We take a cultural trip through Karaikudi, the setting of House of Angadi's campaign for its design label, Advaya
A look at the culture and traditions of Chettinad through the lens of fashion
Our first evening in Karaikudi was nothing short of poetic. We had arrived in the heartland of the Chettinad region earlier in the day, just as the sun was setting, and were now sitting down to a Bharatanatyam performance by Bhavajan Kumar, one of the proteges of the celebrated danseuse Leela Samson, who was also in attendance. As Ms Leela introduced her student, and the small gathering settled into their seats, a heavy drizzle slowly turned into a downpour sending sprays of water into the air from the swimming pool mere steps away from the verandah which doubled up as the performance area. The sound of the rain formed a soothing backdrop to the classical Indian music, and, when Bhavajan began his performance, set to a song that is a tribute to Lord Nataraja, the calming tunes of an azan rang out from a nearby mosque. Isn’t that India in a nutshell — a celebration of varying cultures, religions, art and craft? In many ways, that’s the essence of House of Angadi too, the reason a group of five journalists from across the country found themselves in the Tamil Nadu hinterland on a washed out night in September.
Our journey had actually begun the previous day, which commenced with a guided walkthrough of one of founder KH Radha-raman’s older stores — Angadi Heritage — in Sadashivnagar. Here, the textile visionary spoke to us about his journey and his innovations, such as the linen and khadi Kanjeevarams that put him in the spotlight years ago. Radharaman is truly a deep reserve of knowledge and spoke in detail about the history of his family, a long line of weavers dating back 600 years; the motifs, patterns and colours synonymous with Kanjeevaram saris and the difficulties and challenges faced by the weaving community over the decades. As his staff displayed some of their most iconic and popular saris (including ‘that’ gossamer red organza silk sari worn by Deepika Padukone for her wedding) he described each piece going into detail about the weave, the choice of colours, the motifs, the fabric and more.
Fabric of tradition
A spot of shopping followed, after which we drove to Angadi’s textile studio in Jayanagar to see first hand how the fabrics that are turned into saris and garments are made. We were given a crash course on how to read the computerised patterns that craftsmen use as a guide to weave the designs required and were shown numerous fabric swatches that are testaments to Radharaman’s commitment to experimentation. For instance, there were ikat-inspired jacquard weaves, where ikat-like patterns are woven on a jacquard without using the tie and dye technique, and the khadua Kanjeevaram, where the buttas are rendered all over the sari, rather than just in a specific area. This immersive session saw discussions shifting from the sanctity of handlooms to the practicality of mill-made fabric and how we could possibly move forward by striking a balance between the two. Then, we gathered at their newest and sprawling store, a stone’s throw from Ashoka Pillar, for some Indian classical music and a sit-down dinner. Our first day complete, we reconvened the following morning for our journey to Karaikudi, the architecture and culture of which forms the backdrop for the campaign for the Eternal Series, a collection of bridal saris by House of Angadi’s design label, Advaya.
The bharatanatyam performance on the verandah of The Bangala, where we stayed, may have given us pause for thought, but the rest of the trip passed by in a blur. With one full day in hand, we started our cultural tour of this charming Tamil Nadu town with visits to Chettiar mansions in the neighbourhood.
Lessons from history
Before we stepped into the first mansion we stopped at, we were given a quick history lesson on the mercantile Chettiar community. Originally inhabitants of Poompuhar, the capital of the Chola dynasty, the Chettiars were struck by tragedy — a tsunami wiped out the lives and wealth of their families. So they decided to move to a place far away from the coast. One among the multiple regions they settled in was Chettinad and they earned the name ‘Nagarathars’ or city dwellers, as they had migrated from a big city. They were also called Nattukottai (country fort) Chettiars, a reference to their fort-like mansions.
It’s common knowledge that Chettiar houses are opulent, but nothing can truly prepare you for when you actually step into one. Designed with colourful textural tiles imported from Japan, Italy and beyond on the walls, cheerful and vibrant Athangudi tiles on the floors, solid teakwood pillars running the length of their open courtyards and intricately carved wooden doors and doorframes, it is striking that the men, who travelled extensively, paid so much attention to craft and decor and brought back what they had seen on their travels to incorporate into their own homes.
If you are looking for design inspiration, you’re sure to find it in spades in Karaikudi. It is easy to see why Radharaman was so moved by the architecture and aesthetic of these stately mansions to use one as a setting for the Eternal Series campaign. The campaign features models draped in exquisite Kanjeevarams from the collection and captures them leaning against the door frames, lounging in the courtyard and resting on the antique grandfather chairs.
Next on the agenda was a visit to a tile factory where the famed Athangudi tiles are made. There we watched as an elderly man skillfully and confidently poured colourful dyes into a mould to create the tiles. After this demonstration, we drove to a palatial bungalow, where we tucked into an elaborate banana leaf meal, typically served at Chettiar weddings. Chettinad cuisine is much talked about and easily accessible in Bengaluru. However, what you’re being sold in the city is a mere teaser for the real deal, which you can only experience in the region where it originated. We worked off our lunch with some antique shopping at the town’s storied antique bazaar, where we stocked up on enamel cookware, which was traditionally given to Chettiar brides as part of their dowry.
We made our way back to Bengaluru early the next morning, with a new-found interest in the Chettinad culture — beyond its cuisine and cotton saris, to its architecture, design, history and customs.
The writer visited Karaikudi on invitation from House of Angadi.