Fabric of the past: A journey through the weaving and craft traditions

Rediscovering the Kongunadu region through its textiles and crafts  

Home to many elegant and brightly hued handloom textiles, the rich weaving tradition in Tamil Nadu is renowned for its repertoire of weaves, depth of contrasting colours and an infinite variety of checks, stripes and patterns. The kanjeevaram, kandaangi, koorainadu, chungudi, venpattu veshti or angavastram, sikalnayakanpet or kodalikaruppur, just to name a few, illustrates significantly the best of textile craftsmanship in the state. We trace the origins of the region’s famous textiles and crafts and talk to those who are working towards reviving forgotten traditions and creating a sustainable and creative economy for the future. 

Looming large

Over the years, many handloom saris have evolved from its original form due to changing market realities. While ancient capital cities and several other places in and around them still continue to have a flourishing textile trade, ancient practices of working together with family are slowly fading — a prime example being the preferece for geographical indicator-tagged Kovai Kora cotton saris that uses a blend of silk and cotton over the traditional handmade cotton yarn.

Shuttle tales
Consider traditional Negamam, a 100 per cent pure cotton sari, originated from the Pollachi area. Targeted for use by agricultural women, the weave eventually entered the mainstream market. Known for its weighty texture and easy drape, the sari dimensions were 45 inches in width by eight yards in length. The length suited the regional draping style which featured the kosuvam at the back, while the narrow width facilitated the bottom border to lie between the knee and feet. Monochrome colours used were vat dyed and dark, the borders on both sides were of a warp stripe pattern in 3 to 4 inches, ornamented with a simple thin extra warp using barrel dobby, and the pallu had weft cross-over pattern and was ornamented with weft ribs. This construction is no longer in use or demand now due to its coarse texture and weight. P Vasu, Deputy Director of Weavers Service Centre in Salem says, “The specification, construction and aesthetic appeal of Negamam has changed now. Hardly any handloom weaver is making this traditional variety as per earlier specifications. The saris are fairly decorative and lighter now with elaborate patterns in contrast to the simplicity of the original Negamam. The number of handloom weavers, especially in cotton weaving is dwindling in this region due to the power loom take over.” 

Fabric sense
A step in the direction of adapting and promoting handloom products to the modern way of life has been taken up by a few enterprising designers and entrepreneurs. Handlooms are being brought back into focus by creating innovative weaves and fine textiles through ethical and ecological practices. New age brands like Ethicus and Nool By Hand have showcased themselves in shows like Textile India 2017 and Lakme Fashion Week. These brands, who have obtained the mark of quality, ‘India Handloom Brand’ (IHB) by the Ministry of Textiles, are proof that handloom weaving can be  a remunerative vocation for weavers.

The ‘farm to fashion’ brand Ethicus, founded in 2009 by husband and wife duo Vijayalakshmi Nachiar and Mani Chinnaswamy, breathes new life into traditional workmanship and produces contemporary fashion. Ethicus uses extra long natural organic cotton in fine counts of 100s and 120s and eco-friendly dyes as per the Global Organic Textile Standard. The weaving studio based in their Pollachi factory has 42 handlooms with over 60 weavers contributing to the brand’s spring-summer and autumn-winter fashion cycles. Although the studio creates theme-based collections, there is no definite timeline, while working with artisan communities and design development is fine-tuned, accommodating the needs of the handmade process. 

Another brand, Nool By Hand, started by Shree Bharathi Devarajan, has a handloom facility reviving the dying clusters of Chennimalai. This area had over 1 lakh weavers earlier but now numbers have dwindled to 5,000. The young entrepreneur’s vision is to fuse traditional skills of Chennimalai weavers with a modern design sensibility. The weaving studio at present accommodates 27 jacquard and dobby handlooms, where each weaver makes around five meters of fabric a day and is paid Rs 300 to 350 per day. Contemporary versions of the typical Chennimalai coarse fabric are woven with a yarn bank of linen, cotton, modal, eri silk and rayon, which then facilitates the creation of dresses, kurtas, tops, skirts, and palazzos. Each collection has prominent Tamil names like malar signifying garden or katam for checks, the current theme reflecting diamond patterns for enmukha and is created in collaboration with a designer from NIFT or NID. 

Stitch by stitch
The Nilgiris is home to many tribal groups among whom the Todas are the most distinct. The women practice the exquisite Toda craft of embroidery. Considering it a tribute to nature, even their tattoos use the same geometric patterns as the embroidery motifs. One of the earliest documented mentions of the craft is made by Murray Emeneau, a well-known Toda linguist, in 1937, while earlier mentions include a photograph from James Wilkinson Breeks’ An Account of the Primitive Tribes and Monuments of the Nilgiris in 1873. The Toda embroidery obtained the GI of the Government of India in 2013 and occupies a prominent place in the craft map of Tamil Nadu. 

