Chettinad food, yes, but what about Chettinad baskets? Here's one woman’s journey to revive the ancient craft.

The kottans at Manjal in MRC Nagar, Chennai, are in all sizes, colours and patterns possible, spread across the floor like bright splashes on canvas. Even the store’s files are made of Chettinad-checked textiles and baskets of different weaves adorn Visalakshi Ramaswamy’s office and desk. Ever the preserver of Chettinad crafts, Visalakshi’s new book Kottan: The Palmyra Basket of Chettinad is a documentation of the basket-weaving techniques of the Chettinad region and her efforts to revive them.

Working with craftsmen for over 30 years made Visalakshi realise that it is not easy to make them stay with crafts anymore. “Even if they make more income this way, they feel more responsible in a white- or blue-collared job,” she says. “A weaver once told me that people wouldn’t marry his daughter because of his job.” She realised that the crafts would die soon if they weren’t educated or appreciated for the work they were doing. So, in 2000, she began M.Rm.Rm Cultural Foundation, an NGO that would research, document and revive traditional crafts.

She looked around for a place to begin and realised that the beautiful baskets in her own home were vanishing and there was no one who could replace them. “I felt it was my duty to document this and other Chettinad crafts. The basket weaves were passed on from father to son but the father always held back something and so, slowly, the craft disintegrated.” Her book documents the weaving in such detail that anyone wanting to learn the craft can use it as a guide. “This way the craft is saved. We can’t worry about someone replicating what we’re doing or feel threatened by it,” she says. The book delves into the history of palm leaf baskets, how the name came about, why they were made of palm leaves and what were they used for. Apart from this, it describes in detail the work that goes into it, the material required, the tools used and the weaving process itself. It also includes a myriad designs that Visalakshi and her 110-odd weavers have perfected over the years. “These are only the old collections. If I chronicled all our designs, I would need to publish three more books,” she laughs.

Twelve years ago, it was difficult to even get a sample basket and Visalakshi had to go from village to village in Chettinad asking women to come and train with her. “There were a few people who had taken weaving classes but they were reluctant to train under us. Finally, we found a few willing to give it a shot. We trained them for a year under the only woman who knew the weaves, Kannamai Aachi, who was well in her 80s by then,” she says.

The weavers are based out of Sravayal Pudhur, Nachiapuram, Vairavanpatti and Kanadukathan villages and the training centre is in Koratti. They were given a stipend to make sure they attended classes. Visalakshi made sure they were involved in the decision making. “Logistics and money are important and we were very practical. We made sure they knew everything about the business of basket weaving. If we found that something didn’t sell, we stopped making it.”

Now, the women work either from home or at the centre and Visalakshi says their lives have improved drastically. “They all have phones and can be reached at any time. They are conscious about quality and pin their names to the baskets they make. They are educating their children and fighting for their rights. The whole family sometimes comes to help with the baskets because they see the kind of income it generates. Most important, the men respect the women,” she says. The money going into the village is developing the whole community as well. “They have idli grinders, the very first thing they wanted,” she smiles. “They have fans and TVs now. And when weddings take place, the entire community celebrates it as one big family. It’s heartening to see the kinship the project has developed.”

Visalakshi hopes to publish similar books on other crafts as well. “This book was self-published. Everything from design to pictures was done here at my office,” she says, adding “I have a weakness for beautiful things.” She is working next on a book on the architecture of the Chettinad house, using her own in Kanadukathan as a model. “We are making measured line drawings. The book will have so much detail that anyone could build a Chettinad house.”