sarees tell stories

of real and fake and chanderi sarees

he loved vintage cars. every morning, practically, he’d come to look at his collection, which used to be kept in a garage built on land rented from my family. he always wore pristine, brilliant white pajamas and a flowing crisp kurta, his hair would be neatly brushed and the most pleasant smile would appear on his face if he happened to spot you or any of your elders.

“namashkar!” he’d greet in a low amicable tone, as he raised his hands high before him, palms joined. he’d let you go up close to his cars, even touch a shiny collectible surface if you wished to. he let some of us sit in one of his priceless automobiles once. he was the best tenant one could have and the most polite and decent man.

given the ironies of life, it really shouldn’t have surprised anyone when he turned out to be not quite the man you thought he was. but all that came later.

much after his wife and he had gifted me my first chanderi saree. it was for my wedding and they’d chosen well. on a base of deep purple – it had a tinge of mocha brown in it – sat delicately woven dull gold motifs and an elegant restrained border in the same matte gold zari. the fabric was of the finest quality.

that perfect gossamer of chanderi, the wafting gauziness of it all… almost like a dream the fall. like a veil through which you look at memory.

i fussed endlessly about wearing the saree, even though i loved it. but when would i ever be thin enough to feel confident in a material so sheer? the struggle went on, the weight stayed put. i think i finally surrendered to temptation and wore the saree once, maybe twice. in time, it frayed and i had to let it go.

but a chanderi that belonged to my grandmother i couldn’t throw away, even when it was in shreds. its pink is bright and playful, the contrasting blue border highlights the character of the main colour. intricate motifs in zari and a darker shade of pink traipse across the saree, its solid gold border shimmers. as it tore in my hands, a world seemed to shift out of focus. i kept the borders, bits of the pink at the edges. some day, i think, some day, i’ll go to chanderi and get someone to make a saree like that for me.

for centuries, possibly beginning in the eleventh – or who knows, maybe even earlier… or later – this delightful fabric of cotton and zari, and later silk, has been woven in the town of chanderi. situated between malwa and bundelkhand in central india, chanderi was part of the trade routes and became an important military outpost.

it was fought over and ruled by many kings and conquerors. babur, allaudin khilji, and the rajputs, among them. it’s mentioned in ibn batuta’s travelogues, he went there in 1342, apparently. wonder if he wrote about the weavers and their fine product?

the lightweight cotton with its sheer transparency always startles me.

something about its texture.

hold it up and look through, a maze of patterns form on the threads, an optical illusion created by weave and play of light on it perhaps. and though chanderi was traditionally made with cotton only, it’s never bothered to look anything but luxurious.

am talking of the real ones, not the fakes that have overtaken the market. there are a few designers and also shops like fabindia, that are getting quite serious about reviving and keeping alive the looms of chanderi. maybe fakes have their uses…

and now that i think, had the man in white been a good guy all the way, something would have certainly gone missing from my recollections of chanderi. when the twist in that tale came and he behaved in a way no one could have imagined, i raved and ranted, but i kept the saree.


sarees tell stories | yellow chanderi from touch of class paithani, grey and silver chanderi from an exhibition in singapore, both bought in 2014.

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  • Reply
    Archana popli
    August 9, 2016 at 1:31 am

    I like that you weave stories from things we take for granted .I haven’t bought many saree as I lived mist if my married life in the US and when my younger son was born .he had so many disabilities that I chose clothes for comfort .I got back to wearing my sarees at weddings now .

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      August 9, 2016 at 12:00 pm

      hi archana, thank you. the saree is so much a part of life, it will be taken for granted i guess. i am fascinated by our weaving culture, our handloom, the complete skill and artistry and confidence of the weavers. i don’t think anywhere in the world we have this vastness and depth of the weaving art. i fear the traditions will slowly die as women who can afford to buy sarees at a price that rewards the weaver as well as the marketing machinery will choose other clothes. i also realise that the culture of sarees is fascinating… how it reflects many things, our status, our mindsets, and more… but most interesting to me is how it leaves us free to be creative, if we choose to be. my chinese boss was the first one to point out to me how much we contribute to our own silhouette when we wear a saree. a length of unstitched cloth and endless play in it. my daughter thinks sarees are for special occasions, because i don’t wear sarees all the time. i told her the other day, even women labourers who carry bricks and mortar on their heads and help build our homes and skyscrapers, wear sarees to work… it’s what we wear all the time, in any and every field, it’s not a costume. 🙂 i hope the problems your son was born with have been resolved to some extent and life for him and you is calmer. glad to hear sarees are back in your life. they make us feel special, don’t they. i am delighted we have so many options when it comes to clothes, and saree is one of the most gorgeous of them. thank you for rading, for enjoying these rambles.

  • Reply
    Archana poplie
    August 11, 2016 at 7:39 am

    I think they represent pure art as each piece is a stand on its own ,I grew up in Bangalore. Where silk and chiffon and crepe were woven here ,I had friends who had silk farms ,so I loved the saree now I take out my jameware ,and kalamkari ,and kanjeevaram saris ,look at a satya Paul it like modern art ,my younger son had cerebral palsy when he was younger but he outgrew it but he aspergaus autism but he doing a business management degree and is in his last year of undergrads but do still faces lot of challenges I drive him ,and so I am at school with him and pass time reading all your stories

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      August 11, 2016 at 5:46 pm

      archana, i read your comment with growing amazement and awe. your son has struggled and overcome so much. was so heartening to read he is studying business management now. hope he does well and finds a career and a path for himself. and in all of this, you… rising to the challenges and doing all you can. sometimes i wonder who reads our magazine, then i find a comment like this and just feel honoured that we have readers like you. while you wait for him, you flip through our pages, thank you for doing that. hope we bring you a good browse and the time flows quickly.

      • Reply
        rhea sinha
        August 12, 2016 at 11:29 am

        Thank you Archana. It really feels good to share this space with you. And lots of best wishes to your son for all the adventures ahead.

  • Reply
    Archana popli
    August 18, 2016 at 1:25 am

    Thanks for the wishes .I love the glimpses of a world where charm beauty in the eyes .for life .love and hope are still there

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      August 18, 2016 at 7:22 am

      thank you.

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