The recently concluded Chanderi Festival at Madhya Pradesh has put the spotlight back on the handwoven fabric, prized for its lightness, shimmer and sheer texture. During a visit to the five-day festival, I learnt about the many strides the Chanderi fabric is making.
The yarn used to make the Chanderi fabric does not undergo degumming (a process to remove gum) before dyeing. This prevents breakage and helps the fabric retain a unique shine and airy texture.
The festival was fittingly held at the town of Chanderi, where this gossamer fabric is believed to have originated. It started its journey in the house of the royals – kings would wear it as safas (turbans) and queens and princesses would drape it as saris (see box). Now, it is a Geographical Indication (GI)-tagged product. And designers are refashioning Chanderi fabric into co-ords, dresses and Indo-western fusion ensembles.
The demand for Chanderi saris has gone up since Bollywood stars started wearing them. The Chanderi sari donned by Vidya Balan from Raw Mango, the emerald green sari Anushka Sharma picked up while shooting ‘Sui Dhaaga’, the black sari Kareena Kapoor draped during the promotion tour of ‘3 Idiots’ are top-sellers in the village of Pranpur, where the festival was held. By the end of the festival, Santosh Koli, a third-generation weaver from Pranpur, had only one piece of the Raw Mango sari. It was brown in colour and had a gold zari border.
His dhoop-chaon collection had sold out. These saris look different in colour under the sun and shade. “A social media influencer bought a few of them,” said Santosh. To cater to the growing demand, Santosh now employs and mentors 20 weavers under him.
His grandfather Damru Lal Badkul started the family business. He used to weave Chanderi safas and saris, exclusively for the Gwalior royal family.
Traditional motifs found in the Chanderi saris range from singara booti (chestnut) and mirchi booti (chilli) to peacocks, coins, and flowers. While these motifs are still in vogue, enquiries for geometrical and new-age designs are also picking up, says Lala Ram Koli, who has been weaving the Chanderi fabric for almost 35 years. For instance, animal motifs became popular after Alia Bhatt wore a soft pink Chanderi sari with cat motifs to an awards show in 2017.
His wife Kiran handles the business when he is away. She says they make only one piece in a particular design. “This makes every sari an exclusive piece. What else does a woman want?” she asks.
Nalferma and jangla (reminiscent of the windows in the forts in Rajasthan) are among some motifs synonymous with Chanderi weaves. While these time-consuming motifs are almost on the verge of extinction, others like dandidar, chatai, and mehandi designs continue to find takers. Jacquard and dobby weaves with the chidi-paan motif are also much sought-after.
Weavers like Santosh have now started making exclusive designs for customers.
Thanks to the advancement in technology, what the older generation of weavers would weave in 15-20 days, the present generation can do in three days. The use of real gold and silver zari earlier was a bit cumbersome — these used to get tangled while weaving and would take a considerable amount of time to untangle. Synthetic threads, which they use now, are flexible and pass through the threads easily. The adjustment of graphic cards in the looms has also increased productivity, says Santosh.
Lala supplies his saris and fabric to retail brands like Nalli and Fabindia. “They generally ask for the do-naal weave (using two weft yarns),” he says. That’s because it takes less time to weave as compared to the ek-naal (single yarn weft), which is known for its transparent soft finesse. The do-naal weave is also preferred by fashion designers and A-list stars, he added.
Chanderi saris made in silk, cotton silk and silk are most popular.
From the cotton turbans of Maratha rulers to the fashion ramps and labels, Chanderi fabric has come a long way. Fashion designers like Sanjay Garg, Ragini Ahuja and Samant Chauhan have been giving the fabric a modern update.
Design labels like Anju Modi, AM PM, Arvsch by Pallavi Singh, and Gulabo by Abu Sandeep have joined the bandwagon. Some micro brands like Chandrima, Devnaagri, and DHI are also creating new designs and silhouettes in the fabric.
Weaving cluster in focus
The Chanderi Festival, held between October 5 and 9, showcased the fabric’s historical and cultural significance. A budget of Rs 7.5 crore have been allotted for the development of Pranpura, a weaving village in Chanderi. Some of these families have been weaving Chanderi fabric inside their homes for at least a century. As part of the festival, these houses have been decorated with bright colours and traditional Chanderi sari designs. It gives the feel of an art gallery.
The idea behind giving the village a new look is not only to promote it as a tourist spot but also to help people understand the craftsmanship behind weaving each sari.
“We want people to visit the weavers’ houses, hear their stories, and buy directly from them,” said Nagendra Mehta, advisor, art and craft department, Madhya Pradesh tourism.
Nirmal Koli, a fifth-generation weaver, approves of the idea of opening up their homes to potential customers. Earlier, he used to spend a lot of money to sell his stock at fairs. “Now I am trying to learn about online marketing and sell (my products) across thecountry,” he says.
The origins of the Chanderi fabric date back to the seventh century. But it grew in popularity around the 19th century, during the Mughal period, when it drew comparisons with the fine muslin from Dhaka. As it became a chosen gift for the emperor of Delhi, the royal families of Gwalior, Indore, Kolhapur, Baroda, and Nagpur also started donning it during ceremonial functions. The patronisation from the Scindia family of Gwalior and the introduction of gold motifs and silk into Chanderi weaving in the 20th century propelled its popularity.
Chanderi saris in cotton, silk, and cotton silk can start from Rs 1,000 and go up till Rs 1 lakh.
(Published 27 October 2023, 21:10 IST)