The world of sarees: One woman's mission to document the handlooms of India

Sowmya Reddy Shamanna documents various types of sarees and handloom weaves in her coffee table book released in India last weekend.
The world of sarees: One woman's mission to document the handlooms of India
The world of sarees: One woman's mission to document the handlooms of India
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Clad in a white Kaziranga saree inspired from Assam, adorned with motifs of the one horned rhinoceros, Sowmya Reddy Shamanna looked like a paragon of the saree-loving community she is a part of.  

“Sarees, I believe, are the vital spirit of India. It is the strength, versatility and the beauty of it that represents the cultural heritage of India.” she stated.

Born and raised in Karnataka, Sowmya Reddy Shamanna who has been living in Germany for over thirty years, launched her book Tana Bana - The World of Sarees last weekend in Bengaluru. To celebrate the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian Consulate in Frankfurt had decided to put together something meaningful, relevant and “highlighted the pride of India in some way which is relevant to today’s time,” she said. 

Out of the 120 varieties of handloom weaves from across India, Sowmya, in her book, has documented 50 - including the popular Kanjeevaram, Chanderi and Tussar sarees. All the sarees photographed in the book are from her own personal collection and the models include herself, her family and whom she likes to call her 'saree sisters' - her other acquaintances with a keen interest in sarees. The book is airy and easy to read. It has lithe descriptions of the sarees regarding its making, its history and its place of origin.

The book is an attempt to “showcase our cultural heritage to the world,'' she said, as India is known for its spicy food, its population and democracy but the handlooms of India which are just as unique, do not make the cut. 

“I don’t want to make sarees as just associated with India. A saree is a beautiful thing. It doesn’t have a dogmatic identity. It is something which is very versatile and anybody can adapt to it. There is no strict or fixed idea of how a saree should be - you just have to reimagine the saree.” she said.

Sowmya put forth the idea of reinventing and reviving this rich endowment of hand woven sarees as she believed that the handloom weavers of India are not exposed to the world as they ought to be, that they are in dire need of being promoted lest they perish from negligence. The inherent skills of the weavers are being forgotten and the legacy of skill is dying, she said.

“Tana Bana - The World of Sarees is a coffee table book. I thought of a coffee table book because it is non academic, has lots of pictures and is appealing to everybody. It is also a light read, which makes it very interesting,” she said.

As a young girl, the former clinical researcher had adored her grandmother’s sarees - especially a particular red Banarasi saree that her grandmother had worn when she got married. But later as the years passed, her passion for sarees got buried. It was rekindled, she says, when she came across pictures of saree-wearing women on Instagram - posing with poise and pride, one of whom is Vijaya Laxmi Chhabra, the former director general of Doordarshan. 

“It has been an on and off thing. But of late, I feel it is like a reconfirmation to my roots,” she said about her reinstated love for sarees.

Chhabra had been like a mentor to her through her journey of penning the book. “She guided me through a lot of things. She is one of those iconic people I look up to. Every time I saw a new weave, I’d be fascinated. I would read and research about it and look it up on the internet. But then I used to have these conversations with her. She would really teach me and her teachings helped to enrich the book,” she said.

She said that since millenials are diversifying in their pick of clothes and “as a child I used to see my mother and grandmothers wearing sarees but the youngsters and millennials of today are not exposed to such beauty anymore”, the pride of India [sarees], she said, has to be instilled in the minds of the youngsters. “Most millenials and youngsters do not want to wear a saree,” she declared. “Unless we do it, we revive it, it will die.”

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