Chanderis: Fit for a queen's ransom

Many looms fell silent but this last decade has seen some of the looms restart and return with greater energy.

Most homes in north India are going through or have just gone through the throes of a process that is as painful and complex as shifting the summer and winter capital. Like the angrez moved to Simla from Delhi as the official summer capital; this metaphoric shift happens in every north Indian home — put away the woollens and silks and take out the cottons. Every household has their own magical portions to keep silver fish and other sundry enemies of textiles away — from dried whole red chillies to neem leaves to cloves… In our home, my father would just look at the process with bemused tolerance as my mother would interchange the wardrobe trunks with all of us getting in her way.

As summer descends on us too soon this year, all that one can consider wearing are delicate, transparent and translucent Chanderis. My mother would often say that the weather to start wearing Chanderis is when the mango bor or flowers start to blossom around Holi right up to Diwali when the nip in the air starts. But with the shift in the weather, I find it is possible to drape this dream weave almost all the year round, save a few days of bitter cold.

Chanderi is a small town in the high and dry hills of north central Madhya Pradesh. It has been famous for its handlooms since the reign of the Scindia royal family. The picturesque whitewashed town is on a patch of high ground, looking up at a 14th century fort. For good reasons, there is a fort here. It was once the frontier of another kingdom and is a perfect place to watch potential invaders moving in on you. Chanderi sarees and fabric from the quaint town by the same name comes from this place with its charming palaces and clickety looms in every cranny of the town.

When I was recently asked by the Parisera, the crafted luxury portal, to curate a collection show of the fabulous weave, it took me on an amazing journey of the mesmeric weave with its delicate intricacies of refined bootties and stunning borders. As an extension to the collection, I am taking it one step further by hand-block printing on the sarees to make them a truly signature collection. With the block prints, each saree becomes one-of-a-kind as there are no repeats.


“Parisera understands the need for genuine handlooms as a way of life and the royal textiles from Chanderi have always had a resonance with collector’s vocabulary. Our attempt is to simply echo the royal interpretations of its glorious past into a modern idiom for connoisseurs of today,” says Vinutha Subramaniam, its director and CEO. “I feel that fine discerning taste dramatises the opulence of Chanderi with the legends that punctuate it in this curated collection of Royal Chanderis,” she says.

For several decades, plain flat zari borders were the norm. After many years, the intricately designed or naqshi borders have surfaced with exquisite detailing. I even found weavers who were willing to weave the amazingly elaborate ek naali boottis that one had only read and heard about. Many of these designs haven’t been seen for several decades as the weavers were unable to find markets. Some of the sarees in this collection are truly rare including the very special bridal sarees with hands decorated with mehndi or henna, complete with an applicator cone woven as a border that take your breath away with their artistry.

Many looms fell silent but this last decade has seen some of the looms restart and return with greater energy. The textile ministry and state government has been doing their bit for popularising the weave with many schemes for the benefit of the weavers, including advertising about it.

The former director general of Prasar Bharati Vijayalakshmi Chhabra often remarks that the Chanderis are “rani, maharanion ki sarees.” She is more often than not in Chanderis during the summer. “Few years back while I was in Sayajirao Museum in Baroda (Vadodara) to see Raja Ravi Varma’s collection, the erudite curator, told me that Ravi Varma loved to paint his women wearing Chanderi and that too in nine yards Maharashtrian kachcha-style saree because it made his women look sensuous. Also, I feel he must have been influenced by the royal women of Baroda. Most of his women are wearing gossamer translucent Chanderis with those very typical glorious borders.” Woven from high count fine cotton, pure silk and gold zari by court weavers, these uniquely extravagant saris were symbolic of the sublimity personified by Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings in which women wore Chanderis.

It is no wonder that Chanderi legends and myths dot fables of royalty. From having its mythical origin way back in the Vedic period to the Scindias and current patronage of Rajmata Shubhangini Raje Gaekwad of Baroda, Chanderis continue their legendary legacy. And during the Mughal reign, it was the favoured choice of queens in India. Most of the miniature paintings – both Mughal and Rajput – have a transparent outer layer of drapery that looks suspiciously like transparent silk Chanderi.

The royalty continues to be enamoured by its sheer tales and Radhika Raje Gaekwad, the Maharani of Baroda, says, “I wear a Chanderi saree to all global receptions and important functions with pride. It is our heritage and it is our responsibility to showcase it to the rest of the world.” The Rajamata Subhangini Raje Gaekwad of Baroda and Radhika Raje Gaekwad have worked towards reviving Chanderis inspired by Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings from their collection. Old time legends have it that weavers would recount how their entire production would be send to the Baroda queens as they owned dedicated looms in Chanderi, other half of dedicated looms were owned by the Scindias. My romance with this transparent weave goes back nearly 40 years. Smitten by the thick handloom weaves as a part of a typical teenage rebellion, I never touched the fabric, ditto for the diaphanous chiffons. A wedding in the family made my mother put her foot down with the Hobson’s choice between either of the two fabrics. Chanderi I chose. That is it. And I was smitten for life! Light like a cloud of air around you, the gossamer drape makes one feel elegant, chic, delicate and sophisticated all in the same breath!

While I often opted for the very fine cotton Chanderis during the day, any evening summer celebrations and one would reach out for these gossamer dreams in silk – it is almost blasphemous to call them sarees! I love Chanderis for their easy draping and making me feel like a dreamy queen in any situation.... I feel I can’t count my blessings enough that I get to do stuff that I love so much so that it doesn’t even seem like work and this collection was one such occasion!

The writer is an art writer, curator and artist and can be contacted on

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