K. Sarumathi

They have clothed generations of people and their name is reminiscent of the past. Like the grandeur and eloquence of their trades, they speak about the grandeur of Madras of yesteryears. With Madras day celebrations round the corner, commemorating the founding of the city, it is appropriate we talk about these doyens of the textile world to learn what has changed in their business over the years, what they think have been lost along with our glorious past and what is the best today.

Lost to the world

Started in 1900 by R.K. Thiruvengadam Chettiyar, Radha Silk Emporium, also known as Rasi Silks, is the oldest textile house in Chennai. From selling house-to-house, Rasi Silks has come a long way today. With a history as rich as its saris, Rasi Silks has established a niche market for itself in the textile industry. But Jayaraman, managing partner Radha Silk Emporium, says the industry has faced lot of setbacks in these years. “The intricate weaves of olden times has become difficult to reproduce due to lack of design knowledge and dedication among weavers today. Though a part of pre-weaving and weaving process has been automated, a lot stills depends on the handloom sector. Restrictions on mechanising the handloom sector has led to production levels going down compared to 20 years back. Like every industry has made progress, the handloom sector should also accept modernisation.”

On changes in trends and design preference today, he says, “Traditional designs will never die. People still prefer M.S. blue, and the mango motif.”

Reminiscing about the Madras of 70s and 80s, Jayaraman says that he has beautiful memories of the Kapaleeshwarar Temple tank, which stood majestically in those days and added a charm to the whole area. “Today everywhere you look you can only see shops. The old city’s calm and serene environment has become polluted and I miss the by-gone days. There are many restrictions and the community feeling that prevailed in the olden days has been lost over the years.”

“Our most famous patron is the Queen of England. She has visited our showroom. We have sold to many other royals as well.”

Kumaran Silks made a modest beginning in 1955, with a 200 sq ft showroom in T. Nagar, where it stands till today (now grown to a massive 75000 sq ft). Its founder P.C. Chengalvaraya hailed from a weaving community in Kanchipuram and established the entity along with his son.

Though relatively a late-comer in the textile industry, Kumaran silks has been able to entrench itself with support from three generations of patrons.

With customers as its advertisers, the shop became popular as a trusted silk sari house.

Today the focus is on the young. Says in-house designer Jhonny: “Trends have changed over time, but we still draw inspiration from traditional designs and make minor changes to cater to the new generation. Computer has enabled us to make older designs look more intricate and modern. The traditional vaira oosi , hamsam , mayilkannu , annam , poothotti designs with the help of technology can be made to look a lot different. We can turn annam into a flamingo, and vaira oosi in different angles gives the sari a new look. But, traditional designs will never fade out.”

On preferences today, he says that, youngsters don’t like big motifs, and elaborate pallus and borders; simple and colourful design is the in thing. Moreover, people come to the shop knowing what they want, and hence buying time has reduced.

The reasons why the British East India Company landed on the shores of Chennaipattinam are well known: for trade. Trade in exotic spices, cotton, silk, and precious stones. Way before colonisation, Coromandel textile and Malabar spices were well known in the Roman world and to China.

Both resources were the focus of attraction for the European traders at the turn of the 16th century. With the industrial revolution, the colonists tried to suppress the local economy, and during the 19{+t}{+h}century textile industry suffered and lost it pre-colonial glory. By early 20{+t}{+h}century the textile industry witnessed a revival and regained its state of eminence. Today, it has turned into a massive sector, generating millions in revenue.

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