The past, present and future meet in Visalakshi Ramaswamy’s work. T. Krithika Reddy gets into the inner rhythms of her efforts to revive Chettinad crafts

“Why photograph me when there are so many beautiful crafts around,” asks Visalakshi Ramaswamy, as she timidly poses for pictures. Hiding behind piles of colourful kottans on her table, she forces a smile and obliges the photographer. At Manjal, an offshoot of her M. Rm. Rm. Cultural Foundation, in MRC Nagar, the focus clearly is on the hand skills of women from the remote corners of Chettinad. “Revival of traditional crafts means survival of local craft communities,” she says with earnestness.

The idea of resuscitating traditional crafts was ignited when Visalakshi saw them languishing around her. The kottans were displaced from their coveted position in households, the Athangudi tiles were losing their sheen, the Kandangi saris didn’t find many takers and the characteristic wall art was fading into oblivion. “Something had to be done. As someone belonging to the community, it was easier for me to connect with the nuances of our heritage. It hurt to see tradition disappear so rapidly. I decided to step in…”

Revival is only the second part of her two-decade journey. Visalakshi rewinds to the first part — which was documentation. Before making a tangible difference to Chettinad crafts, she was keen on piecing together the intangible heritage of the community. “Documentation is necessary for any craft to endure. Much of the knowledge about hand skills come from the elderly. If they are not documented, there’s no way we can anchor the present and future generations to the past.”

Documentation took her through the village clusters of Chettinad. After four years of observing lifestyles and picking up the threads of textiles, crafts, cuisines, art and architecture, The Chettiar Heritage co-authored by historian S. Muthiah and Meenakshi Meyyappan hit the book stores.

“I realised that though some crafts had vanished, people who had worked with the craftspersons, many of them octogenarians, were still around. The need to document everything while we have access to information is vital. I started M. Rm. Rm Cultural Foundation with the aim of documenting, researching and reviving crafts. “I’ve done in-depth documentation of Chettinad saris and compiled a design directory featuring over 200 traditional designs that can be replicated step-by-step. Similarly, I’ve documented the making of kottans (ethnic baskets made of palm leaf), the aspects of art that go into creating the Athangudi tiles and the signature architectural style and weave of Chettinad. The homework has been done over the years. Now, I’m waiting to publish it or bring it out in the form of CDs.”

While focussing on documentation and getting up-close with craft communities, Visalakshi was bothered by the plight of women. “Dwindling patronage had robbed them of a livelihood. With the help of an aachi who had once created kottans for a living, I trained a group of 10 women in Keelayapatti village. It was encouraging to see the women make some money for themselves and gain confidence. The kottan project gathered momentum. We now run five centres with over 120 women. Since the raw materials are natural and locally available, the project did not involve huge investment. There are no middlemen; the Foundation finds an urban market for these crafts through Manjal. We tweak designs, experiment with colours and make the kottan adapt to changing demands. We now have sari boxes, designs for mehendi ceremonies and miniature ones to even keep bangles!” As I look around, I notice kottans in a range of hues from traditional earth tones to hot pinks and florescent greens. The kottans have received UNESCO’s Seal of Excellence Award for handicrafts in South Asia in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009. A Craftmark certification was also awarded by the All India Artisans and Craft Workers Welfare Association.

The success of Project Kottan encouraged Visalakshi to find a new market for the Athangudi tiles as well. It’s a cumbersome process — everything is hand done which lends them their distinct charm. Unable to face the competition posed by factory-produced tiles, the Athangudi creations were on the wane. The M. Rm. Rm. Foundation supported some ailing units and restarted production. We have managed to create renewed interest in these tiles. “Now, we have a research project with IIT-Madras, wherein we try to expedite production time, improve quality and durability, and simplify the laying process.”

What’s Chettinad without its individualistic saris? It’s a coarse weave in cotton or silk. The checks, stripes and colour stories make them unique. “Initially, I was a stickler. I never compromised even with a line. Gradually, I realised that change is constant in the world of crafts. So design interventions were necessary without affecting the original character of the sari to make a craft adapt to the times. Similarly, with the wall paintings too, I had to make some changes for practical reasons. Instead of painting directly on the walls, we now have wooden panels on which the designs are done and sold readymade!”

A range of experiences with craftswomen have added more texture to Visalakshi’s life. “My journey is about people. About connecting crafts and communities. About understanding the role of crafts in developing self-reliance. And about ensuring that these women get recognition for their skill. From patience and endurance to joy over creating something beautiful and a sense of economic freedom…I’ve seen the women experience them all. Nowadays, when they make extra money, they want to go on a holiday to Bangalore or Mysore. We organise these outings too. When we started our revival projects, we had to persuade these women to step out of their homes!” she says, again hiding her smile behind a purple-and-pink kottan.

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CORNUCOPIA OF CRAFTS

TILE TALE Known for its gentle sheen, distinct composition, vivid geometric/floral patterns and a different style of assembling, the Athangudi tiles get their name from a village in Chettinad. They retain their polish with little effort and the colours don’t fade. Perfect to perk up ethnic interiors.

WARP, WEFT, WONDERFUL The Kandangi saris were woven in bright hues to contrast with the dreary landscape of the drought-prone villages. Stripes, checks and broad borders in coarse cotton or silk give the saris their typical traditional look.

WHAT’S IN A KOTTAN? The traditional art of weaving baskets with palm leaves was a common activity in Chettinad households. Kottans were used during rituals and ceremonies. Now, they have evolved into a multi-purpose item. Sometimes, they were enhanced with beads, ribbons and crochet.

PLASTER PERFECT Lime plaster or egg plaster is said to have given the walls of Chettinad homes their mirror-like sheen. It was laid in five coats and polished painstakingly for that impeccable finish. This ancient technique is disappearing because masons find it extremely laborious.

THE WALL STORY Traditional Chettinad homes are finished with stunning wall paintings done using stencils. Each household is said to have had its own collection of tin sheet stencils used while refurbishing homes. The painters who specialised in wall paintings came from Kothamangalam. Today, few families follow this traditional art in the village.

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