Social entrepreneur, educationist and ayurveda proponent Aditi Amit Deshmukh hails from one of the most illustrious families in India. With a varied portfolio, Deshmukh has been associated with the upliftment of women for many years, but a lesser-known fact is her love for heirloom sarees. One of the few individuals known to preserve 100-year-old handwoven sarees which she inherited, her extensive collection leave one in awe.
Embracing her Indian roots, Aditi wears the heirloom sarees with utmost pride, love and grace. On International Saree Day, we caught up with Deshmukh to know more about how heirloom sarees are treasured over generations.
When did you first discover that you were enchanted by heirloom sarees?
It was not so much of a discovery as an integral part of my growing up and upbringing around the history of sarees — the history, because of the different types of fabrics, and the enchantment owing to their versatility. I found the saree gloriously traditional – encompassing the many different cultures of our great nation. The glory of the South and the glory of the North, bringing to fore the beauty of the women whom it adorned.
Describe the kind of 100-year-old heirloom sarees you own.
The century-old saree collection is a treasured possession that has been in my family for generations. Passed down from my great-grandmother to my maternal grandmother, my mother and then to me, I am a proud custodian of Benaras Chanderi, Silk, Tissue, Chanderi sarees in pure cotton and silk, Maheshwaris, and French chiffons, printed and plain with made-to-order borders. The saree, as my grandmother would remind me, was a tradition.
This beautiful fabric has epitomised Indian couture and remains unrivalled. It would be an oversight on my part if I did not mention the artisans behind this art, the true maestros, whose hands worked this magic, and their looms that created this legacy of Indian textile. The threads of time remain strong! The saree is India’s pride! Heritage is timeless and neither does it have a duplicate.
When you discovered you owned these heirloom sarees, was it a happy accident or a conscious decision?
As far back as I can remember, I have been associated with the Indian saree. I grew up watching the women and senior members of my household wearing only sarees, effortlessly and for all occasions as the most comfortable garment, and for me, it was a natural decision.
Looking at the swathes of Chanderi, Maheshwari, Benaras Chanderi, Tissue and Silk, embroidered with sequins and pearls, zardozi, cutwork, shadow work, silken skeins painting exquisite designs – was enthralling to my young eye. With this vast scale of textile inventory, I understood, that grace and elegance of a saree remain unparalleled.
Can you tell us about your favourite piece?
It is very difficult for me to choose one. These heirloom sarees have a great sentimental value for me and it symbolises my heritage and roots. Each one has its own special place, but as a fashion choice, the preferred one is the tissue – it is an ornament in itself. Woven in pure gold and silver thread, with its intricate embroidery or cutwork, its body covered in real pearls sewn into sequin work so fine, that it is difficult to imagine the adeptness with which the fingers worked this exquisite work into five metres of fragile fabric.
Have you inherited a piece that has a special meaning for you?
I have inherited quite a few. The special ones remain my engagement saree – a red and gold tissue with zardozi, and my wedding saree which is called a “Shalu” (a Shalu is gold and silver fabric, in silk or tissue). It was worn as a “Kashta” – the nine yards style. Shalus were also designed into “angarkha” wear and “achkans.”
What are some tips to maintain heirloom sarees?
Most importantly, these sarees are to be stored in tightly shut wooden cupboards or chests where there is no chance of pervading moisture because moisture eats into the fabric. Heirloom sarees are preserved best when wrapped in muslin or linen and put away with bay leaves and cloves in small pouches placed on the shelves. This is done to ward off moisture, silverfish and any other destructive content.
Then again, what I gleaned from my grandmother is that the tissue sarees should be put on wooden rollers because when folded for long stretches, the tissue, being pure metal, breaks on the old fold. The rollers are slim wooden spindles and the tissue is rolled onto them. Chiffons were put on hangers after wear and never ironed. My great-grandmother would painstakingly remind us that the chiffon with its gentle flow would decrease by itself on the hanger. The ironing and smoothening of these sarees were in the hands of very special laundry teams – the humble “dhobis.” They were an industry in themselves and thanks to the loving care these “karigars” lavished on these expensive fabrics, the sarees stood the test of time. Dry cleaning was unheard of as it was harsh on delicate fabric and also harsh on the colours. It was such a simple task and yet it preserved the structure of the fabled five metres or the whole nine-yard – ”Kashtha” – the Maharashtrian glory!
What are the best ways to preserve heirloom sarees and what kinds of drapes can one experiment with?
More than the physical preservation which is very essential for their longevity, it is understanding “the saree” for what it embodies. It is a living, breathing garment, which adjusts and adapts to different figure types and styles. It enhances by its drape, it protects, and its flow only personifies dignity and grace. Our nation with our diverse cultures brings out the best form of this beautiful apparel. It may not prove the preferred wear for many who find it difficult to wear, carry, or drape – practice makes perfect of course. Personally, I would put the saree above every other garment because it is Indian culture and pride is epitomised. Our history has shown the saree complementing Western labels. From the North to the South there is a canvas of drapes to be experimented with.
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