To wear a South Indian silk sari is one thing and to watch it being woven quite another. That is my thought as we travel through the heart of Tamil Nadu, following the state’s rich textile heritage trail. “We are trailing the sari,” says a fellow traveller, and I can’t agree more. We start our journey at Chennai’s Kalakshetra Foundation, famed for its saris characterised by bold colours, contrasting borders and unique motifs. It is said when Kalakshetra founder Rukmini Devi Arundale could not find the right fabric to make the costumes for her dance dramas, she asked local weavers to create it specially for her. What started out as a fine-art revival foundation grew to encompass weavers as well.
As we walk to the section where the Kanjeevaram saris are being woven, we see just how complex the process of creating each of these masterpieces is. Each sari requires three shuttles and two weavers to work on the body and the broad borders on each side. The weavers then use korvai, an intricate weaving technique, to interlace the border with the body, and join the elaborately decorated pallu with a special interlinking weave called pitni. Kanjeevarams are distinguished by their motifs, which are often inspired by the beautiful carvings found in the temples of Kanchipuram, the birthplace of this sari, which is where we will head the next day!
We also spend some time with qualamkars, the traditional craftsmen, who are working hard to keep the traditions of handloom and hand-printed textiles from Tamil Nadu alive. At their Handloom Weaving Centre, we meet some of the painters and weavers, and chat with textile expert Kausalya on fabrics and the traditional textiles in India.
Our next stop in Chennai is the M.Rm. Foundation, set up by the doyen of Chettinad culture, Visalakshi Ramaswamy. Her efforts towards the revival of the dying crafts of southern Tamil Nadu have resulted in the unique kottan (palm leaves) baskets reaching hundreds of urban consumers. But what catches the eye are the hand-made Athangudi tiles. With bright geometric and floral designs and a soft shine that is distinct from the high lustre of factorymade products, Athangudi tiles get their name from a village in the Chettinad region. Ramaswamy says their colours don’t fade. And what’s more special is their placement can be done only by trained masons.
A soft-spoken Ramaswamy leads us to the foundation’s working unit, which is a lesson in tradition. As we watch artisans painstakingly craft each tile out of locally available soil, we are transported to a bygone era. The process of making the tiles is as creative as the final product itself. The tiles are sun-dried and cured in water. And they don’t need machine polishing. Just rub them with husk and mop them with a few drops of coconut oil!
The next day starts early as we set off for Kanchipuram, a city said to be the hub of textile devotees. The birthplace of Kanjeevaram saris, the city is also known for its fine angavastrams (a stole or fabric draped over the shoulder by men), and the Konrad sari, also known as the temple sari. The Konrad saris – usually striped or checked – are characterised by their wide borders with flower and animal motifs, and were originally woven for temple deities. Considered to be one of the seven holiest Hindu cities, Kanchipuram is today a busy modern hub with its vibrant temples and weaver clusters. At one such cluster, we enter a weaver’s home and sit in fascinated silence as the man of the house works on his loom that fills the small room, weaving a sari in brilliant colours and real gold zari. Thread by thread the sari forms, the gold butis glinting in the light of the naked bulb hanging from the roof. The sight of him bent over his loom, sweat beads glistening on his forehead, makes a permanent imprint on my mind and will resurface every time I buy a sari and feel it’s priced high!
The next day, we drive to Auroville. Of the many designers who have made this township home is Uma Prajapati of Upasana. Her work combining Indian aesthetics with organic and sustainable raw materials has to be seen to be believed. Over lunch, she talks about how her venture promotes conscious living. We don’t need to be coerced into buying her works – ceramic items, woodwork, lamps, paper craft and textiles.
However, no tour of South India is complete without a visit to Madurai and an introduction to its superfine cotton fabric. The textile of this city has been influenced by embroidery and weaving patterns brought in by travellers and migrants over centuries. Of these, we are told, its Chungidi and Sungudi styles bear a distinct resemblance to the tie-and-dye techniques of Kutch in Gujarat, introduced by the Sungudi community that migrated from Sourashtra. Dyed with natural pigments, the eco-friendly fabric is perfect for India’s tropical climate. At the end of our trip, we leave with bags full of saris, a trunk full of memories and a heart full of pride in India’s rich textile legacy.