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One of actor Vidya Balan’s earliest childhood memories of a sari is that of a Kanjeevaram. Balan, a Tamil Brahmin from Kerala, says she was in school when she became aware of her mother’s “great collection of Kanjeevarams", especially her wedding saris, a red- and-gold and a green-and-gold that she would wear for special occasions.

“Both were heavy and draped stunningly. They were unique because they were pure Kanjeevarams with a Banarasi feel to them," says Balan. She also remembers visiting a temple in Mumbai’s Chembur, known as a mini-Palakkad, and watching women in exquisite Kanjeevarams with freshly washed hair left open with mallipoo flowers held precariously by a pin, kajal lining the eyes, todu (flower-shaped diamond earstuds), diamond nosepins and no make-up. “My ideas of beauty, grace, femininity and sensuality probably derive from these images," says Balan. Many years later, she would be one of the few Hindi cinema stars to wear Kanjeevaram saris on the red carpet both in India and abroad.

“Wearing a Kanjeevaram came naturally to me. Besides my cultural background, I had personal memories associated with it and took to the sari in an organic way," says Balan. Even today, her parents gift her “an authentic Kanjeevaram" every year on her birthday—saris she really treasures. And as every fashion observer knows, Balan looks her best in these saris, which she says “take on an air of their own".

Rini Simon Khanna. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
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Rini Simon Khanna. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

But the sari itself is in a double bind. It is still a reverential symbol in the vocabulary of south Indian traditionalism. But while traditional high-end Kanjeevarams called pattu saris are still the most sought after for formal occasions, festivals and weddings, there is a growing demand for lighter ones with unconventional patterns and colour palettes.

Originally a heavy dupion, tightly woven with a lustrous outer sheen, the Kanjeevaram’s opacity and overwhelming grammar of checks, stripes, two-toned field, large temple patterns, zari borders and motifs with peacocks or rudraksh beads, and riotous colour combinations lends it an aura. But for most women, especially outside the south, even those interested in the resurgence of handwoven textiles, this traditional Kanji—as it is colloquially known—is no longer the top choice.

While Kanjeevarams are visually associated with classical dance, especially Bharatanatyam, and remain unforgettably linked to the image of renowned Carnatic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi, they are far from the formulaic slinky glamour of Hindi cinema heroines. That’s why actor Rekha’s brand of starry charisma, stamped by her zari-soaked Kanjis, makes her a unique case study. Though it has been worn in different ways and eras by actors Vyjayanthimala Bali, Hema Malini, occasionally even by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, who also wore a Kanjeevaram for her wedding, and very authentically by Balan, the story keeps shifting back to Rekha, who has singularly kept the Kanjeevaram rooted in our collective memory. No other Indian weave has had such a committed endorsement from a famous star.

For popular emcee and compere Rini Simon Khanna, the Kanjeevaram holds many stories in its folds. “My romance with Kanjeevarams began in 1984, when as a Doordarshan broadcaster I realized a sari was our unstated uniform. I understood that it was the top part of your body that was in the camera’s focus. That’s where one needed to be creative in dressing without taking away from the formality of the job," says Khanna, recalling that for the Parliament news broadcast, she learnt to train her eye on saris that would stand out on black and white television. She continues to favour Kanjeevarams, saying she has a “relationship" with them. “They are my window of experimentation, my subject in dressing."

She admits that belonging to a south Indian family (even though she was raised in the north) may explain her preference for Kanjis. Over the years, Khanna became as associated with articulation as an emcee as with stunning Kanjeevarams. She prefers her saris from within a traditional design vocabulary but locates those that are stylish and eye-catching. Often, as she admits, she buys them at the Utsav sari store in New Delhi. Her extensive collection, which she calls “my heirlooms", includes cotton Kanjis for summer, and would shame a small sari shop.

Bharatnatyam dancer Geeta Chandran at her arangetram performance in 1974 in a Kanji costume. Photo: Courtesy Geeta Chandran
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Bharatnatyam dancer Geeta Chandran at her arangetram performance in 1974 in a Kanji costume. Photo: Courtesy Geeta Chandran
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