From the queen of silks Kancheepuram to the understated cottons from Dindigul and Paramakudi, Tamil Nadu’s reign in the handloom legacy of India stands unparalleled. But, promoters of handloom are concerned as they claim that interest in the craft among the weaver communities is waning.
C Raman, a 41-year-old weaver from Vadamanapakkam near Kancheepuram, has been keeping a legacy alive. Weaving the Kanchi cotton, he is aware that he is the custodian of a rich heritage.
The varieties of cotton sarees made in the state include the Kanchi cotton which is woven with motifs like rudhraksham, annam (swan), mayil (peacock) and manga (mango), and the famous Kancheepuram silks.
When the looms in the belt were working solely on silks, since they meant more money, production of the cotton variety had taken a backseat and was on the verge of being lost. An initiative by the Department of Handlooms and Textiles, however, brought the Kanchi cottons at the forefront of Tamil Nadu’s cotton handloom.
“People are now asking for it at textile exhibitions and other shows that I participate in,” said Raman.
R Tamilarasi, joint director of the government-run department, said that the department made concerted efforts to ensure that each of the regional variety of textiles is kept alive.
“We have been involved with looms across the state, weaving almost 50 varieties of products and a large part of them are sarees in silk and cotton,” she said.
The government tied up with 3.1 lakh weavers in 90 clusters spread across the state. Among the long list of varieties are the Koorainadu woven in the Kumbakonam belt, Madurai Sungudi and Chettinadu sarees. The Koorainadu sarees reminiscent of the wedding or koorai sarees in silk by silk and silk by cotton categories are rich on colours. Tamil Nadu’s vast array of handlooms also includes the Sungudi made in the tie and dye technique. “The Chettinadu designs in cotton and deep colours have their own appeal, as they come with a low-key elegance that appeal to a number of working women,” said Tamilarasi.
According to the sales figures, the top performing clusters are textile hubs in the Coimbatore-Tirupur belt with its soft silks, followed by the Chettinadu and Paramakudi cottons, Kancheepuram and Koorainadu silk varieties.
According to the department, the revenue generated in 2017 was Rs 852 crore.
TN Venkatesh, the managing director of Co-optex, that has close to 200 outlets spread across India, said that apart from other metros in the South and across India, the tier-two cities in TN have been welcoming handloom designs. “In Vellore, Thanjavur, Tirunelveli, the handlooms are a huge hit. They prefer dark and bright colours, while in the urban centres the stress is more on pastels.” He pointed out that the clientele base for the handlooms went far and wide, including the overseas market in Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka. “Here, the demand is more for light weight silk sarees such as Aarni silks.”
Textile giant Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti sheds light on the popularity of the Coimbatore cottons. “These are commonly known as South cotton and they have a pan-India appeal.”
Design intervention to increase appeal
The department has also been roping in textile designers from reputed institutions to work closely with the weavers.
One among them is Jansi Rani, alumnus of the Government College of Fine Arts, who has been guiding the weavers of Aruppukottai for more than 10 months now.
“They have been used to simple designs. Even the butas (dots) are small on a colour palette dominated by oranges and greens. To cater to today’s tastes, I have asked them to work on bigger butas and come up with more designs on the borders inspired by nature, as they have restricted the designs to lines and stripes,” said Rani.
Co-optex, which is engaged in the marketing of handloom fabrics produced in Tamil Nadu, has been getting in touch with the customer base comprising working women in the IT industry to understand their tastes.
Venkatesh said, “We have been meeting IT professionals between 25-35 years to know more about the designs and colours which that segment of the customers would be interested in.”
He added, “We also sought their feedback to know about the kinds of sarees they would want to wear for all occasions – parties to functions and formal wear. We found that many of them are keen on thread work and the zero-zari sarees.”
Co-optex has been working on awareness programmes in other cities like Visakhapatnam, Kolkata, Pune, etc.
Offering sustainable livelihood
Weavers working on cotton varieties earn as much as Rs 5,000 a month, while those working on silk gets up to Rs 10,000 a month. While the wages may seem inadequate, Tamilarasi pointed out that a section of these weavers is not dependent on weaving alone. “These are cottage industries and our focus is on continuous employment for the weavers,” she said.
The handloom department has been meeting logistic requirements like common facility centres and dye houses.
“Under the CM Solar Power Greenhouse scheme, loomshed houses and separate loomsheds have been built for the weavers. So far, 10,000 loomshed-houses have been built in the state,” said Tamilarasi.
The pension schemes for weavers and for the families are also aimed at retaining looms, she added.
Pulling in younger generations
The government has been reaching out to the younger generation of weavers, to engage them with the crafts and ensure they carry it forward. Tamilarasi said, “We have given them dobby boxes for designs and catch card for korvai ( interlocking mechanism of the body and the border of the saree) to save on man hours, apart from stressing on value -added designs.
A large section of handloom weavers, however, has been migrating to other lucrative vocations. Chetti said that while outlets like Nalli have been playing a role in retaining handlooms, the migration is inevitable.
“Even in Kancheepuram, the switch has begun. There will be a time when there are no looms.”
From the Paramakudi belt, the elegant cotton variety of drapes has gone places. But, the number of weavers has been largely dwindling. MR Ananthakrishnan, who manages the cluster, said,“The demand can be met with more looms, but I have been finding it difficult to bring in more number of weavers.”
Though Kanchi cottons are back on the handloom map of the state, Krishnamoorthy (name changed), a weaver from near Kancheepuram, is doubtful about passing on the legacy to the next generation. “I get about Rs 150 for one saree that sells in the market for more than 1,500. I can make about 10 sarees a month, which will fetch me about Rs 2,000. But that’s hardly a sum I can depend on. I am not sure, if my children will want to enter this field.”
