Tamil Nadu’s Rich and Varied Legacy
Perhaps one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of Tamil Nadu is the region’s colorful, often over-the-top cinema and temples dedicated to popular actors. The image is enhanced with lush green landscapes dotted with stunning architecture like the opulent Chettiar mansions in Chettinadu, a flourishing software industry and the expressive dance form – Bharatanatyam. If you took a trip to Tamil Nadu you would be introduced to its legacy of literature that goes back centuries, take a walk on the Marina beach in Chennai, dip into Chicken Chettinad and you wouldn’t come back without a beautiful, rich Kanjeevaram saree – a staple in every Indian bride’s trousseau.
But if you looked around a little more, you would chance upon a wealth of cotton weaves and silks from different cities and regions in the state – each one unique in its technique and stories. Here are some of these beautiful textiles:
Easy on the pocket, great for summer and never out of style, Madras Checks or the Madras plaid is a fabric with an interesting history. Of unverified origin, the Madras plaid fabric has been made in and around the present day Chennai region since at least the 12th century. Starting life as a gaudy textile that was exported to Africa and the Middle East to be used as headpieces, this charming cloth caught the attention of the Dutch and then the British in the 1600s who came looking for trade in the much demanded Indian ‘calicoes’.
Since the Dutch had already monopolized Armagon town where the cloth was being woven in large quantities, the British moved to greener pastures – the small fishing village of Madraspatnam. Business was so lucrative that they established a trading post there and started sending the fabric to Europe. Madras plaid finally reached America in 1718 and was at the epicenter of one of the most memorable advertising campaigns by David Ogilvy – “Guaranteed to Bleed” - that managed to successfully offset negative perception of the fabric bleeding on the first wash. But that’s a story for another time!
Everyone has heard of the spicy, mouthwatering Chicken Chettinad. You may have also heard of or visited one of the lavish, well-appointed Chettiar villas in the area. But this beautiful region in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu is also famous for its vibrantly colored cotton sarees called Kandanghi. With their trademark checks in contrasting colors from an earthy palette of reds, browns, chromes and mustard, the Kandanghi or the Chettinadu saree is available in the busy town of Karaikudi. Still thriving because of the continued support of the affluent Nattukottai Chettiar community, the Kandanghi is decorated with checks and temple borders and comes in several varieties like `paalum pazham kottadi,' `palukka,' `varaoosi and `vazhaipoo'.
You know all about the mesmerizing Bandhani from Gujarat…the colors, the perfect symmetry of the dots on soft silks and cottons. But there is another type of tie-and-dye fabric, embellished with the all too familiar dots on the softest cotton and it is made in Tamil Nadu. Chungidi, chungadi or sungudi has traditionally been made in Madurai since the 16th century in the days of the Nayaks who brought artisans from Saurashtra to work on the craft. The immigrant weavers were called Pattunoolkarar and their descendants are still making this beautiful textile in the city, using traditional techniques and colors like manjal, arakku or neelam with the borders clamp-dyed in contrasting colors. The job of plotting the pattern on the fabric and tying the portions that should resist the dye is always entrusted to the women, many of whom wear their nails long to help in tying the delicate knots.
Korvai and Mayilkan dhotis
Woven fabrics from Tamil Nadu are most often fashioned into sarees but weaves for men have a strong case too. Two of these are the stunning Korvai dhotis and the Mayilkan dhotis. The Korvai dhotis are woven in silk or cotton and require at least two weavers working together to manage the complicated process. With a total of three shuttles, two each on the sides for the borders and one in the middle for the body of the dhoti, a Korvai is worn at auspicious occasions and weddings.
The Mayilkan dhoti is named for its traditional motif - the stylized eye of the peacock and is one of the most coveted garments in Tamil Nadu. Worn mostly at weddings and religious events, the Mayilkan dhoti is woven in the Salem region of the state and uses a three-shuttle loom like the Korvais.
If you’ve been wondering why we haven’t talked about that divine six-yard dream in zari and silk called the Kanjeevaram, it’s because we’re saving the best for last! The Kanjeevaram saree is only woven in the holy city of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu and is made of pure Mulberry silk with motifs like peacocks, coins, parrots and the kairi. In a genuine Kanjeevaram, the border and body are woven separately and interlocked later.
A Rich Embroidery Tradition
Tamil Nadu is also home to two beautiful textile embellishment techniques - Convent and Toda embroidery. The first is a petit point embroidery taught to women in rural areas around Kanyakumari by the missionary sisters that ran several convents in the area. It has survived decades and is now part of the region’s culture. With delicately embroidered motifs of bouquets of roses, poppies, cornflowers on table linen, handkerchiefs and even sarees, Convent embroidery is unique to Tamil Nadu.
Toda embroidery meanwhile is done by the pastoral community of the Todas who live in the Nilgiri mountains in the state. Locally known as Pugur, the embroidery is done without any tracing on the fabric, usually cotton. All embroidery is done in striking reds and blacks, counting the threads of the warp and weft on the fabric. The final piece is so fine that it could pass for a weave rather than threadwork.