Corporate lawyer-turned-textile designer Vinay Narkar went on a sari trail to revive two traditional weaves that had faded out from looms five decades ago
The starry night of Makar Sankranti caught in the warp and weft of a sari fired the imagination of corporate lawyer Vinay Narkar. Leafing through pages of Marathi poetry and novels, he found several references to the Chandrakala sari, woven in jet black or deep blue silk to mimic the night skies, embellished with golden buttas. It was gifted to brides for their first Sankranti, a festival celebrated to mark the winter solstice.
Smitten by the Chandrakala, Vinay, who hails from the weaving hub of Sholapur in Maharashtra, tried to trace the weavers. However, he found that they had stopped weaving the Chandrakala sari some 60 years ago.
So he traveled to Baroda to see paintings of the Chandrakala. There, he saw a Raja Ravi Varma painting of Maharani Chimnabai Gaekwad in a Chandrakala sari and a photograph of Chimnabai weaving a Chandrakala. He also found a painting by MV Dhurandhar in Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, of a woman wearing the Chandrakala.
“Although the sari was very much alive in Marathi literary works, history books, paintings, and folk songs, none of the present-day weavers had any idea about it. the sari. With the help of paintings and literary references, I managed to get a master weaver to revive the sari in 2017,” says Vinay, speaking over the phone from Sholapur.
He explains that 60 to 70 years back, it was a common custom for married women to meet for a haldi-kumkum ceremony during the festival of Sankranti in Maharashtra, donning their black Chandrakala saris. “Black is usually considered inauspicious for religious functions. But the black or deep blue Chandrakala was the sari chosen for this function. It would be adorned with motifs of the moon and stars,” he says.
Although the Chandrakala continued to be woven in Paithani saris, Vinay is thrilled that he was able to revive the Chandrakala’s true sheen. His first batch of saris was completely sold out. “Now I have a village of weavers in Telangana and that is where the Chandrakalas are woven. The traditional weaving villages of Maharashtra have almost been wiped out and only senior citizens remember that they were part of a proud legacy of weavers,” he says.
Following the advice of Oscar-winning costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, Vinay left his job as a lawyer and began pursuing his passion for reviving threads that had been snapped by changes in fashion and manufacture.
It was always a couplet, a few lines, or a mention in a novel that would snag Vinay’s attention. That was how he noticed the Joat in a traditional Marathi couplet. He found that it was a sari and stumbled on a photograph of a Joat sari in a book that mentioned that the sari was from Nagpur. Vinay tried to gather the threads of the story by traveling to Nagpur. Then he saw photographs of fragments and pieces of the sari in websites of museums like the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
“As luck would have it, I came across a nearly 80-year-old Joat sari with an antique dealer and I had to have it. I found that the distinguishing feature of a Joat sari is an ikat band in the border of the sari,” explains the 45-year-old.
His journey led him to the Indrayani Handlooms Weavers in Nagpur. Veterans there and in villages around Nagpur told him that they remembered their mothers and grandmothers wearing the sari that used to be woven in the thousands in villages of Vidharbha. Vinay rues that the busy weaving villages have almost all been lost in time and deserted sheds bear mute witness to the glory of the past.
“Finally, I traveled to the historic town of Achalpur, a famous center of weaving. Senior weavers told me that in the 1940s, wholesale dealers used to come in droves from as far as Karachi to buy saris from the villages. Weavers would work through the night to meet the demand for the markets held on Wednesdays and Saturdays,” narrates Vinay.
Determined to revive the Joat sari, Vinay turned to his women weavers in Telangana to weave the sari and he showcased at a few exhibitions and on his social media pages. The overwhelming response validated that he was on the right track. “I was happy and honored when literature-actor-artist Madhuri Purandhare posed for a photograph in a Joat sari,” says Vinay.
Enthused by his success, Vinay is planning to revive some more of the weaving traditions that have faded away from the scene. He says: “The textile industry was one of the first in India to be industrialized and I feel that could be one of the reasons why many traditional weavers gave up their work. Sartorial choices and the arrival of synthetic saris may also have played a part. I feel each of our saris has many stories to narrate — of the region they represent, the materials used, the border, the way it is worn, and so on. We must strive to keep those alive,” he says.