The ceremonial embroidered textile called Poothukuli has the signature red and black threads, made of coarse unbleached cotton fabric with bands of narrow strips. The elaborate embroidery is done on a white base handloomed fabric, supplied by weavers of Sirumugai village or from Calicut. A darning stitch is used and the embroidery is done from the back of the fabric without a frame. Another interesting feature of the embroidery is that it is reversible. 

Around 200 Todas practice this craft tradition in Ooty, Kotagiri and Kuntha. In recent years, the Toda women have been open to doing embroidery on other products. However, no colour apart from the black, red and white has been entertained. Another tribe from Nilgiris, the Kurumbas, are known for weaving the traditional woollen Kurumba Kambili. Shree Lakshmi, the Assistant Director, development Commissioner (Handicrafts) DC(H), Salem, shares that this craft is on the decline. Only a few members of this community are practising this craft as part-time work in Sulur and Sultanpet blocks of Coimbatore District. 

Of a million dots
The word chungudi or sungudi is from the Sanskrit word sunnam, meaning round. It is believed that the dots on the fabric replicated the cosmos, everyday kolam designs and the knotting pattern of how women tied their hair. In the early 16th century, weavers from Saurashtra, Gujarat, migrated to Machilipatnam of Andhra Pradesh, while some of them travelled further to Madurai, where the Nayak kings welcomed them. They were popularly called the Pattunul-karas translating to the silk weavers. In order to please the local ruler, the Saurashtrians of Madurai created a gift of cotton fabric in tiny dotted patterns using the method of tie and dye. This fabric became very popular as it was comfortable for use in the harsh tropical climate and came to be known as the Madurai Sungudi. Sungudi has been recognised as a GI by the Government of India in 2005. 

Nowadays, most sungudi saris sold in the market are screen prints or cheaper wax print imitations, as the original craft has declined. In 2009, The Crafts Council of India and the World Crafts Council worked to revive this craft practice. After a series of workshops, skill building and design development initiatives, a group of women called Tharagai, trained by the CCI, are now continuing the craft’s legacy in Madurai. 

Craft a block
The ancient craft of stone carving in Tamil Nadu flourished due to the patronage of the ancient ruling dynasties who have contributed immensely and distinctly to art, architecture and the sculptural heritage of the South. The practice has been kept alive by a community of traditional practitioners and trainers called sthapathis. The idols are carved following the rules of the Shilpa Shastra (ancient Hindu texts that describe design for a wide range of arts and crafts). About 150 craftsmen are engaged in this craft practice at  Avinashi,Thirumuruganpoondi in Tiruppur district according to the DC(H). The Crafts Council of India’s regional affiliate CCTN in Coimbatore has worked with traditional craftsmen and have created a range of contemporary products for home and garden décor. 

Another craft of soapstone or soft stone carving had been practised by the hereditary craftsmen at Tiruvannamalai, Modaiyur,Thalamadai inThiruvannamalai District and also TG Palayam (Tandankondanpalayam) in Namakkal and Semmandapatti in Salem. In Salem district, almost all families earlier in the Tandank-ondanpalayam village were involved in making stone utensils called kalchattis. “This craft has been languishing now with the number of craftsmen as low as 20,” explains  the Assistant Director, DC(H) Salem.

The Crafts Council of India had worked on a revival several years ago but did so with little success. In a repeat attempt, CCI recently developed a line of cookware and serving utensils in stone to help sustain the craftsmen in Namakkal district.

Twist of time
A bright striped dhurry called jamakkalam is used in many Tamil functions or during the Kutcheri season where there is a need for large floor coverings to seat devotees during temple festivals. This product is made in Bhavani in Erode district. The Bhavani Jamakkalam obtained the GI in the year 2005. Dating back to the early 19th century, jamakkalam is handwoven with coarse cotton yarn on a pit loom. Weavers mostly limit themselves to creating a striped pattern in the horizontal direction with a bank of multicolour weft yarns. The traditional colours used are navy, red, green, orange, blueish white and chrome yellow. A wide range of sizes is possible with the largest requiring three weavers simultaneously. 

Jamakkalam joy
An accessory label from Chennai, Terku derives its design philosophy and inspiration from these jamakkalams. Fariha Begum, a young post-graduate of Fine Arts, Stella Maris, was initially introduced to this craft during her industrial tour in college. What started off as a final semester project interacting with an 80-year-old handloom weaver led to creating a line of bright beautiful bags. Look out for the brand’s messenger slings, satchels, totes, laptop bags, and travel pouches that come in hues of turquoise, purple, yellow, pink, bright green along with black, white, grey and blue. 

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