Rebirth of a sari

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Rebirth of a sari

Saturday, 08 September 2018 | Saimi Sattar

Rebirth of a sari

Hemlata Jain’s attempts at reviving a lost garment called Patteda Anchu involved not just research and weaving but taking on re-sellers and imitators, discovers Saimi Sattar

I am wearing my PhD,” says Hemlata Jain with a laugh. Dressed in a blue checked Patteda Anchu, Jain can rightfully claim so as she is behind the revival of this handloom cotton sari from North Karnataka which had got lost somewhere in the onslaught of powerloom, synthetic versions. The petite Jain has the looks of a scholar activist with her hair tied tightly in a bun. But her frail frame hides a spine of steel.

The Patteda Anchu, with a plain border and really tiny checks, has two pallus in different colours. It is made of a thick material and is reversible. So for all practical purposes you have as good as two saris but that is not what makes it special. Rather it is the story behind it that makes it worth so much more than the price it has in the market.

Displaying her collection at the Dastkaari Haat in Meharchand Market, where one can pick from black, chocolate brown, purple, off white, blue and more eco-friendly and natural colours, Jain settles down on a low stool to describe her journey. As a PhD student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology she kept hearing about many saris and crafts that had disappeared in North Karnataka. “Everyone talks of Ilkal saris but no one talks of any other local saris which were worn by farmers and locals long ago. People are just wearing synthetic saris. You don’t see cottons despite this region being a cotton-growing one.

I kept hearing the name Patteda Anchu but there were no samples or evidence while records for the sari went as far back as the 10th century. I undertook historical research and ethnographic study and finally met a 90-year-old from Kodaikal who had seen it being woven. He mentioned places like Bhagalkot, Yelamma Saundati and I went there three-four times and finally found a girl whose mother was a Devdasi, since this sari was traditionally offered to them when the daughter of the house got married,” she says. And it was this girl who dug out a fragment which her grandmother had got from the temple which when tested turned out to be 250 years old!

But this was not the end of Jain’s quest. She looked around for weavers who could recreate the fabric and finally found one. Since her survey, which was a part of the Ph D, indicated that the saris would not be well-received, she got him to weave stoles and towels in the fabric. Soon Jaya Jaitly and her Dastkari Haat stepped in and placed an order for a 100 saris which gave her a shot in the arm. “The event was slotted for December but kept getting postponed as there was just one weaver and it was not possible to complete the order,” she says. The event was finally held in May and the entire stock was sold out in two and a half days with orders being placed for another 100.

Jain decided to introduce new colours. “I wanted to dye them in eco friendly colours but at the same time one that would not bleed. So I started doing eco-friendly dyes which I am trying to get patented,” she says. This innovation led to another set of problems. The weavers wanted to weave the saris in traditional colours of red, yellow and chocolate brown and not have anything to do with black which is considered inauspicious.  “I dyed seven-eight kg of yarn in the colour to get over their inhibitions,” she says and all this while she was teaching at Symbiosis, Pune to fund the project while shuttling to the villages on the weekend. It was when the weavers realised that she was not going to give up and was here to stay that they relented. “I started with one loom in 2014. Now we have 30 weavers and another 15 helpers,” she says. She founded the Punarjeevana, a self-help group for the weavers to make them sustainable at around the same time. “The idea is to make use of locally grown cotton, dye it with natural colours to reduce the carbon footprint as much as possible,” she says.

There were more obstacles. While she was busy completing the order, some women who had picked up the saris from her started selling them on the social media claiming that they had revived it. “Another one cut up the sari, fashioned pants out of it and posted it on the social media, saying that the sari had been reinvented.  Another lady visited the cluster, walked into the weaver’s house claiming to be my friend and clicked photographs which she promptly put on Facebook and said that she was working on it,” she says. 

Others picked up saris from her and gave them to other weavers to replicate them. “Three clusters away there was a powerloom shed where this was taking place. Whatever new colour I developed, however innovative, it was replicated,” says Jain.

What made the sari particularly sought after all of a sudden was the fact that it had reversible pallus, was zero maintanence and was so thick that it could be worn even without a petticoat – making it open to reinterpretation and modern twists. And more than that, the Patteda Anchu had made a buzz in the society circles where it became extremely popular.

As is the case with many handloom saris, the replication of Patteda Anchu takes place on a powerloom which costs one-fourth the price but commands the same amount of money as a handloom. “They are riding on the back of handloom and killing it,” says Jaitley, Dastkari Haat Samiti. Depending on the design, the saris are priced between Rs 800-2,000.

What makes a hand-woven sari different and a masterpiece according to Jain is the slight difference. “These are woven by humans so there is always a margin for a slight difference. This is what makes it unique,” says Jain.

Adds Jaitley, “While shopping online, you can never make out the difference between the two. The touch and the feel are important. Haats and bazaars are essential for this very reason that people can see, touch and feel it. The experience cannot be replicated online.”

Despite the odds Jain continues to soldier on. She has held pop-ups in different cities but the demand has been varied. “In Pune people prefer to buy materials, in Chennai, Hyderabad the fabric is important but they are quick buyers. In Mumbai, the emphasis is on the story behind the sari. In Calcutta on the other hand it is traditional colours like red and yellow that work,” she says.

While funding and imitations continue to be a problem, the group is now self-sustainable. “Weavers come up with ideas and want to experiment. They want to know what fared well at a sale and what did not and are looking at making improvements,” says Jain. With the weavers firmly behind her, she can wear her Ph.D on her sleeve, practically.

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