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Breathing life into Chanderi

Inspired by the delicate, stunning silks of their ancestors immortalised in Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, the royal Gaekwad family of Baroda presents Chanderi sarees with real gold and silver zari work, finds Kareena Gianani

In 1988, Rajmata Subhangini Raje Gaekwad planned her daughter’s trousseau and was keen to gift her Chanderi sarees with real gold and silver zari, like the ones she and her royal ancestors had worn for years — gossamer to touch and bewitching to look at.

Rajmata Subhangini Raje Gaekwad and Maharani Radhika outside the Laxmi Vilas in Baroda
Rajmata Subhangini Raje Gaekwad and Maharani Radhika outside the Laxmi Vilas in Baroda

However, all that was available around her was synthetic fabric, their weaves stiff and graceless. She travelled to the town of Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, found contractors who then got weavers to create sarees as per Rajmata’s taste. Years later, in 2003, when she came to Mumbai to exhibit the royal family’s collection of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, Gaekwad says she noticed how painstakingly the artist had painted her ancestors’ Chanderi silks. 

A painting of Maharani Chimnabai I by Raja Ravi Varma
A painting of Maharani Chimnabai I by Raja Ravi Varma

“I saw the paintings in context of the sarees and remembered how difficult it was to get an authentic Chanderi silk saree in real zari work. So, I decided to begin commissioning them to the weavers and revive the tradition in my own, small way,” she elaborates. Rajmata and her daughter-in-law, Maharani Radhika, seek inspiration from their family heirlooms and some of Varma’s paintings, which depict their ancestors in stunning Chanderi silks. Excerpts from an interview with Radhika.

Q. To what extent and how is your collection inspired by the Gaekwad family’s Raja Ravi Varma collection?
A. The sarees we commission to the weavers in Chanderi are inspired by the colours we see in Varma’s 43 paintings in the Gaekwad collection, or the ashraf booti (a kind of motif) on some sarees he painted. For instance, Varma’s works painted under the 12-year-long patronage of the Gaekwad family include one of goddess Laxmi, and Ganga — both of whom are dressed in Chanderi silks of some fabulous shades of red and white, which we tried to revive.

A pink, Chanderi saree with a gold zari border;
A pink, Chanderi saree with a gold zari border

Q. What went behind the revival in context to the weavers back in Chanderi, the aesthetic you wanted to incorporate and so on?
A. The weavers who wove Chanderi silks with pure gold and silver zari work during my mother-in-law’s time were no more when we decided to take this project up. There were other weavers, but they had begun to work with cheaper materials and had to relearn this skill. We found contractors who invested in raw material and approached five families of weavers, but this is a gradual learning process for the latter even today — because the heirlooms we give them to copy designs from have complicated patters and colour combinations which haven’t been attempted in a while.

Q. Your sarees come with contemporary designs for their blouses. Tell us more.
A. We want to retain the traditional, quaint colours and designs when it comes to the sarees — we are clear about not producing them in bulk or introducing modern motifs or colour combinations. It is for the same reason that we limit the weaves to sarees, and have not introduced dupattas or stoles. We have, however, teamed the sarees with modern-cut blouses to make the collection appealing to women from a younger age group, too. The blouses are optional.
The collection (Rs 40,000 onward) is available at Taj Khazana, at all hotels of the Taj Mahal groups in Mumbai

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