While talking to several weaver societies, one understands that the rebates given on sales are not reimbursed by the government on time. Sometimes, it takes as much as seven years.
Even in the prosperous Coimbatore belt, for every 10 families weaving, just about two are likely to continue with the profession. V Ravikumar, vice president of District Federation of Handloom Weavers, said, “We are yet to hear of newcomers entering the field to carry the tradition forward. Earlier, in my parents’ generation, men and women in every household used to keep the looms working all through the day. That is not likely to happen anymore.”
Sreemathy Mohan, researcher and marketing consultant, noted that if weavers make more money out of this profession, they may stick to it. “Moreover, there is a lot of resistance from the weavers to adapt to change.
But thanks to the efforts of Co-optex and Department of Handloom and Weaver Service Centres, people are now aware of kai thari (handloom).” She added that weavers and their promoters should look beyond sarees for product diversification to keep the looms alive. “There is a huge market for yardage, especially among the younger generation. Today the market is all about price and the ease of buying.”
Sreemathy said that for the designs and the tradition to survive, promoters must focus on maintaining records. “There is no textile museum like Calico in Gujarat, maintained by government. We don’t know what was in vogue some 30 years ago and there is no repository to refer. All that is available is in the custody of private parties. There is an urgent need to preserve the knowledge of textile and designs for the future generations to understand its worth.”
A look at our rich textile legacy
Paramakudi sarees: These cotton sarees from various clusters in the Ramanathapuram district are famous for their soft 80’s combed cotton and the intricate jacquard thread borders Tie and dye: Made in and around towns of Thiruvannamalai , the weaves have a unique tie and design in the borders and pallu. The coarse and rustic 60’s cottons make it a comfortable wear, and also gives a good drape
Manalmedu sarees: The simple yet stunning cotton sarees from the Tiruchy cluster are well known for incorporating contemporary smart designs
Negamam sarees: Handwoven from the clusters of Coimbatore and Pollachi they have a rich weaving tradition. You can spot the essence of tradition in these handloom sarees and the specialty is the heavy cotton thread work done in the pallu, which makes it stand out Dindigul cotton: The sarees from Dindigul are famous for their softness, durability and fine finish
Chettinad sarees: The Chettinadu Kandangi is renowned for its earthy and bold play of colours like mustard, maroon, green, brown and yellows. It is woven by the weavers of Karaikudi Thirubuvanam: The historical town of Thirubhuvanam is closer to Kumbakonam in the district of Thanjavur. The usage of high quality mulberry filature silk yarns in a Thirubhuvam saree is responsible for its special texture and high lustre. This silk saree is folded like an Angavastram, and this fan fold is called as “visiri madippu” in Tamil
Arani silk: As famous as the Kancheepuram, Arani sarees are lighter than that. The sarees are woven with mulberry silk in warp and weft, with or without too much Zari. The highlight of an Arani pattu is the “thazamboo” border motif Chinnalapatti designs: The weavers have mastered the art of weaving “Kora” silk in warp and mercerized cotton in weft. It takes about two days to weave one saree, and these sarees are inspired by the design and the technique of Pochampally ikats
Source: Loomworld, Department of Handloom
When art forms inspired sarees
Designed by danseuse and social activist Rukmini Devi Arundale, Kalakshetra designs have their own place in TN’ s textile history.
Working with expert weavers from Kancheepuram, she introduced the muthukattams, parrots and an exclusive colour palette of earthy colours and broad borders. That tradition of sticking to their unique palette continues even today and there won’t be even a slight deviation.
The Kodali Karuppur sarees were extremely popular during the times of Maratha empire, woven exclusively for the ranis and the royalty.
These were made in the village by the same name in Thanjavur district. Interestingly, the Jamdani technique of weaving, famous in the East, was used. Almost ten years ago, Weavers Service Centre revived it and Kalakshetra Foundation too followed suit some years ago.
MS sarees: The famous MS blue or ultramarine blue has a special place in the wardrobes of handloom lovers. The saree gained popularity after music legend MS Subbulakshmi wore the drape to one of her concerts. There are also sarees in kili pachai (parrot green) with naaval pazham border, and a red and green combo is still remembered by rasikas.
Co-optex paid tribute to the singer in her centenary year through a revival of these sarees.
History with TN threads
- 3.1 lakh Weavers have tied up with the Department of Handlooms and Textiles in 90 clusters spread across the state.
- 230 Weaver families used to live in Chintadripet area which derives its name from the looms (china thari or small looms) as it was a centre for weavers, in circa 1734 .
- Tamil Nadu has had a special place for textiles for many centuries. While Cholas and Nayak dynasties have had a strong influence on the state’s textiles. It is said that for every 100 kilometres in the state, there is a new weave.
- Anakaputhur, a suburb near Chennai, has a number of weavers predominantly women engaging weaving bamboo and banana in cotton and silk. But, the suburb that had a bustling loom culture has been left with just about 100 odd weavers, due to lack of state government support.
- 1952 The year when Indrani Rehman wore a Kancheepuram saree while being crowned the Miss India.
- 1911 A Durbar silk saree gifted by Nalli to King George V to Chennai on this year after his coronation in Delhi was revived many years later, with a sample saree preserved by MS Subbulakshmi.
- Kodalikaruppur was worn by the royalty during the Thanjavur Maratha rule. It was made with a mix of silk, gold and silver.