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“Handlooms are ageless”

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Handloom expert and proprietor of the ‘60 Handloom Saree Pact’ Sabita Radhakrishna discusses the revival of the sari with Pratibha Jain.

Talk of fashion and there are two trends that cannot be missed: saris and handlooms. Saris are suddenly becoming popular as a style statement, and are experiencing a new wave of revival.

Some of the credit for this resurgence goes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who recently introduced the ‘India Handloom’ brand and declared 7 August as ‘National Handloom Day’. But the Web too has been buzzing with online forums devoted to sharing the joys of owning and wearing saris, thus giving this timeless drape further impetus.

Among the most popular online forums on saris is the ‘100 Saree Pact’, an initiative by Anju Maudgal Kadam and Ally Matthan; and Kai Thari, a Facebook forum where women share their photographs and joy in handwoven saris with #60handloomsareepact. The latter initiative is spearheaded by Sumita Pai and Sabita Radhakrishna, a handloom and textiles expert for 30 years.

Radhakrishna works extensively with weavers, has authored books on textiles, is a member of many brick-and-mortar forums committed to textiles, and is a member of the Crafts Council of India. She thinks, eats and breathes handlooms, and popularised the concept of mix-and-match blouses way back in the 1970s. She is also credited with co-founding Urvashi, Chennai’s first boutique, and then branching out with her own brand, Amarapali, which had a very successful run till she closed commercial operations in 2000. Since then she has devoted her working life to creating a sustainable living for the weavers by reviving traditional weaves to suit market trends, teaching them to be computer-savvy and, above all, providing a market for their products.

In this issue of Harmony-Celebrate Age (June 2016), we bring you a handpicked selection of handwoven saris recommended by Radhakrishna. Here, she chats about her love affair with the sari and offers some fashion advice to silvers who share her passion for handlooms.

Namaste, Sabita! To begin with, tell us about the 60 Handloom Saree Pact.

It was a takeoff from the 100 Saree Pact, which basically motivates women to wear saris at least 100 days a year. My friend, Deepa Vivekananda, took me along to one of their events—The Saree Date—where members meet and share their sari stories. I was delighted to see so many youngsters wearing saris. So, I thought, why can’t 60 out of these 100 saris be handloom? I met Sumita Pai at this event and we got talking. Gradually, we developed the idea of starting a Facebook group. We named it Kai Thari, which means ‘handloom’.

What did you expect at that time?

I thought such a forum would gently persuade members to wear more handlooms. I knew that social media has that kind of influence. It was exciting to see that, gradually, the ladies started sharing the history of their saris and the reason for their choice. Many of them wanted to know more about what they were wearing. Queries started pouring in but I was unable to keep up because of my own busy schedule. It surely went beyond my expectations. Can you believe it—in the US and the UK, women are going on ‘sari dates’ with handlooms? This is so exciting!

What could be the key factor for this resurgence?

Once you start wearing saris, you begin to love them. Saris give you a certain aura. The other thing is the creative aspect. You can do so many things with a beautiful sari. You can match it with different blouses and different jewellery. More so, you can drape them in innumerable ways. We need not hang on to something in the name of tradition. We must use traditional skills to innovate fashion. The same sari can be made to look casual or smart, simple or elegant, traditional or fashionable! For instance, the Kalamkari is used extensively in the entire sari or simply in the border and pallu. Some, like the Kodali Karuppur sari, are a challenge to revive given the cost and labour. All in all, I am glad because I once feared that saris would go into oblivion. No more! They are here to stay and rule our hearts.

What would you recommend as fashionable for seniors?

Yesterday’s 70s are today’s 50s. For instance, most women today above 50 do not want to just knit or take care of household chores. They are in touch with current affairs and current fashion trends. They do not want to be left behind. Also, in the earlier joint family system, the children stayed at home and so did the grandchildren. Life was busy. Now with many youngsters flying away from the nest, there is emptiness and a gap in the lives of many seniors. They need to fill that gap by rejuvenating themselves. Being well-dressed is a great way to do that.

Regarding fashion and seniors, there is no need to dress like youngsters; there is no need to squeeze yourself into tight-fitting jeans. Opt for comfort wear, which spells dignity, style and elegance. This is also where handlooms make a mark with their ageless appeal. Anyone can look beautiful in well-made handloom attire, whether salwars, palazzos, skirts or trousers.

Create your own style statement and you will continue to turn heads!

Jain manages Padma Paaduka, the handwoven sari store in Chennai as well as the online portal

Pic courtesy: Padma Paaduka Handwovens