Sometimes, it’s about staying with traditional colours while experimenting with contemporary formats; other times, it’s about marrying old forms with modern hues. That’s the soul of Kanakavalli, a curated collection of Kanjivaram saris put together by Ahalya S, one of Chennai’s best-known sari and jewellery designers. We are standing in Kingsley, an old bungalow in Chennai’s Chetpet area, that Ahalya took over and restored two years ago and now uses to retail her beautiful wares. In of the four rooms in the bungalow, dedicated exclusively to Kanakavalli, there are tall, bay windows that overlook a garden on one side and a courtyard on another.
The designer-curator holds up an indigo blue Kanjivaram, which is part of the Lotus Pond collection. She explains: “The Kanjivaram is usually all about geometry and precision, from the thread count to the placing of the motifs. The idea of the Lotus Pond collection is to explore and unravel, within the format, a motif that is rarely used in the weave.” In colours like mystic blue, sage green and pink, the collection—which was launched four months ago and will find new expressions in the future—also flirts with the idea of softness and drape. Pointing to the garment in her hand, Ahalya says it was originally white, then discharge-printed with precise blocks. “It has been over-dyed and embroidered by some of the world’s best embroiders. The over-dyeing technique lends the sari its softness, making it ideal for an evening out without compromising on the power quality that the Kanjivaram stands for,” she explains.
Next, she pulls out a Muppaggam sari. These saris typically have horizontal stripes in dark colours running through the length. But what we see is a shaded pink sari that’s chic and modern. “Three shades of pink find place here,” Ahalya says, draping it on herself to allow us to appreciate how a traditional format has been rejigged. That is indeed the core of Kanakavalli: staying rooted to the Kanjivaram ethic while making it relevant in modern times. The target audience? Women who are sensitive to their roots but modern in their tastes. The luxurious showcasing at Kingsley is an added USP.
To come up with fresh designs, the designer spends a lot of time with her 17 master weavers from Kanchipuram who, in turn, work with an array of weavers with specific skill sets and aesthetics. There are some, she says, “who are traditional and stick to the classic; others are willing to experiment with form and format. I like collaborating with both because I believe all art is about collaboration. I also believe that their skill is to create and design while mine is to curate and to sell to those who appreciate what we are trying to do.”
Collaboration and inclusiveness are among the brand’s core values. With that in mind, last November, Kanakavalli launched an online initiative called Jottings & Portraits, a collection of photographs of women wearing their most favourite Kanjivarams. “We didn’t invite only clients to participate,” Ahalya says. “We asked everyone who loves the weave to stop by our store and have themselves photographed. The idea was to reiterate the fact that the Kanjivaram is an inclusive garment that we have all inherited together.”
In less than 18 months since its inception, Kanakavalli has captured the imagination and sensibility of women not just in Chennai, but across the country. Every other month, Ahalya carries a curated line to an exhibition in a different metro, allowing women to experience the beauty of these unique saris first-hand. June will see Kanakavalli in Hyderabad, and it will be present in Delhi in September.
In addition, Kanakavalli sells 300-400 saris a year through Parisera.com. The portal was set up by Ahalya four years ago, to allow people to appreciate the magic of Indian handloom and craft.
“Curation is at the heart of sales,” she says. Truer words were never spoken.