Superfine and soft as silk, these mats spell quality craft. Woven by Muslims in the small town of Pattamadai in the Tirunelveli-Kattbomman district of Tamil Nadu, these “pattu pais” are sought after items. They form a part of Hindu marriage ceremonies and are a symbol of Hindu-Muslim interaction. They also show how a craft by its superior quality can be catapulted to the national and world stage. The mats of Pattamadai become magic carpets, bridging distances both geographical and societal, and becoming worthy gifts for not only commoners but also royals, political leaders and celebrities.

“My mother had a Pattamadai mat and I was fascinated by it,” says Soumhya Venkatesan, lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Manchester whose book “ Craft Matters: Artisans, Development and the Indian Nation” was launched recently at The Madras Terrace House. Her mother had to just open the wardrobe and the child would pull out the mat. “Finally my mother got so fed up she just gave it to me,” laughs Soumhya.

Craft Matters:..” is based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork among the Labbai Muslim mat weavers, poor Muslims whose work is mostly bought by elite Tamil Hindus (Brahmins) …The anthropological study explores the ways in which the Pattuppai of Pattamdai became classified as a traditional craft object and what this classification has meant to the weavers who are now simultaneously national heroes and (paradoxically) marginalised and suspect Muslims.”

“The book’s aims are three fold: to study the antecedents of the term ‘craft’ and its contours in contemporary India, craft development in relation to other anthropological studies, and Hindu-Muslim interaction,” elaborates Soumhya in an interview at the Terrace.

“Usually when we talk of Hindu-Muslim relations, it is to do with communal violence and about North India. I wanted to deal with a strong instance of Hindu-Muslim interaction in the South,” she says.

Is Hindu-Muslim harmony, in terms of craft, a feel-good cliché?

“We often assume craft can bridge the old and new, the modern and the traditional, the Hindu and the Muslim but asymmetries do exist and we have to be aware of this,” says Soumhya. “On the face of it, cordial relations exist in Pattamadai but by and large the two communities don’t have close contacts and sometimes there are tremors.” During the book release she quoted the instance of a Hindu odd-jobs man pointing out the owner of a mat shop and his son as Muslims to some policemen though the policemen were merely visiting.

After graduating in history from the Women’s Christian College in Chennai, Soumhya obtained her Masters in art history from the National Museum Institute in New Delhi. “It was while I was engaged in studying the painting of the Warli tribe in Madhya Pradesh for my dissertation that Prof. Jyotindra Jain suggested I specialise in anthropology,” she says.

Soumhya moved to Cambridge University for her M.Phil and Ph.D. This, her first book grew out of her thesis.

“You don’t need to romanticise craft, it speaks for itself,” says Soumhya. “The pitfall is we employ a language that the artisan doesn’t use or understand. We speak of national heritage or quote Ananda Coomaraswamy. And we take away any kind of initiative from the craftsmen. But finally, as in Pattamadai for example, it is “sale” that matters. Also, one is apt to always talk of craft in terms of “centuries old.” But Pattamadai mats cannot be more than 100-odd years old. I can’t find records that mention it even in1885.”

And for development measures to be effective, she feels it is necessary to listen to what the craftsmen have to say.

For Soumhya it is a continuing journey in both craft and anthropology. She is now working with the bronze stapathis of Swamimalai and with the potters of Pudukottai.

Fit for a queen

“Anthropologists are fascinated with the giving of gifts for gifts build relationships,” says Soumhya who deals with this aspect of Pattamadai mats in the book.

The gifting of a mat to Queen Elizabeth II to mark her coronation forms part of the legend of the Pattamadai mat today, she says. The weavers speak proudly of how the mat they wove is now in the possession of the Queen. But is it really?

The story began, she narrates, when an insurance agent named Rangan who lived in Madras decided to gift a Pattamadai mat in 1953 to the Queen, with the text woven in giving details about the intended recipient, the occasion, the giver and the craftsmen. More than one weaver wanted to weave it. But as Soumhya found out, the mat was not finally accepted as despite attempts to make it look like a gift from the weavers, the mat was classified as a personal gift. And personal gifts were not accepted on the occasion. But it was this finely woven mat that attracted the attention of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, pioneer in the revival of crafts, to the Pattamadai craftsmen. This placed them on the national map and helped initiate measures for their development.

Another significant gift was the Pattamadi mat carrying former Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s likeness painted on it. It was presented to her by a self-help group comprising ten female weavers of the town.

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