The jawali, “Sariga Kongu’, as taught to Rukmini Devi by Mylapore Gowri Ammal, depicted the handsome Krishna flirting with the sakhi, a pretty girl whose face is covered with a bordered sari. Ghanam Sinnayya’s (aka Ghanam Krishna Iyer) interpretation of it in Rukmini Devi’s programme catalogue explained this flirtation as, “In the dusk, Radha goes on her way, but seeing Sri Krishna pass by, she covers her face with her gold bordered sari. From under the cover of the sari, she glances towards him as if beckoning to him.”VAK Rangarao, a Telugu scholar, offers an explanation that the jawali is actually talking of a gopi teasing Krishna about dallying with a woman who has covered her face with a bordered sari. In the long term, Mylapore Gowri Ammal’s interpretation was adopted by Kalakshetra.

George Arundale was very much taken by this jawali and would imitate Radha’s coquettish walk and the sari draped on the head and the flirtatious look, much to the amusement of the students at Besant Memorial School. Any time he saw Karaikkal Sharadambal on the campus, he would request a demonstration of the finer movements of walking forwards heel first, and backwards, toe first, as also gestures of peeping from under a richly embroidered garment. She would oblige, immensely flattered, dancing to a folk song Chinna Chinna Ponne, Chinna Kondai Kari.

Rukmini Devi began wearing saris like her sisters at the relatively young age of 13. When she married George Arundale at 16, she was gifted several exquisite saris and enjoyed wearing them, encouraged by Annie Besant. Beautifully bordered ones became a passion and she made it her mission to bring back the traditional motifs and designs to replace the white Khadi cotton identified with India’s freedom movement.

Kancheepuram, Salem, Arni and Koranad were famous for their beautiful, handwoven silk saris. Legends, myths, and trails of history were woven into the sensuous fabric, which caught and radiated light, giving it its characteristic lustre, subtle and gleaming. The silk sari’s delicate, supple folds and elegant fluidity flattered the body with its soft luminosity, adding an auspicious facet to the woven silk yarn.

The art of weaving had been handed down through generations but was deeply affected by two events. The British-made mill clothing introduced cheap fabric into the market. Next, Mahatma Gandhi’s khadi movement made white the freedom fighter’s colour, impacting the jewel-like colours offered by the traditional silk weavers.

Rukmini Devi was fascinated by the forest of beams, toggles, ropes and pins that made up a loom and viewed it as a design art installation. She believed that temple sculptures were influenced by nature and art and in turn influenced the designs on the saris. Rukmini Devi saw bhava (an inherent emotion) and rasa (an answering connection from the viewer) in these designs and felt they were deep and meaningful.

She embarked on a journey into colour, sensory experience and material culture as she revived and revolutionised the weaving industry in Tamil Nadu. She guided the weavers to re-explore traditional techniques and created an extraordinary language fused from colour, vividness, pattern, motif, yarn, thread and natural dyes. She went to the homes of weavers around Madras and Kanchipuram and dug out the designs they had wrapped and put away in attics. She collected old saris and got the weavers to copy those designs.

Broadly described as a cotton sari woven on the Kanjeevaram loom meant for silk saris, she authored an aesthetic that defined the Kalakshetra sari. The body section was striped or checked, with patterns of rudraksha beads, parrots, swans and paisley designs. She sought old patterns like black and white checks, puliankottai or tamarind seed, vazhaipoo or banana flower lines in two colours where the warp and weft threads criss-cross resplendently, and sabai alankaram or court adornment that has checks with dots in bright colours.

She brought back the complex weaving technique called Korvai to interlace broad temple or gopuram borders with the body of the sari. The nelis (twirled string) designs on the gold zari pallu or thalaippu (end of the sari thrown over the shoulder) had rich animal and tree abstracted motifs, telling their own stories. These saris were sought out by the elite women of Madras and there was a long line waiting for their orders to be completed. Now the Kalakshetra cotton sari has become casual wear for office-going women on festive occasions. Dance students of Kalakshetra shine in these saris as they usher in visitors to the annual festival performances at the theatres. But the salwar kameez of North India offers easier daily work wear and has now become pan-Indian.

Kalakshetra also produced a more humane material called Ahimsa, or non-violent, silk with soft colour qualities. Most silk harvesting requires the silkworms to be killed in their cocoon stage. Ahimsa silk, on the other hand, is produced by wild silk moths which are allowed to complete the metamorphosis of the silkworm to its moth stage and the left-over cocoon is used to draw the silk yarn. No silkworms suffer or die in the production, making it a favourable alternative to normal silk for those who object to harming animals. The yarn is coarser and less lustrous in Ahimsa silk.

Excerpted with permission from Rukmini Devi Arundale: Arts Revivalist and Institution Builder, VR Devika, Niyogi Books.