The Tungabhadra river flows, not too far from where we stand. On its southern bank is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi, the capital of the mighty Krishnadevaraya’s Vijayanagara empire. But we are on the northern banks at Anegundi village, said to be older than Hampi. All around are hills with massive boulders precariously perched on top of each other, and there is a constant chatter of monkeys. Not surprising, since this is Kishkinda, the monkey kingdom, where it is believed Hanuman, Vali, Sugreeva and their mighty armies ruled. Significant episodes from the Ramayana played out here.
Watch | Red Lilies, Water Birds: The Saree — In Nine Stories
We wait outside the 14th century Ranganathaswamy temple for writer and independent curator of textiles Mayank Mansingh Kaul, to lead us on a curated walk that is part of the evocatively-named exhibition, Red Lilies, Water Birds: The Saree — In Nine Stories. As we set off, admiring the rangoli running the length of either side of the lanes, the fragrance of sambrani and a whiff of cow dung that is smoothed over the threshold of every house in the village, hang in the air. Only the occasional splutter of autorickshaws and mobile ringtones remind us that we are not subjects of Krishnadevaraya, but people of the 21st century.
The exhibition has been put together by The Registry of Sarees (TRS), a Bengaluru-based research and study centre that enables design, curatorial and publishing projects in the area of handspun and handwoven textiles. “It is a narrative that is 150 years old. And Red Lilies, Water Birds feeds the curatorial path TRS has embarked upon,” said Ahalya Mathan, founder of TRS.
Why Red Lilies, Water Birds?
“When I read the lines in a translated early mediaeval Tamil classic, Muttollayiram [a collection of poems in praise of the Chera, Chola and Pandya dynasties], the beautiful image they evoked stayed with me,” says Kaul.
The land of Kothai, deft wielder of a spear, with poison-tipped, leaf-shaped head, knows no turmoil except that caused by the water birds. For when the red lilies bloom in the waterlogged fields, the birds panic, thinking the water is on fire…
108 weaves in the spotlight
The nine stories refer to the broadly categorised textiles on display — kora or unbleached materials in their undyed form, the colour red, the ikat weave, stripes and checks, metallic brocades of Deccan and South India, metallic brocades of Deccan and Gujarat, traditions of Varanasi handlooms (in two parts), and global influences. “It took Ally [Ahalya] and me three years of travel across the country to acquire over 500 saris. We have brought 108 of those to Anegundi,” says Kaul.
It was a deliberate decision to take the handloom narrative out of museums into more interactive spaces. Curator Mayank picked the centuries-old Anegundi, some 350 kilometres away from Bengaluru, to tell the these stories.
The saris are displayed in four heritage homes with lime-plastered walls that have been converted into galleries, and as we visit each one, the stories about the draped garments from the late 19th to the early 20th century unfold. We stand on cool flagstone floors and look at the Venkatagiris, Paithanis, Kanjivarams, Benarasis, Jaamdanis, Kotpads, Panetars, Balucheris, Sambalpuris… Kaul points out the distinct structural elements of a sari: the border, the pallu, and the ‘field’ or the body. He explains the use of natural dyes derived from madder, chay, lac and cochineal.
Homes turn museums
The heritage homes have been restored and maintained by The Kishkinda Trust (TKT). It works with the local communities of Anegundi at the grassroots level, by engaging and empowering them to enhance their quality of life, and hosts multi-disciplinary projects of which Red Lilies, Water Birds is one. “Culture is a living thing and celebrating these old houses with textiles is an integrated approach. Conservation should be a part of daily life and not something that is static,” says Shama Pawar, the founder of TKT. “For 25 years, the trust has attempted to make conservation inclusive. Our projects display the adaptive reuse of heritage spaces that are brought to life with art and culture.”
Taking saris out of geographical straitjackets
Red Lilies, Water Birds also aims to create awareness among the new generation. When Kaul planned the project, he was careful not to make it too didactic. “I had to break up the narratives into digestible morsels. And, in the five years we have had to get to this point, so many layers of meaning have been added to the collection.” He says it is time to take the saris out of straitjackets of the geographical area they have been confined in, and instead celebrate their shared narratives and salient features.
As we peer closely at a magnificent Kanjivaram sari from the 1940s covered with tiny gold motifs, he says the motif is called mayil kannu in Tamil Nadu or the eye of the peacock. The very same weave is used in the making of pashmina shawls in Kashmir; only there it is called chashme bulbul. It just goes to prove that weaving techniques, dyeing traditions, motifs are dynamic, and that is how they should be viewed.
The experience at Anegundi brings home the fact that these are living traditions, still vibrant, meaningful and contemporary. Many of the saris at the exhibition are ones I have back home. Kaul says that encapsulates what the curation is all about — that the saris, even the oldest Paithani on display that dates back to the 19th century, are about the here and now, and not dead and forgotten.
Manish Saksena, a participant in the walk, has worked in the handloom sector for more than 20 years. He leads the CSR initiative of Aditya Birla, called Aadyam Handwoven, to create a self-sustaining ecosystem for artisans in the country. “The unique setting of Red Lilies, Water Birds reminds us of our rich lineage of weaving. The minute we put ‘heritage’ in a conventional museum, it becomes something that is firmly placed in the past. But I know from experience that even today our weavers’ community has the skills to recreate some of the saris here, and we should not take that for granted.”
A chance to learn and unlearn
There are several walkthroughs in the course of the day, some in English and others in Kannada. The buzz spills out of the exhibition spaces as artists, musicians, designers and historians discuss, dissect and post on their Instagram pages.
For 29-year-old textile revivalist and designer Saurav Das, the exhibition is an opportunity to see, absorb, learn and unlearn. “It creates an impact and introduces the lay person to the story of our textiles. How much of a difference it makes when artisans, weavers, dyers and those who share the same textile path are able to see these amazing creations up close and not in cabinets in conventional museums. This is a way to carry the mission of preserving, researching and learning forward.”
Spreading the word
In the coming days, Red Lilies, Water Birds will host a creative cultural programme organised by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, where a series of talks, workshops and mentorship modules will initiate relevant conversations around craft and entrepreneurship.
Red Lilies, Water Birds is on till December 6. To register, visit theregistryofsarees.com.