I made my first acquaintance with the Radha Silk Emporiumduring an Adi sale in the late 1980s. My cousin and his wife were on their way to their favourite sari shop and took me along. The crowd at the shop was tighter than those on the 18A. We two women boldly entered in the wake of my cousin’s solid bulk. But finding a sari to buy was another matter.
We were among the matrons and misses of Mylapore, the kind who frequented the Music Academy during the kutcheri season and sometimes sang on stage. But Adi discounts were rare then. The mamis flung aside silk chiffons and crepes in their search for the perfect colour. Sagging at the prospect of post-war cleanup, the salesmen whimpered at them not to unfold every single one.
It was a baby pink Mysore silk that caught my eye that day, putting me in mind of my little sister. I made a wild grab, but a novice had no chance against the keen hunters of Mylapore. The victor, her face polished to buttery serenity by years of good living, seized her slippery trophy in one practised swoop, and she never even looked at me.
But that was the mad face of Rasi. In any month other than Adi, and apart from the March clearance sale, the showroom is placid and deliciously cool. The only sounds are the murmurs of shoppers and the muffled thump of double borders, single borders, and self- borders landing on low counters. Sometimes we all pause to watch a bride-to-be, who is allowed to be undecided as long as she likes and may even get behind the counter to read the shelves. Sometimes a customer stages a walkout before being coaxed back to a more attentive salesman.
The no-pressure, bordering-on-indifferent tempo suits me best when I’m buying a sari for no particular reason. I can luxuriate in the seduction of weave and shimmer, linger over the merits of paalum pazhamum versus Ganga-Yamuna and then toss up the matter altogether in favour of an apple-green ikat.
The Radha Silk Emporium enterprise is said to be over a 100 years old, started by K. Thiruvengadam Chettiar and his brothers. They first sold out of their own house and then out of a shop from about 1930 on. For some years they sold from the charming building, which now houses a handicraft outlet, opposite the present showroom in Mylapore. Mainly because Rasi always maintained its own design centre and ran its own looms back in Thirubhuvanam, in Thanjavur district, it offered a more elegant selection than was found even in Madras’s superb range of sari shops.
Over the years, Rasi has added dress materials, shawls, silk ties, handicrafts, readymades and linens, but nothing comes near the glamour of the saris. I was startled recently to find a website with email query forms and hints of online orders, but on inquiry I was blithely told that “no one reads the emails” and it turns out we’re supposed to mail in the printed order form. Since no one has bothered to update the phone numbers on the website, I don’t know what to think about the saris you are supposed to click on.
So the way to shop at Rasi is the old way. Walk in and browse. There are branches in Annanagar, Mount Road and Nanganallur, but shopping at Rasi in Mylapore is truly a half-day excursion into the past, away from IT corridors and frantic drivers stuck in a slow crawl. The Ramakrishna Mutt, Vivekananda College and Sanskrit College and the new Universal Temple adjacent to the Mutt take up much of the real estate and keep the commercialism of Chennai at bay. Once I get near the Kapaleeswarar Temple, I am in Madras again.
Opposite the tank bus stop there are century-old, low-roofed houses. Stalls line the tank, selling bangles, bindis and other inevitables of a temple neighbourhood. Usually I walk on the other side, with only a few silver shops in the way of retail. Closer to the tin garage housing the temple chariot, the fragrance of turmeric rises with the heat.
Once the saris are bought, there is always another essential stop at Giri Traders, near the temple’s east gate, where I dig out a crumpled paper from my handbag and decipher religious titles written in my mother-in-law’s hand. I could search the shelves for a slim volume on the significance of pradosha puja, but I take a short cut and ask for Madam, who knows where every single book is. Having balanced my six-yard buys with a purchase of virtue by proxy, I can now head home.
Radha Silk Emporium, 1 Sannadhi Street, Mylapore, Chennai; 044-24641906-9