Everyone recognizes the vibrantly-hued Kanjeevaram, a Chettinadu saree with its rich contrasts of checks, perhaps even a shirt in Madras Checks. But there are some gems like the Kodali Karuppur saree in this filled-to-the-brim treasure trove of Indian weaves just waiting to be unearthed.
The Kodali Karuppur is a type of saree that evolved under the patronage of the Maratha ruler of Tanjore and was made exclusively for the queens of the Tanjore state up to the 19th century. Produced in the village of Kodali Karuppur near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district by weavers whose ancestors had migrated from Saurashtra to Madurai, Salem and Kancheepuram, the weave was also gifted as khillat or ‘clothes of honor’, was a part of a bride’s trousseau and used in certain temple rituals.
This elegant weave may look like any other printed saree with golden buttis but a closer inspection reveals its many layers – gold motifs made with the jamdani technique inlaid into the borders and the body of 100 stitch-count handloom cotton, hand-painted Kalamkari motifs, printing done with woodblocks that coincide exactly with the gold buttis and the rich vegetable dyes that produce earthy hues.
With only a few ancient pieces preserved in some museums coupled with an absence of documentation, the Kodali Karuppur saree was the perfect candidate for joining the ranks of crafts that have slipped into obscurity. That is till the Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC) at the Kalakshetra Foundation – India’s premier center for preservation of India’s rich arts and crafts – decided to change the situation.
Thus began an elaborate project lasting months and requiring intense collaboration between skilled weavers, block-printers and kalamkari artisans to re-create a Kodali Karuppur saree. An exquisite revival, this piece was block-printed using specially created wood blocks based on original designs that matched the jacquard-woven gold motifs made in Jaipur. The weave was bleached with cow dung paste, the outlines then painted by hand on the pallu and the body of the saree using a Kalam and finally dyed using rich natural dyes.
Alum paste for red, a mixture of iron filings, salt water and jaggery for the black and the two colors combined to produce an earthy maroon – this was the color palette of the re-imagined Kodali Karuppur saree. Its motifs echoed the limited and nuanced design vocabulary of the original using geometric and linear patterns, vines, stars, veldarri and the thazhambu or the screw pine flower design (image). And so a beautiful gem from India’s rich textile heritage was recreated and a piece of art that also impacts lives of artisans was nudged back toward the mainstream.
But who gets to see this rare and beautiful craft and how? How about through an assortment of sarees that use block-printed motifs from this revival saree and place them in a contemporary setting on accessible materials like Chanderi, Maheshwari and cotton? These sarees in an updated format are a part of a rich legacy that now you and I can own and wear with pride.
The Kalakshetra Foundation, an arts and culture academy based in Chennai, is one of the most important social institutions in India. Founded by the legendary dancer, choreographer and theosophist Rukmini Devi Arundale in 1936, the foundation is dedicated to preserving India’s rich arts and crafts, music and dance forms.