddy Layout, Domlur Colony, Bengaluru
Updated Date: Mar 18, 2019 12:37:41 IST