It’s fabulous that saris are reportedly red hot again on ramps and at parties, for besides covering a multitude of shins, they let you be a samurai in the politest way. Just think how certain sorts of kanjivaram and madurai cotton exude power, whereas sanganeri, chikan and chiffon seem to work better for parties (MGD, whose mother invented the chiffon sari, absolutely owned that look).
Again, fine tussar, ikat, murshidabad and bhagalpuri quietly say ‘don’t mess with me’ as do some crepes and tanchois. Net saris, alas, look like ‘machhar daani’ unless you’re 18 or the wife of the mayor of ‘Slamabad (just my stuffy view; I couldn’t resist that one pearl-crusted net dupatta at Bareeze, Lahore, in 2002 and haven’t worn it once, for fear of being declared ‘tankhaiya’ by Old Adyar).
Anyway, to go back a bit, everyone agrees that it was thanks to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-1988) that we got to wear so many nice clothes again after a hundred years and thousands of craftspeople came back to life from death-by-gora.
For instance, nobody outside had heard of kalamkari until the 1950s when Kamaladevi traced Jonnalagadda Lakshmiah, the last surviving master of this art, to Kalahasti in Andhra Pradesh. Over glasses of rasam, Kamaladevi convinced the reluctant maestro to re-start and train others. She personally funded the purchase of cotton longcloth and dyes and created a sensation with the first batch at the Cottage Industries Emporium.
Nobody knew of Pochampalli either until Kamaladevi, a wet towel tied over her head in a trick learnt from Bapu, drove through scorched Andhra countryside to track down weavers. The first three saris together cost Rs. 120.
Cottage Industries Emporium placed its first order, the weavers were promptly paid and a link was established. Kamaladevi sent some of those weavers to Varanasi to learn ikat and silk weaving and history reinvented itself. Not just Pochampalli village but apparently all of Nalgonda district prospered then.
Even Dhaka sari makers in Bangladesh re-learnt vegetable dyeing through the efforts of Ruby Ghaznavi who borrowed a master dyer from Kamaladevi, while Madhya Pradesh’s famous nandrabuti-printed kosa silk sari was another happy marriage of Kamaladevi’s making.
And now, with the fourth generation since Kamaladevi making saris sizzle again, perhaps we’ll bin those loser lbds or donate them to a correctional facility. Meanwhile I, like many, can reliably report that saris seem to get good street cred and better service abroad than black-and-bling (thank you, Kamaladeviji).