There were no trumpets or spotlights to announce the evolved version of the Kodali Karuppur sari. Draped around an antique lamp at the centre of a room where straw mats line the floor, it stood regal and elegant.

A rangoli of the organic ingredients used to dye the sari was arranged beneath the display. On one side of the room was a showcase of decorative wooden printing blocks, kept alongside beautifully draped, block-printed Kalamkari saris that feature patterns used in the Kodali Karuppur tradition. Vintage Tanjore paintings, reproduced with permission from the Madras Museum (also known as the Government Museum) in Chennai, were placed amid the display to recreate the feel of a bygone era.

The Kodali Karuppur sari, hand-painted during Maratha rule in the 17th and 18th centuries and later block-printed, was exhibited at Niram Thiram. This textile festival, organized by the Crafts Education and Research Centre (Cerc) of the Kalakshetra Foundation, was held in Chennai in September.

After decades of oblivion, this sari is ready for an artistic and commercial comeback. At its zenith, it was a symbol of the Maratha aristocracy during its reign in Thanjavur, from 1674 to 1855. Kodali Karuppur textiles were also used to make turbans, dhotis and angavastrams for Maratha rulers.

“Thanjavur had gained prominence as the “culture capital" at the time. Music, dance and art flourished under the patronage of the Vijayanagara rulers in the 16th century, before the Marathas took over. After the Marathas established their headquarters at Thanjavur, they set up a weaving centre at Kodali Karuppur village, near Kumbakonam, where a weaving community was already present," says Lakshmi Krishnamurthy, head, department of visual arts, Rukmini Devi College of Fine Arts, Chennai, who curated the sari exhibit. The sari derives its name from the place where it was woven.

Later, when Thanjavur was annexed by the British, the Kodali Karuppur faded into oblivion. Its long and arduous weaving process—the tradition involved a complicated resist-dyeing process before weaving—lapsed with the passing of old artisans, the absence of documentation, and the surge of synthetic and mill-made saris. More importantly, there was no sustained commercial or artistic interest through private consumers or crafts societies that would have allowed the Kodali Karuppur to survive the challenges faced by all Indian textile traditions.

But in 1980, the Weavers Service Centre (WSC) in Chennai, a division of the Union ministry of textiles, was commissioned to produce a specimen of it for the Vishwakarma Exhibition in London in 1982. Organized by the Crafts Council of India to showcase India’s finest crafts, this exhibition displayed the work of National Award-winning craftspeople.

The Kodali Karuppur sari displayed at Niram Thiram, Kalakshetra
The Kodali Karuppur sari displayed at Niram Thiram, Kalakshetra

Sabita Radhakrishna, who would go on to become a senior consultant at Cerc from 2009-13 was shown the sari by Naidu; she remembers it was priced as low as 7,000 (the Kodali Karuppur saris, priced approximately at 1.5 lakh per piece, can be ordered through Cerc, www.kalakshetra.in).

It was only much later, during her stint at Cerc, that it struck her that it would be worth reviving the Kodali Karuppur as Cerc, with its handloom-weaving and Kalamkari units, had the expertise to do so. Once Leela Samson, the then director of Kalakshetra, gave the go-ahead, Radhakrishna visited the Government Museum in Chennai’s Egmore along with craftspeople to study the sole specimen of the sari archived there.

“The sari for the maharanis was about 8 yards in length, longer than the average 6 yards. Upon seeing it, I was more than ever determined that we should go ahead with the revival project," notes Radhakrishna. Master weaver P.L. Bhanumoorthy was sent to Kolkata to learn the Jamdani technique of weaving because it was similar to traditional Kodali Karuppur weaving.

He produced a few samples on his return. Kalakshetra, meanwhile, procured yarn for the weave that was similar to the original, but not the same. “We cannot reproduce the same materials that were used 1,000 years ago. Sometimes, we now get things that are better than what were used then," says Radhakrishna.

The field of the Kodali Karuppur sari exhibited at Niram Thiram in September contained zari buttas shaped like a single drop of falling water or a simple tilak. Cotton weft is used in the areas to be painted or block-printed. The remaining areas are woven with zari. After weaving, the sari fabric was boiled in soap-nut (areetha or reetha) water so that it would absorb the dyes better and then scoured to make it clean. The fabric was dipped briefly in a dye paste made with soaked Myrobalan seeds, milk and water, squeezed lightly and spread out to dry, following the old tradition.

In the original Kodali Karuppur sari worn by Maratha royalty, the zari buttas on the fabric formed the background of a pattern that was wax-resisted as well as dye-painted. However, after consulting the weavers and the Vishwakarma Exhibition, Kalakshetra decided to avoid wax-resist drawing to avoid too many processes. “Revival is a process of evolution after all, it is not just about recreating the original," says Radhakrishna.

Under the mentorship of C. Prabhakar, the head of Kalakshetra’s Kalamkari unit, these saris were then hand-painted. Intricate patterns were drawn around the zari buttas using kaasim solution (a mordant of iron and molasses of palm and cane jaggery). The outline of the design was meticulously traced out.

Vegetable-dyed red, black, and maroon are among the dominant shades in the reimagined version of this sari. “It falls smoothly like any cotton sari treated with vegetable dye. I would be very careful to handwash and lightly starch it," says Radhakrishna, who credits the team of craftspeople and the former director of Kalakshetra Foundation for the project.

In effect, this sari is subtle and elegant rather than flamboyant. “It will appeal only to those who know its history. If you wear a Kodali Karuppur sari, you will feel you’re wearing something exclusive, rare, and something that was languishing for 1,000 years," says Radhakrishna.

So when Krishnamurthy compares the radiant luminescence of the sari to a Tanjore painting in a dark room, lit by the solitary light of an oil lamp, you immediately get a sense of its royal legacy.

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