Pushpeshu jati, purusheshu Vishnu; Narishu Rambha, nagareshu Kanchi—Kalidasa
(Among flowers, jasmine; among men, Vishnu; among women, Rambha and among cities, Kanchi.)
In one of the most memorable scenes in Priyadarshan’s Kanchivaram, an award-winning Tamil film set in the Kanchipuram of the ’40s, Vengadam, a silk weaver, carries his tired wife on his shoulders to show off a sari he had woven for his master’s daughter on her wedding day. As they rush to the venue, his eyes brim with the pride of a creator. But his wife’s wistful eyes betray a different emotion—her longing for an exquisite silk sari.
Some scenes later, the protagonist, played by Prakash Raj, promises his newborn daughter that he will get her married off in a silk sari. But, as society conspires otherwise, he fails. The movie ends on a bitter note as Vengadam poisons his invalid daughter and tries to cover her body with a half-woven sari, a poignant metaphor of unfulfilled aspirations.
The Kanchipuram of today is nothing like the Kanchipuram of the ’40s. The town, which derives its name from kanchana or gold, is situated about 60 km from Chennai and is a bustling economic hub. The roads are dotted with tourists, pilgrims and young men in smart formals waiting for their office buses to pick them up.
The lives of the weavers have improved, too. Over the years, they have formed co-operative societies that help them participate in and benefit from the market directly. “The ’90s and most of the last decade were good for us. That was the time we all made money. The bonuses were good, and that was when many of us built our own houses,” says M Venkatesan, a weaver.
Then came the twist of irony.
The sari that symbolised high living for decades started to become a tad too expensive even for the well-heeled, thanks to the sky-high prices of gold and silver. Both the metals are extensively used for the intricate zari work on the sari.
Ten years ago, you could have bought 10 grams of gold for Rs 4,900. Now, the price is hovering around Rs 30,000 and is expected to touch Rs 32,000 by Diwali. Silver also costs 15 percent more than last year. This unfettered price rise has sounded the death knell for the silk weavers of Kanchipuram. Costs have doubled in three years and customers, who used to buy at least half a dozen Kanchipuram saris for a wedding, have pruned their shopping list to barely a couple.
The retail shops see a brisk business, but the demand is for factory-made saris, not handmade ones. This has sent the fortunes of the Kanchipuram co-operatives into a tailspin. Out of the over 250 societies, only four or five are doing well. The number of looms has come down to about 20,000 from 50,000 in the early ’90s. Many weavers, especially the younger ones, have taken up jobs in the automobile and electronics factories that have come up on the outskirts of Chennai.
In some ways, weaving is an accidental industry in Kanchipuram. There are no silk farms in and around the town. Silk comes from Karnataka and the zaris from Surat. The town’s only contribution is its talent and a long tradition of making a product that is distinctly different from what they make in cities like Varanasi, Dharmavaram or Arani.
Weavers here use two strands of silk, making it heavier and sturdier than the others. The borders—whose base contrasts the rest of the sari and which carries most of the zaris—are broad. The artists buy zaris by marcs (equivalent to 242 gm) that comprise 57 percent silver and 0.6 percent gold. Zari work accounts for about 30 percent of the weight of a sari. That means a sari that could have been priced at Rs 4,000 in 2007 costs no less than Rs 7,000-Rs 8,000 now.
The customers have started to look for alternatives. “If a bride got a couple of saris for her wedding earlier, she gets only one now. If close relatives got one earlier, they get none. When they buy, they go for the cheaper varieties,” says Manikavelu of Ananda Silks, a retailer with a showroom in Kanchipuram.
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(This story appears in the 26 October, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)