City Style – Vidya Rao’s Handloom Saris, Mehrauli
Searching for the stylish.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Some of the most beautiful collections of handloom saris in Delhi lie hidden in the closets of designer Laila Tyabji, politician Jaya Jaitley, textile historian Jasleen Dhamija, crafts activist Kamyanai Jalan, Odissi dancer Madhavai Mudgal and thumri singer Vidya Rao.
The Delhi Walla met Ms Rao to view some of her saris at her apartment in Mehrauli. “And this is Mangalagiri cotton,” she tells me, spreading out a deep-pink sari. “It has Ganga-Jamuna borders. No, nothing to do with the rivers! It just means that the two borders are of different colours. See, green on one side and rust-orange on the other.”
Owner of more than 200 handloom saris, Ms Rao says, “Like my books, I have gifted away a lot of my saris to daughters of my friends, friends of my daughter, and of course to my daughter.”
Unfolding a Maheshwari, a specialty of the town of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh, Ms Rao says, “Somebody in some village made it with his hands… most probably they must have used vegetable dyes. It is cotton and silk mixed…touch it…so delicate…the fabric too is woven by hand.”
Ms Rao inherited this passion for handloom saris from her meetings with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, the late leader of India’s crafts movement. “Kamaladeviji lived in a world of fabrics, textures and colors. I remember visiting her on winter afternoons at her bungalow in Canning Lane. Her dining table was most mesmerizing. Every cutlery on her table was different from the other and each was made in a different part of the country. Same was the case with her handloom saris.”
Ms Rao’s wardrobe contains almost the whole of India. There are Kota saris from Rajasthan, Chanderi and Bagh from Madhya Pradesh, Kanjeevaram from Tamil Nadu, Ikat from Odisha, among many others. Today she is wearing a bagru sari from Rajasthan.
Moving her fingers over the sari’s border, Ms Rao says, “See, people expect each motif of the design to be uniform but this one here has a small break; here the registration is just a shade lighter. It’s an human error. This is so unique. And so movingly beautiful. You cannot find this in industrially-manufactured saris.”
Ms Rao’s saris are such fine works of art and each sari so strongly and poignantly reflects the individuality of its weaver that ideally she should give them to some museum for safe-keeping. But she says, “I wear them daily.”
Saris remain the most common feminine attire in our country but easy-to-handle dresses such as salwars & kurtas are fast becoming the first choice for the city’s working women. Indeed, next time you are travelling in the Delhi Metro, try counting the number of women in saris. I did that – couldn’t sight a single sari in my coach.
And on Delhi streets the likelihood of coming face-to-face with a handloom sari is as high as meeting a white tiger.
“It is difficult to maintain them,” says Ms Rao. “You cannot clean a handloom sari in a washing machine. The colors may run. So, you have to hand-wash it. These saris also take a longer time to dry because they have to be hung in the shade. The direct sun may cause the vegetable dyes to fade. And the cotton saris, of course, require starching.”
Ms Rao, who often purchases her saris from crafts exhibitions, is grateful to the services of her part-time maid Maya, who uses only one name. “She helps me in the maintenance of my handloom saris,” says the thumri singer as she and Maya carefully fold an earth-colored bagh.
Labours of love