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The Fabric of India

Zubin Shroff A Muslim tie-dyed <em>longhi</em> for men that dates back more than 100 years.

Photo: Zubin Shroff

Mita disappears into a neighboring hut. (There’s a satellite-TV dish sticking out of the thatched roof.) She returns with a long strip of black cloth with four-inch by four-inch designs on it. It’s a kind of "notebook." Mita explains that she is interviewing the older women of the village and recording their special stitches, "so we will keep the traditions."

As in other villages in the Rann of Kutch, women here do their finest work for their dowries and less- time-consuming work on bags and quilts for sale to tourists and collectors. Sewing machines and synthetic fabrics, however, are dras- tically changing the styles and traditions, along with cable TV, which airs the latest Bollywood soap operas. A. A. Wazir, a textile collector in Bhuj, bemoans the arrival of cable TV in the Rann a few years ago. "Very bad for the tradition. Very bad," he says.

A thousand miles away, on India’s southeastern coast outside Chennai, Visalakshi Ramaswamy, an interior designer and textile expert, echoes the same sentiments. "Now, with the Jacquard loom, you can scan any picture into the computer and create program punch cards for the loom," she says. "Last year, ’Cinderella skirts’ were the rage among young girls. Every eight-year-old wanted a skirt with the story of Cinderella woven around the border."

Ramaswamy tells me that southern Indians have the reputation of being more reserved and religious than their northern countrymen. The waves of Muslim invaders never penetrated as far south as Chennai, so the beautiful Hindu temple complexes nearby remain intact. Temples, which require religious wall hangings and banners, became creative hubs for craftsmen and remain so today. Sri Kalahasti, a popular pilgrimage site 80 miles north of Chennai, is the home of Gurappa Shetty and his son J. Niranjan, master textile artists whose work is collected throughout India. Sri Kalahasti’s tradition of kalamkari, painted narrative and religious textiles, gave birth in the 17th century to chintz, the glazed cot­ton once coveted by European royalty.

This morning, we are heading south of Chennai toward Kanchi-puram, one of the most sacred cities in India, with some 125 recognized shrines. Kanchipuram is a household word for the most desired silk wedding saris in India as well as cottons in brilliant checks and plaids. Typically, Kanchipuram saris have patterns of brightly contrasting colors—maroon and green, peacock blue and pink—and gold or silver thread woven into the borders. "Often, Kanchipuram silk is considered superior because each thread is composed of six fine twists of silk instead of three," Ramaswamy says. The added weight of the silk is said to make it fall gracefully over a woman’s body, creating curves where there should be and hiding others.

About 60,000 of Kanchipuram’s 188,000 residents are weavers, and they live in clusters of family work compounds, as they have for hundreds of years. We stop at one compound. The low cement houses contain small rooms where some men are working, tying knots on pieces of string as a guide to the designs on handlooms. Others are using a computer to punch the cardboard strips that shape the designs on Jacquard looms.

In another dimly lit room, a woman works at a semiautomatic Jacquard loom, which fills the space. Her toddler sits quietly on the bench beside her. The design cards rattle as they move along the top of the loom, directing the horizontal threads that control the design and freeing the weaver from the tedious job of manipulating knots. Still, moving the small spindle by hand through 2,400 threads (the fabric’s width) is hard work—which will earn this woman about $2 a day. (The six-yard sari, which takes about two weeks to produce, will sell for about $70.) It is as if all of her and her family’s creative energies are involved in producing this remarkable cloth, and their surroundings are unimportant to them.

During my travels in India, I’ve found myself almost unconsciously leaving my dull, Western clothes behind me in hotels: khakis, a white shirt, a beige cotton jacket. It is impossible not to be seduced by the fabrics of India. Here in Chennai, I finally succumb to buying a sari. Mine is from Arani, near Kanchipuram, in a shade of purple-green called tender mango, which is said to resemble the color of the young shoots of the mango tree. I don’t know if I will wear it, but I will never tire of looking at the fabric’s dancing colors in the light. It is alive—a sprout of transplanted mango in my bedroom.

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