I have a friend who is a collector of saris. Though her wardrobe has its fair share of trousers and fashionable blouses, T-shirts and jeans and salwar-kurtas, it’s her sari collection she’s proudest of. Because, as any self-respecting Indian woman knows, this country has an amazing range of traditional saris – special patterns and weaves, distinctive designs and fabrics, that have been made for centuries, and still continue to be made, in tiny handlooms by weavers, embroiderers and gold-and-silver thread workers all across India. Most women will know that a light-as-air, part-silk, part-cotton chanderi from Madhya Pradesh is completely different from a heavily embroidered silken kaantha from West Bengal – or that there’s a world of difference between a pochampalli and a jamdani, a jaamawar, a baluchari, a Garhwal cotton, a chikan… or a kota.
Kotas happen to be among my favourite saris. They’re made of very light, summery cotton – almost as wispy as candy floss – and are perfect for Delhi’s blazing Mays and Junes. So, when we were planning our itinerary for this trip, I decided I wanted to include a brief trip out of Kota to the neighbouring village of Kaithoon, where the kota sari is traditionally woven.
Kaithoon is about half an hour’s drive – past fields, the Chambal river, and stretches of village land – from the centre of Kota. This is a small, sleepy village, its only claim to fame the fact that for several centuries now, this has been the place where kota or kotadoria saris are woven, typically by the women and girls of the Muslim community of Kaithoon.
Getting out of our car at Kaithoon came as a bit of a shock. While Kota is used to tourists, and a woman in jeans (me!) doesn’t merit a second glance, Kaithoon is still pretty much a backwater. There were children running about in the narrow lanes, men lounging or playing cards (this was a Sunday) in verandas fronting their houses, goats and cows wandering around the streets – and a girl weaving a pale blue sari on a loom. I peeked in and asked her where we should go to buy kota saris, and she said, "Walk straight on. You’ll come to the main bazaar. They’re sold there."
The main bazaar of Kaithoon is rural India at its busy, bustling best: we wended our way very carefully between vendors selling fruit and vegetables (the unmistakable aroma of fat green chillies seemed to dominate the area), past more goats, all of them obviously on the lookout for a stray spinach leaf or some forgotten okra. It was here, in the bazaar, that we met a middle-aged man who guessed that we were looking for kotas, and took us to his tiny home to show us the wares his family produced.
My husband, who knows next to nothing about saris, sat on the sidelines and watched, but what was turned out for my inspection was a wide range of kotas: traditional cottons, cotton-and-silk blends, saris with gold thread woven into large, florid patterns. Orange saris with gold and mauve designs; bright pink saris with blue motifs, even a black with tiny gold motifs sprinkled across it. When I asked for something more subdued, I was told that these – the ones I had seen so far – were the ones in demand down south, where a lot of the saris end up.
Some more needling, and an elderly gentleman – who seemed to have a better understanding of what I wanted – brought forth more saris, along with cloth for salwar-kurtas, and dupattas (the long scarves worn with salwar-kurtas). I finally settled on something that I liked: a plain greeny-yellow sari for myself; a plain two-toned peachy-pink for my sister, and a white-and-pale pink salwar-kurta fabric for my sister-in-law.
Looking back, I’d not say it was a great bargain. We’d almost certainly get much lovelier saris in one of the FabIndia stores, kotas with more elegant block print patterns and weaves, in colours more chic. (I already have several of them). But to actually visit Kaithoon – to talk to a smiling old lady who tells me that she, her son, and her daughter-in-law, all weave at home. That the saris I’ve bought are the ones "that get made fast – just about 8 or 9 days," while the jazzy gold-weave ones take up to a month… to navigate one’s way past the goats and the chilli-fragrant bazaar; to admire the beautiful old domes that crown a forgotten building in one lane; to actually see one genuine kota sari after another: that experience was worth it.