Mohamed Ibrahim’s grand-father Allapichai set up the first shop to sell korai mats in Chennai. “That was way back in 1860. He was from Tirunelveli, and sold mats, right here in Evening Bazaar, Parry’s,” says Ibrahim, sitting between bundles of korai mats. “But this structure came up much later. I remember a time when the shop just had a tin roof. The mats were stored in a room behind the building, and displayed right here. There was no lock or key then, thefts were unheard of!” says the 72-year-old.

The first graduate from Paaikadai Bazaar (B.Sc from New College), Ibrahim took over ‘Majestic Mat Centre’ in 1982. “But I assisted my father even before that. In the 1950s, mats were sold for Rs. 1.5 to Rs. 2. Now, they’re priced between Rs. 1,000 and Rs. 2,000. The manufacturing process too has changed. Earlier, the mats were hand-woven, and only about two mats could be completed in a day. Now, with power looms, we can turn out 300!”

Traditionally, the korai grass was woven using kathaazhai thread, explains Ibrahim. The plant fibres were soaked for 15-20 days and then beaten; the pulp was tucked under the arms and twisted into long threads. “That ‘naaru paai’ was very strong. Even the edges were woven, not taped down. But who’s there to do all that now?” he asks. Today, cotton twine has replaced kathaazhai, but korai mats are very much in demand. “Plastic mats generate heat, and they can trigger allergies. But the korai grass – the tubers are even used in Siddha medicine – is cooling, and is ideal, even for new born babies.”

Tamil Nadu has a monopoly over the mat industry, says Ibrahim, adding that the kora grass grows well in the Cauvery delta, but the problem now is the lack of electricity for the weaving mills.

Business is brisk, Ibrahim tells me. “I supply mats all over India. A church in Gangtok, Sikkim, routinely places an order over the phone, sends me a DD and I send them the mats! We’ve always maintained high quality, and our customers are happy.”

Korai wedding mats are also popular. “It is a prestigious wedding gift – a mat with the bride and groom’s name as well as the wedding date woven into the design.”

The inexpensive mats, I learn, are woven coarse, while the pattu paai, sold for Rs. 2,000, is extra fine. Around me are coarse straw-coloured mats, their edges laced in green and purple. From the floor to the ceiling, the mats are stacked, one on top of another, and from one of the heaps, Mohammad Ali (Ibrahim’s assistant who has helped in running the shop for many years) takes out a fine mat and unfurls it. Maroon, purple and green come together in embroidery like designs, the colours as brilliant as in any silk saree.

Besides sleeping and flooring, the mats are also used in partitions, ceiling and as stage decorations. “We’ve supplied mats to Kalakshetra, since the time the dance school was inside the Theosophical society,” Ibrahim says. “My father used to take me along to see the banyan tree there. I was young, and recall all the teachers calling Rukmini Devi ‘Athai’.” The life of a mat ultimately depends on how it is maintained, says Ibrahim.

“Too much sun can twist the fibres, while moisture breeds fungus.” As we speak, the sun blazes from a cloudless sky. It reminds me that the paai kadai has lived on in a bazaar that’s named after it, braving sun and rain, for over 150 years…

APARNA KARTHIKEYAN

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)