Sarees of Memory Research

Venkatagiri is a small town in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. It was once ruled by the Velugotis of the Velama community and caste, Zamindars of Telangana, once part of Andhra Pradesh. Though it was under the control of the Vijayanagar Empire, it later came under the jurisdiction of the Nawab of Arcot. However, the Velugoti dynasty continued to control these areas as feudatory entities. In the 19th century it was declared a zamindari state by the British empire.

The history of India’s cotton trade can be traced back to the 1st century CE. Texts like Periplus of the Erythraean Sea mention the extensive trade of cotton between India, Greece and Rome. While block prints of Gujarat were popular across the world, it was India’s muslins that caught worldwide attention. The soft and fine texture of muslin drew the British to establish a monopoly on cotton trade for lucrative gain, transforming India from being a manufacturer of cotton, to a mere supplier of the yarn, in the 19th and 20th century. The ‘Indian Textile Manufacturers’;a set of textile volumes put together by John Forbes Watson, was done with the intent of cataloguing textiles from India that could be replicated in mills of Britain to be sold back in India for profit. The muslins from Nellore (Venkatagiri) were cited as one such example.

Watson elaborates that such muslins were used for dhotis, handkerchiefs, as yardage for other essentials. In the east Godavari district town of Uppada, muslins of very fine counts were traditionally manufactured. They incorporated an extra weft pattern, similar to the Jamdani technique of Banaras and the north. Skilled weavers of Uppada had migrated to Venkatagiri at the invitation of the zamindars. There, at Venkatagiri, the fine muslin sarees were woven for royalty alone, simple in aesthetic but luxurious in motif and patina. Elements of gold were added to the cotton, using pure gold zari which remains the important and defining characteristic of this saree. The body length, an unbleached, off-white colour akin to that of a conch, blends into the gold threads to create a sense of light playing upon the waves of the sea as they come to shore and then ebb under the shimmering light of the moon.

Rta Kapur Chisti notes that in the past the gold borders were taken up to the selvedge and cotton was only used at the four ends to keep it firm. The saree, made of high-density cotton fibre, was so fine as it was woven using 200 counts yarn. Today, manufactured and churned out on power looms, using an 80s to 100s count cotton, have given these sarees a coarse texture. Weavers have introduced a colour palette, and large motifs of parrots and flowers.

The Sarees of Memory collection was born in collaboration with Ms Malvika Singh, publisher of ‘Seminar’ and a lifelong patron of handloom sarees. Through her memories of the Venkatagiri sarees, the collection attempts to re- establish a skill set very particular to the Venkatagiri. According to the census of Andhra Pradesh, up until 1961 sarees were made with fine count hand spun cotton and refined zari according to the Andhra Pradesh census (Sekhar 1967). The observations of the census corroborate Malvika Singh’s material recollections pertaining to fine cotton sarees, refined zari and particular borders from Venkatagiri.

Recognizing that noble materials associated with the Venkatagiri saree have not been practiced by the weaving community for several decades, the project was initiated as a study on material usages, particularly of cotton, zari, and loom infrastructure, including but not limited to metal and bamboo reeds.

The key objectives are:

  1. Establishing the degree of fine count cotton that the weaver is able to spin on a handloom with geometric patterns : checks, stripes, chevrons.
  2. Establishing and understanding different types of zari available in the market today and the ability of the weaver to work with these materials.
    1. Defining a zari glossary for the purpose of navigating different types of metal material.
    2. Defining the skill capacity of the weavers and their ability to weaver fine count cotton with different types of zari and silk.
    3. This material study enables weaver and wearer to appreciate distinct qualities associated with the Venkatgiri saree:
      1. The use and relevance of noble materials - cotton, silk, gold, silver, copper
      2. Responsible production that respects raw material and skillset of the weavers.
      3. Proximity to nature and a high regard to the environment in choosing to work with local raw materials such as cotton and available within the region.
  3. Creating a viable, sustainable long-term environmental and economic entity that contributes to the growth of the individual and community.