K Radharaman of the House of Angadi is reinventing the weave

Saggere Radhakrishna
In 2009, a master weaver called Dorai stared blankly at the man in front of him. Dorai told the man something the latter had already suspected he’d hear. “anna (It can’t be done, brother).” The master weaver only agreed to attempt what he had deemed impossible when the visitor, K Radharaman, assured him he’d sit beside him while he worked.

The days that followed demanded the utmost patience from Radharaman. He had to wait to see if Dorai would spin the yarn, if he could spin the yarn. It made Radharaman nervous. He was, after all, going against the grain, trying to fix a system that wasn’t broken, attempting to mend something without a tear. But it was a desire he couldn’t quell: Radharaman wanted to alter the very elementals of the beloved, virtually sacred kanjeevaram sari by blending it with linen. He wanted to recast the rigid silken “formality” that the traditional kanjeevaram still conjures.

Several hits and misses later, they had a sample that was three fingers long. Then 12 fingers. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Radharaman, 39, is the founder, chief executive officer and design head of Bengaluru-based House of Angadi, a treasure trove of handwoven silk saris.

Radharaman’s private luxury label Advaya (Sanskrit for “unique”) was launched in 2010. One of its offerings was the famous red and gold drape that actor Deepika Padukone wore for her wedding last November. This October, the House of Angadi intends to launch its ready-to-wear retail collection at a lavish four-storey structure that will be called Angadi Heritage.

The retail move has long been in the making since handcrafted, premium products have but a finite reach. On one side are loyalists asking why the brand hasn’t moved to other cities or other multi-design outlets. On the other is Angadi’s order book that runs into the middle of next year. “It’s difficult to keep pace with the demand,” says Radharaman.

All these years after that first linen kanjeevaram sari, his experiments with warp and weft, with the very “character” of textiles, fabric and design, have continued to grow. For instance, there is now also the khadi kanjeevaram. Supriya (pictured), a designer and Radharaman’s wife, wholeheartedly acknowledges his penchant for breaking things down and building them back up. “He doesn’t enjoy it if he doesn’t do it the hard way,” she laughs. The yet unnamed three-layered fabric that Radharaman has only recently finished working on is another instance of his compulsively innovative streak. The combination of silk, metallic yarn and linen is diverse enough to provide for flowy silhouettes as well as crop tops.

It is in his apparel studio in the quiet bylanes of J P Nagar in Bengaluru that Radharaman shares a glimpse of the textile interventions that keep him going. “He is a traditionalist, but not a conformist,” says Supriya, who is also involved in the day-to-day affairs of the House of Angadi.

“I respect tradition. I know these things need to be preserved, but a part of that preservation process is to modernise it. It is going to be confined to history if you don’t make it relevant for another generation,” says Radharaman. Even as he works on contemporising the design language of Bengal’s kantha stitch, he’s also working with weaver clusters in Kota and Varanasi, as well as ikat-weavers in Andhra Pradesh.

Helping newer generations get acquainted with multiple genres of textiles and indigenous crafts almost seems like his calling, so it’s a surprise to learn he may have never gone down this road at all. Even while in his final year of college, studying engineering at Cornell University in the US, Radharaman had no intention of joining the family business. A summer spent two decades ago with his reticent, nonagenarian grandfather, R K Radhakrishnan Chettiar, understanding the family’s long and intimate history with handloom, proved to be the nudge Radharaman required.

Family lore has it that the Angadi saga began when a group of Padmasaliya weavers, traditionally weavers of silk from Warangal in Andhra Pradesh, migrated 600 years ago to Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. Soon after, they were designated court weavers to the Maratha ruler of Thanjavur, Saraboji Maharaj (Serfoji II Bhonsle). It wasn’t long before their family name became angadi vals, or “shopkeepers”, keepers and procurers of all things textile in the area. The family has since been a part of India’s textile story.

In the 1900s Radharaman’s ancestors moved to the port city of Chennai (then Madras), to set up a wholesale silk business, followed by a retail store, RKT & Bros. Radharaman’s father R Kothandaraman, popularly known as R K Raman, took over the family business in the 1950s. Besides actor Nargis Dutt, their clientele has included the likes of Indira Gandhi and Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, both known for their exacting tastes in saris.

“My father wanted me to learn things for myself. He wanted me to make my own mistakes and learn from them,” recalls Radharaman. He did just that. He visited international trade fairs, even spending time in Como, Italy, with industrialist Antonio Ratti’s family to see how they conducted their business (the family reportedly supplies silk to 60 per cent of the world’s designers). This, acknowledges the self-taught textile designer, was a rare honour since the company catered to different competing businesses and one couldn’t freely move from one facility to another.

In the early 2000s, Radharaman spent 18 months as a regular customer of the Indian Railways, travelling second class to weaver clusters across the country, spending nights in the waiting room of railway stations and days learning the nuances of the “right” kind of bandhej in Gujarat’s Jamnagar in the middle of a drought. (If the final bandhej pattern is anything less than a square, says Radharaman, it isn’t considered right.)

While most of his extended family continues to live in Chennai, Radharaman moved to Bengaluru about two decades ago. With the blessings of his grandfather to carry forth the Angadi name, he set up Angadi Silks in 2001 in Jayanagar. Then in 2008 came his textile mill in Bommasandra, which produced high-end fabric for apparel and home textiles, supplying international luxury giants such as the Paris-based LVMH group and New York’s Ralph Lauren group. In 2014 came Angadi Galleria in Sadashiva Nagar to cater to India’s own luxury market. All of these ventures, including the soon-to-be-launched Angadi Heritage, come under Radharaman’s brand, House of Angadi.

A life of varied experiences, combined with a family that has had close connections with textile revivalists such as Pupul Jayakar, makes Radharaman an exhaustive resource for India’s textile history as well as a bountiful source of anecdotes. He shares, for instance, the story of the government’s budget for handicrafts and textiles in the ’50s and ’60s being so meagre that his father was expected to bring back the cartons in which he carried fabric to international trade fairs. He had to put in special applications to convince the authorities that shipping empty boxes back would prove more expensive than getting new ones.

Even as Radharaman begins a new chapter in retail with Angadi Heritage, the response to what the future holds for the House of Angadi is echoed in the words of master weaver Dorai when he described the linen kanjeevaram. “Romba nalla irukku.” That’s Tamil for “it’s very nice”.

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