Losing a niche, korvai in Kancheepuram

This Deepavali was a very happy one for weaver D. Krishnamoorthy and his family — he got an order for a Korvai silk saree!

“You may be wondering why we are elated. It’s simple. If we weave a Korvai saree, we will get enhanced wages. Not only that, such orders help us keep in touch with the craft, which is slowly fading away,” said the 49-year-old, who is like any other Kancheepuram weaver, sustaining his small family through hand-to-mouth earnings in this town of silk sarees.

In a Korvai saree, the artisan weaves the body and the border of the saree using two different coloured threads simultaneously. The threads of the body and the border are joined in such a manner that one can feel the knot when one runs a finger along the line of the border and the body, he added.

This work needs two persons at a time as three spindles are used in weaving. Naturally, the wage for weaving these sarees is slightly higher than that for an ordinary silk saree. Orders for Korvai sarees, however, are rare and placed by those who are aware of this type of weaving, explained Mr. Krishnamoorthy, a resident of Singaperumal Kovil South Mada Street, Kancheepuram.

Mr. Krishnamoorthy has been weaving much of his life. He first climbed on the loom pedals when he was in his teens and learnt all aspects of the art of weaving the exquisite Kanjivaram saree from his father.

Child labour

Not every saree made in Kancheepuram is a Korvai. Only those who wore them say 30–40 years ago know the feel of the saree and its specialities.

Though there are hundreds of weavers in Kancheepuram district, only a few still make Korvai sarees since it takes a lot of work, time and more hands to craft it.

“Some 30 years ago, the government suddenly brought an order saying children should not be involved in making sarees since it is child labour and they were very strict about it. Even children who helped out part time stopped doing so. Korvai sarees require two people sitting at the loom and if a smaller person helped, it is easier. But our pleas remained unheard. In a few houses, the wife or someone else, who is not a child helps weave the Korvai these days,” said a weaver, who did not want to be named.

Unique feature

Industrialist Nalli Kuppuswamy Chetty, who has been in the business for several decades, said the Korvai is unique to Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and, to a certain extent, Benaras.

“This is an art form that is slowly dying. A whole generation of weavers and buyers have gone. Now, the younger generation of silk saree wearers does not know that such a saree exists and we also don’t stock them. We make them based on orders only,” he lamented.

Mr. Kuppuswamy said that there were many saree traditions that were lost due to various factors.

“In some cases, we only have the names but not even one sample. Several years ago, someone came to me asking for a Durbar saree but I hadn’t seen a sample, even though it was my grandfather who had made one on request from the reception committee that welcomed King George V to Chennai in 1911 after his coronation in Delhi. It was M.S. Subbulakshmiwho showed me a saree when I asked her about it. I still have an old sample and make it for those who want it. The Korvai should not vanish like that. The government should take steps to revive it,” he said.

(With inputs from Deepa H. Ramakrishnan)

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