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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

WOVEN ART : June 20, 1999


Southern legacy

Kamala Ramakrishnan

The Dakshina kshetra, the land south of the Vindhyas and covering the tropical lands of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, has always had its distinctive cultural features. Relatively untouched by the invasions that affected the cultural fabric of North India, Southern India has over the centuries continued to retain its many ancient traditions of art and craft.

Alien influences, however, were not nonexistent, for South India's long coastal line brought it naturally in contact with the great cultures of Southeast Asia and made it the first port of entry for the European traders. But while trade created demand for new products it did not affect traditional designs and weaving methods. Rather, along with the periodic rise in eminence and the decline of dynasties of the region, trade made its own contribution to the growth of different textile centres. Today South India can truly feel proud of its unbroken legacy of traditional weaving and for having emerged as one of the major contributors to the country's textile wealth and its growing textile exports.

Indeed the wealth of textiles in the south is so vast and the number of weaving regions so numerous that it would be impossible to condense all information within a limited piece of writing and yet claim to do justice to it.

Varied weaving techniques and a vast range of materials can be found in the textiles of Southern India. With improved communications and its resultant cross-cultural influences, clear cut demarcations that existed earlier between textiles of different areas are a little smudged, but most textiles can still be identified with particular regions.

It is not too difficult to look at the finely woven sheer muslins in unbleached or white cotton with their typical fine zari borders and pallu and identify them as the famous Karalakudi saris from Kerala. While the mundu veshti, or more recently the sari, worn on festive occasions had zari borders, the ordinary textiles woven in Kerala used coloured threads on their borders.

Similar saris were created in Madurai and also in earlier times at Coimbatore, Madurai, Thanjavur and Arni, in Tamil Nadu. Cotton has long been the mainstay of Tamil Nadu textiles and one sees a wide range here. Madurai and Salem specialise in fine gold-bordered veshtis, with Madurai's veshtis considered a little superior in their weaving and zari to those of Salem. From the coarse Chettinad saris, to the saris of Salem, Rasipuram and Coimbatore, to the fine gold bordered muslins of Madurai or its more recent medium weight cheaper saris that are printed or resist-dyed and are popularly referred to as the Madurai sungudi, the weaves of Tamil Nadu offer wide choices. The State has also emerged as one of the leading producers of household furnishings and linen and contributes a significant share to the textile exports of India. One sees the weaves of Karur in some of the best stores of the world.

But the vast range of cottons notwithstanding, these textiles are overshadowed by their glamorous counterpart, the silks and more specifically those from Kanchipuram. Research suggests that silk was a new entrant into Kanchipuram, for till a century and a half back, Kanchipuram was primarily a cotton weaving centre. It was the Thanjavur-Kumbakonam belt and Arni along with Salem that produced the pattu pudavai.

Today the finer, better woven and more expensive silk saris are from Kanchipuram. Specialising in heavy weight murukku pattu the weaves of Kanchipuram weave three ply, high denier threads, using thick zari threads for supplementary warp and weft patterning. The main characteristic of this sari lies in the time consuming method of interlocking its weft colours as well as its end piece and in the process creating solid borders and a solid mundhi. If well done one hardly sees where one colour ends and the other begins. Over the years inputs from weavers, designers and the weaver service centres have led to a increasing variety of designs and colours and created a special market niche for the Kanchipuram.

Thanjavur and Kumbakonam create saris similar to Kanchipuram but the mundhi or endpieces are finished differently. Using a technique called porai the weavers pull the warp threads, at the join of two colours, into loops at the back and then cut it close. Arni, a town near Kanchipuram, once wove very expensive silks but now concentrates on single colour lightweight textiles with zari borders and zari pallus. But with increasing labour costs pushing up the prices of Kanchipurams, Arni is slowly coming into its own with attempts to weave the Kanchipuram at competitive prices.

The raw materials used in these silk weaving centres are not indigenous to Tamil Nadu for zari comes all the way from Surat while neighbouring Karnataka supplies the silk. Indeed Karnataka meets the silk needs of not just Kanchipuram but the whole of India. Besides silk fabrics, Karnataka is the home of the Mysore crepe: a fine opaque crepe silk with supplementary zari borders, dyed in contrasting colours after the cloth has been woven. Originating in the Thirties when Mysore began producing chiffon and georgette, Mysore silk still remains popular. Karnataka is also home to less traditional non-figured silk saris with narrow borders that might not satisfy the purist but has gained wide acceptance. The more traditional saris of Karnataka are the Molkalmuru saris and the Ilkal saris. Weaving is supposed to have come to Ilkal around the 8th century AD and the sheer rustic look of the textile keeps it still popular.

But the truly amazing range of textiles in southern India is to be found in Andhra Pradesh. According to a 1909 report, the former state of Hyderabad produced cotton over more than 90.65 lakh metres. Every village in Andhra was a weaving town and various types of sarees, dhothis and khadi were manufactured.

Some of the best known are the Venkatagiris using finely spun cotton of 200 counts for the warp and the weft. Simple gold borders are combined with brocade pallus and motifs worked in the Jamdani style.

While the fabulous Venkatagiri is all cotton, the Gadwals and Kothakotas are a combination of a cotton body with a silk pallu. A product of royal patronage, Gadwal is changing with the times and introducing pure silks and Tussar silk. Uppada started out with saris of a less expensive variety of pure cotton with simple motifs but with the introduction of the jamdani technique it is producing beautiful saris in cotton, silk cotton and silk.

The introduction of silk cotton has made Paatur saris suddenly popular while Mangalagiri near Vijayawada has literally swamped the market with its firmly woven saris and yardage. Narayanpet, Siddhipur, Guntur, Armur are but a few more villages that are well-known household names.

But one of Andhra Pradesh's main claim to fame is its sophisticated ikkats. Chirala in Guntur district became a major centre for the Telia rumal - square pieces of cloth dyed with vegetable colours in maroon, white and black and used as a lungi or a scarf. In the beginning of this century it was a popular export product but after World War II Chirala languished. This art however started flourishing after the craft festivals of the Seventies resurrected it in the towns of Pochampalli, Koyalagudem and Puttapaka. The weavers of Puttapaka especially weave very intricate, double ikkats and have proved innovative in their design content. In all these and a number of villages of Nalgonda district, saris, lungis and household furnishings are woven in huge quantities for both the local markets and for export. The only disappointing feature is the total move away from vegetable dyes that gave the Telia rumal its special attraction.

One accepts change however as an unavoidable part of development. While purists do lament the tendency of Southern textiles to introduce Banarasi and upcountry designs, these have added to the design repertoire rather than replace traditional designs. The traditions of the South are too firmly entrenched to be easily forgotten and indeed we see today an extremely vibrant textile scene in both cotton and silk where newer designs are introduced even as old designs are resurrected. If continued awareness of our magnificent textile heritage is generated and a viable market created, South Indian textiles will remain a vital and beautiful part of our lives.


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