The traditional Surukku pai is back as a chic accessory

Surukku pais for long have been companions of our grannies. The cute little potlas are once again storming the market.

Walk into Pudumandapam and chunks of kai pais hang invariably in every shack. And of course gangs of girls throng them, checking out designs, colours, sizes and styles.

While glossy clutches are making style statements, why would women favour the earthy surukku pai?

“They are convenient to carry,” says Nandini, a college goer, “and they go well with both pattu pavadais and western casuals.” Agrees Sujatha, “We carry many small things in our bags and surukku pais are perfect to put items like lip gloss, kajal and mascara.” Apart from working as mini make-up kits, the pais also serve as cell phone pouches and jewellery boxes. Many middle-aged women prefer to put their bunch of keys and small change in them.

Tradition and fashion

Shopkeepers are also cashing in on the craze. For Tharmar, a tailor at Pudumandapam, it takes little more than ten minutes to stitch a surukku pai and he makes hundreds of pieces on order from shops.

“I have been stitching surukku pais for 15 years and over the time there have been many changes in the design,” says Tharmar. “Surukku pais from Madurai are famous all over India. Bulk orders come from Rajasthan and Gujarat too.”

Surukku Pai is now both a tradition and fashion. While, original varieties are made of checked and striped lungi fabric, there are also stylish surukku pais to cater to the youth.

Made of raw silk and cotton in fluorescent colours such as pink, parrot green, lemon yellow, blue and bright red, they move fast off the shelves. Some even have laces, gotas (pattu jarikais), beads and chamkis stitched. These varieties may range from Rs.20 or 30 to even Rs. 80. Surukku pais with brocade borders are favoured much among foreigners. “Nowadays, people want the thread with a salangai or bell, so that it jingles,” says Baradhan, a shopkeeper. “We also sell larger ones that are used as Thampoolam pais (return gifts) at marriages.” There are extra large surukku pais that are designed like backpacks. “Pull the string and make a knot and it becomes a backpack,” explains Baradhan. “Foreign tourists use these for carrying cameras and tripods.”

Online shop

Fascinated by surukku pais, Rati Rajkumar, an Indian American runs a blog ‘The Kai Pai Shop' where she sells handmade customized kai pais to Indians and Americans in the US. The page showcases various kai pais, potti pais and surukku pais done in traditional designs, motifs and colours. “I choose the fabric from various sources and design them. I get them tailored professionally,” says Rati.

“As for the embroidered fabrics - I mix and match patches like zaris and brocades silks which have self-patterns on them.”

What was once known as Paati's pai has now become a fashionista's pick. However, the bond the oldies share with surukku pais is still alive.

There are few shops in Pudumandapam that continue to sell only the original varieties.

Village women visit these shops time and again to buy surukku pais and one wonders what these paatis have been storing in their pais. 70-year-old Rakumuthu sports a toothless smile, “Vethalai Paaku, sunambu, konjam kaasu (betel leaves, nuts and some money).” For Sigappi, a fruit seller from Palamedu, her yellow Surukku pai is a precious possession. Though worn and torn, she continues to use it. She says, “Idhu rasiyana pai.”