With the efforts of WCC and CCI, the Sungudi is coming back

On the banks of the Vaigai in Madurai, a carpet of muslin reflected the star-filled sky for centuries. For it was on these banks that the Pattunool community — traditional silk cloth weavers — spread its beautiful dotted fabric, the Sungudi, for drying, after an elaborate process of tying and dyeing. These saris, fashioned from smooth cotton, adorned princesses and commoners with their rich and uncluttered look. The white dots on their expanse set off to perfection the buds of jasmine in the women's hair — the Madurai Malli the city is famous for.

The vocabulary of dots is an all time favourite among the fabrics of India. The Bandini or Bandhej of Rajasthan and Gujarat, and the Sungudi of Tamil Nadu are closely allied. Sungudi is so identified with the culture of Madurai and Tamil Nadu that it is celebrated in folk and film songs.

But perhaps because the process of tying and dyeing proved too arduous, the returns meagre and the raw material expensive, the artisans and businessmen turned to less time-consuming processes. Wax printing and even screen printing began to be used to increase production and bring down costs. The result was a steady decline in quality, and a dilution of the tradition. Today, a beautiful hand tied and dyed sungudi has become a rarity.

The World Crafts Council in association with the Crafts Council of India, has now stepped in to revive the textile tradition. Usha Krishna, President of WCC did a survey on Sungudi 15 years ago. “Recently, when the Ministry of Textiles wanted us to choose two projects, we thought of the Sungudi of Madurai and the Korvai saris of Kanchipuram,” says Usha. “The revival will help income generation and have a ripple effect.”

Sudha Ravi, WCC member, who is the coordinator of the project for Sungudi revival explains that the project is being executed in three phases. “We want to cater to various segments,” she adds. “Uma Kannan, secretary, Thiagarajar College, was our patron and helped considerably in the organisation of the workshop,” says Usha. Vijaya Rajan, Chairperson of the Crafts Council of India, who guided the project, explains how the CCI helped facilitate it.

“Bandini, which is also a process of tie and dye, is very much practised in the North. So why not Sungudi thrive in the South,” asks Dally Verghese, CCI member, and expert in the revival and restoration of textiles, who designed the fabrics and imparted training at the workshop in Madurai. “If Maheshwari can be revived, so can Sungudi. It will empower the women,” states Dally. Lisa Mathew, NID graduate, was design consultant for the project.

Both Dally and Lisa worked hard to perfect a range of colours and helped the trainees try out a variety of patterns. “The first phase of the project was a survey undertaken by Dally and Lisa in the temple city,” explains Sudha. “They spoke to many clusters and found that only one Saurashtrian couple is practising the craft in the traditional way. In their employ are around seven women workers who have the expertise, along with a master craftsman.” Women are traditionally employed to tie the fabrics.

“We need to train younger women, and more clusters should come up,” says Dally. “If there is more competition, the price of a sari will also come down as now each original Sungudi with real zari is priced at Rs.4,500.”

The next phase of the project was the training that took place in the Saurashtrian Boys' School for 15 days. Forty women were trained. “The existing Sungudi associations have come together to support the project,” says Rajam Subramaniam, advisor for the workshop.

Talks and demonstrations in weaving of baskets and flowers, lessons in yoga, and in the use of conversational English, that helped add variety to the workshop were arranged by Uma Kannan with the assistance of the members. Experts in various fields of art and craft, such as art historian Dr.R. Venkatraman spoke to the participants.

The third phase is development of products, diversification and marketing. The Sungudi range will be expanded to include duppattas, blouse pieces, tray cloths, cushion covers and napkins.

“We can only be a catalyst and link the market and buyer. We plan to have an exhibition and sale of these products in Chennai soon. A fashion show too will be organised,” say the WCC members. “The products will also be stocked at the Kamala outlets in Delhi and Kolkata, and we are also tying up with other retail units,” says the president.

At the valedictory function, a group of participants came dressed in pink Sungudi saris made by them during the workshop — a happy augury perhaps of the future state of health of the tradition.

Royal connection

According to art historian Venkatraman, the word Sungudi comes from the Telugu word “sungu” meaning the lower garment with its pleats. The Pattunool weavers, who originally traded in silk thread, turned to cotton, and the muslin they produced in Masulipatnam was in great demand even in ancient Rome. They were suppliers of textiles of fine 120 count to royal families and were patronised by the Satavahana rulers.

When the Nayakdams were established by Emperor Krishnadeva Raya in the South, the Pattunool community, which was originally from Saurashtra in Gujarat, came to Madurai and Thanjavur in the beginning of the 16th century. The Sungudi tradition disappeared elsewhere but continued in Madurai. With the advent of the British, common people too began wearing fine cloth, and the Sungudi. When mill made textiles and printing came into vogue, the cheaper Sungadi became popular.

The process

The survey elaborates the process: The fabric, generally of 8os count is washed and dried on the banks of the Vaigai. After bleaching, the master craftsman draws the grid and the design. He then distributes the saris to the women who take it home for tying.

A sari of a better quality can have around 10,000 dots. It takes about 15 days to complete tying a sari and the ties have to be very tight. The women then return the saris which are dyed, and dried again. Then the ties are removed and the sari is ironed.

Traditionally yellow with red border, black with red, and green with red were the colours used with standard allover dot design. Sungudi is done only on cotton unlike Bandini. The dots on Sungudi are bigger and less fine than those in the Bandini of Gujarat and Rajasthan.