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Vol. XXXIII No. 12, October 1-15, 2023

Clothes and consciousness — How an entrepreneur breathed new life into Madras fashion in the seventies

-- by Sabita Radhakrishna

While I grew up in Bangalore, that erstwhile pensioner’s paradise, it was Madras that enthralled me to no end. The city’s refined culture compensated for all the humidity; the classical music and the all-pervasive scent of jasmine had me hooked. I’ve always been drawn to textiles – I find that the clothing people choose to wear is quite telling of their culture and background. Perhaps it is rather poor to compare, but Madras society, I discovered, was rather staid in its choice of apparel. This did not dampen my enthusiasm for the city. I loved her people and adored her culture with such passion that I was soon dubbed a traitor by friends and allies in Bangalore, the city where I was born and bred.

I embarked on a mission to acclimatise myself to Madras – I decided to learn the language and work towards playing the role of a changemaker in the city that I had chosen to love. My path led me to a textile shop that a family friend requested me to ‘run.’ My mind raced endlessly with ideas, for I wanted to break jaded traditions and get conformists to begin enjoying the clothes they wore instead of simply wearing what was expected of them. Truth be told, I was quite fascinated by the clothing choices of the women of Madras. Young or old, they always wore sarees, and the mature women wore only pattu sarees that grew soft with constant washing in soap nut lather. The attire seemed to be a sort of second skin; the ladies never complained about the discomfort of wearing a silk saree in hot weather. They wore it as they cooked. They wore it as they tended to their children, through all the bathing, feeding, and playing. They even slept in the saree. Yet, there was nary a crinkle in the fabric – the sarees always hung in soft folds that caressed their bodies. The colours were gorgeous. Chemical dyes stormed the bastion of natural dyes, and any colour could be reproduced at a whim. The legendary Kalakshetra sarees were to die for, even if (in those days) they took a year to fulfill an order.

Amrapali, opening day.

Curiously, cotton was never a common choice in Madras despite the hot climate. The only concessions were blouses made of rubia voile which were sold in bales and embellished with large floral prints. The women wore puff sleeves and leg of mutton sleeves (here, the sleeves came up to the elbow and had slight gathers both at the hemline and where it joined the armhole). Apart from khadi which made its presence felt post-independence, the women stayed away from cotton; why, cotton handlooms were not even given a second glance. Silk gave the family status. The younger ones wore sarees with blends when the transition period of pavadai davani came to an end. And so, I was determined to make a dent – however small – in adding variety to daily wear for Chennai women. The men wore Western clothes when they went out, and veshtis at home for comfort. Many took to wearing khadi kurtas. But my focus remained firmly on women.

Sabita Radhakrishna.

My survey of the Madras clothing scene revealed that there was no shop that catered exclusively to women’s wear. The only store that I frequented and loved in those days was Varnali, which specialized in cotton Venkatagiri sarees, some plain with zari and some printed. Other than Varnali, there was no other place in Madras that sold exquisitely designed cottons. I realized that only women from Kerala and Andhra appreciated cotton as they were used to the fabric. They knew how to launder these sarees and had family dhobis who would come home to wash the household linen and clothing, sarees included. The dhobis would starch the fabric ever so slightly and iron them to perfection. Alas, this breed has slipped into oblivion.

Coming back to my story, I decided to press ahead with my mission. I drove to wholesale shops in town and procured bales of soft mul and full voile, and cut them into saree lengths and blouse bits. In those days, there were two printing units that were well-known in Madras; one of them was Mohan Printers, which was where I took my bundle of textiles. Sitting on an old chair facing a creaky table, I surveyed the hand-printing blocks that they had, sketched the placements of the blocks and decided upon the colours. I was ecstatic when I picked up the completed order of printed sarees – my efforts had come to fruition as a harvest of beautiful cotton sarees, each with unique designs in the pallus and borders and in myriad colours from the use of pigment dyes, indigo sol and procion dyes.

We opened our shop Urvashi in the early seventies. The women of the city were shy and hesitant at first. College girls and working women were entranced by the transformation of the simple cotton saree into the new avatar that we presented. And once they wore the clothing, they discovered that there was no going back. There was also the added delight of having a matching blouse of the same dye and print. I confess that I was no businesswoman – I had no idea when it came to pricing and simply kept my prices low. A small profit margin suited me just fine, and the satisfaction I derived from steering women to better choices suited for the hot weather was enormous. It more than compensated for the low earings. We made up with the high turnover, though. The unprecedented success spurred me to take take my designer sarees on exhibitions to all the metros and smaller Indian cities, as well as Colombo.

Encouraged, I ventured slowly into woven handlooms – typically South – and began working with the weavers and suggesting small changes to suit the market. Four years later, I opened my boutique Amrapali in Fountain Plaza. I had my own hand block printing and dyeing units, along with a team of tailors and artisans specialising in ari embroidery, hand embroidery and machine embroidery. Soon enough, we launched our hand-block printing unit, which made designing easier for me. It was possible to create exclusive sarees good enough to wear for special occasions. I introduced in the eighties silver jewellery, which women in Madras typically would not deign to wear, but the resistance soon wore down. I started designing salwar kurtas which would be easy to wear on casual occasions and for working women. And because the prices were kept low this was a big hit as well. Once, a woman from a “respectable” Tamil household would not condescend to wear a North Indian outfit and she could not be seen in anything but a saree; but the winds of change were sweeping through the conservative city.

I introduced mismatched blouses in weaves and prints, first in Bombay and then in my hometown. We had about 30 captive looms scattered all over India, and my boutique saw an amalgam of textures and different handlooms from various parts of the country.

By the time Madras became Chennai. the trajectory of change had swept the fashion scene too. Chennai women were making a statement through the clothes they chose to wear and were no longer cowed down by the stringent rules of convention. They had begun to enjoy a freedom that they had not enjoyed before. Blouse sleeves became shorter, and they dared to sport sleeveless blouses and dipping necklines. The age of women’s empowerment had begun and textiles played a key part in the story, too. In fact, the industry has a principle role in the history of India – after all, the British rule began and ended with textiles. There can be no better reason for why handmade textiles must always be nurtured and given the status they deserves.

In about five years since my own journey had begun, other enterprising women took the cue and successfully opened their own clothing stores. I have never resented this, even though it meant working harder to remain one step ahead. Women were now open to ideas as long as the styles was were exclusive and enhanced their personality. I had achieved a little, at the very least, of what I had set out to do – encourage a whole new perspective to clothing and fashion. Chennai will always remain the city that helped me express myself creatively and break stereotypes, for which I will always be grateful.

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  1. Kalpana Muralidharan says:

    Beautiful write up giving an insight into the transition Madras went through! You have been a changemaker in Chennai’s fashion scene giving the Sari a new dimension portraying elegance and style!

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