Sarees from Kancheepuram are popular both in India and abroad.
In Kancheepuram, they don't just weave silks but an entire tradition. Till 1865, there was no silk or even mulberry here. When the Maharaja of Mysore descended on the Varadaraja temple, sporting silk, he caught the fancy of the residents of the temple city. Today, 75 per cent of the city's population is engaged in the silk industry-some for more than five generations. Even now, the ready spools come from Mysore and the designs, gleaned from temples, palaces and paintings.
Says Yuvraj Srinivas, owner of a weaving house, “We do a lot of customised work too, with colours and patterns as ordered by a client. But the baasic concept does not change. The paisleys, peacocks, yali (horselike motif) and temple designs remain the same old ones. Over time, we have also inducted motifs from the Baluchari of Bengal, that is, scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Bhagwad Gita is also quite popular these days.” The colours are traditionally bright or earthy-scarlet, emerald green, black, ochre, purple, steel blue, peacock blue and turquoise-and some are specially made in red and white for religious occasions. One major difference between the Kancheepuram silk and the Mysore silk is that the former uses twisted yarn and the latter mostly crepe.
The twisted yarn is said to be much stronger than crepe and guaranteed to last 30 to 40 years. There are 100-odd silk shops in Kancheepuram, selling sarees that come out of more than 600 looms. They come in two categories, wedding sarees with heavy jaquard work and the less decorative multi-purpose ones.
The sale at Yuvraj’s shop alone would give an idea of the kind of demand there is for Kanjeevaram silk, despite the high prices. At least 90 wedding sarees arrive here from the looms every day, along with thrice as many less-expensive ones. Most of these are sold off, not only to customers within the country but also abroad. “We have NRI clients in every continent,” says Yuvraj, “including some regular ones in the US, the UK, France, Germany and also Australia.”
The prices range between Rs 1,500 and Rs 50,000, from the simplest item to the most intricate zari detail and meena work on wedding sarees. Zari comprises 63 per cent silver electro-plated with gold (14 per cent), which ensures that you get back at least the silver's worth when you burn an old saree. A simple saree takes 10-12 days to weave and a decorative one, up to 20 days. The weaver charges anywhere between Rs 1,200 and Rs 4,000, depending on the effort put in.