The looming revival

The process of creating a Kodali Karuppur sari involved a cohesive working of weaver, printer, dyer and painter. Courtesy: Kalakshetra Foundation  

Hardly any documentation, very few pieces preserved for posterity, a languishing craft… this is the story of the Kodali Karuppur sari. Despite attempts made to revive the craft — once in the early 1980s during the ‘Festival of India’ in Britain and again by WSC Chennai, a few years ago — commissioned by the Government, out of which there are only a few samples are left.

The Kodali Karuppur saris evolved under the patronage of the Maratha ruler Serfoji Raja Bhonsle Chhatrapati II in 1787-1832 and were made exclusively for the Ranis of Thanjavur up to the 19th century. The saris were produced in the village of Kodali Karuppur near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district. The ancestors of the weavers comprised about 400-500 families who migrated from Saurashtra to Madurai, Salem and Kancheepuram.

The Karuppur cloth was worn only by the Thanjavur nobility, who gifted some as khillat or clothes of honour. In some Maratha states like Baroda, Kohlapur and Satara, the Karuppur sari was an essential part of the bride’s trousseau, as was the Karuppur turban for the groom. Textile traditions and religion seem to be irrevocably linked and it is believed that this cloth was used for certain temple rituals. The craft died out when royal patronage was withdrawn around the 19th century. It remains a rare piece and quite expensive because of the intensive highly skilled labour involved.

The few ancient samples left are in the Calico Museum, Ahmedabad, the Delhi Crafts Museum and the Madras Museum. To the untrained eye, the Karuppur sari looks like any other printed cotton sari with gold buttis. However, its creation gives it a distinct flavour all its own that transcends the beauty of other printed fabrics.

A study of the sari’s history reveals that its creation involved a detailed master plan, as the process involved a cohesive working of weaver, printer, dyer and painter. The gold motifs were worked in the jamdani technique and inlaid into the field of borders and body on the loom according to the designated design plan. The interstices would ultimately take on the colour of the dyes the fabric was steeped in. Once the weaving was over, the fabric was bleached with cow dung paste, steeped in a kadukkai infusion, washed and dried. Then the outlines of the designs on the pallu and the interstitial devices of the fields were painted in wax using a kalam and other details painted in the appropriate places in mordants for the red and the black. The first dye bath produced a rich maroon colour, and the second dyeing coloured the portions left unshielded to get the prescribed colour. Alum paste produces red; a mixture of iron filings, salt water and palm jaggery produces black; and these two colours were combined to produce maroon.

By this process, the woven was also slightly coloured and muted when the colour was absorbed and the lustre somewhat dimmed. What is amazing is that the original sari had both surfaces worked, like ajrakh printing. In some textiles, only one side was painted with dyes and some were printed with blocks. Every wash was done in flowing water, as this ensured an even distribution of dye. A few recent experiments did not make the grade because the weavers did not use the jamdani technique for brocading. To reduce costs, jamdani was replaced by Jacquard weaving. It was block printed in Jaipur, resulting in many inaccuracies in matching the patterns. The design vocabulary of the Karuppur sari is limited, mostly geometric and linear patterns, vine-like designs, stars, veldarri and the thazhambu or screw pine flower design.

One method used was printing with wooden blocks, according to the design indicated in the original. The wooden blocks had to be crafted to perfection and the printing had to be in sync with the weave, dovetailing in such a way that the print outlined the motifs rather than overlapped them. This was a tedious process and, if the blocks could not be co-ordinated with the weave, they could not be used. A new set of blocks had to be used.

Passionate about an earnest revival, I thought that it was possible only in an institution like the Kalakshetra Foundation with its infrastructure at the Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC). Moreover, we had in our centre three National Awardees, experts in their respective fields, and support from the heads of the institution who, as artists themselves, recognised the need to preserve our cultural heritage. A revival that Rukmini Devi would be proud of for that is what she wished for CERC.

We took the expertise of The Weavers Service Centre, Chennai. Dakshinamurthy, an expert in natural dyes, and a printer par excellence, did the initial layout on paper, designating the placement of the gold buttis and the gold tissue in the pallu. We decided on 100 per cent cotton, 80s yarn, as this would withstand the heavy printing.

Bhanumurthi our master weaver at CERC, and his assistants set about weaving the off-white sari, interspersed with gold buttis with a sheath of gold on the pallu. No compromise was made and the gold thread used was 100 per cent pure. A brocaded sari, the gold buttis and background were done using The jamdani technique was used keeping as close as possible to the original. We adhered to the limited design vocabulary; largely geometric motifs with the stylised tree of life in the pallu.

Since Prabhakar, an expert in Kalamkari hand painting, was available, we decided to hand-paint the entire sari. A natural dye palette of madder and charcoal black brought the revived sari close to its historical counterpart. It is a cohesive process where print, paint and weave are married to create this masterpiece. The weaving took four months and the painting another six months. The completed sari is an exhibit at Kalakshetra, a testimony to the artisanal creativity of those who worked on it. Now it is up to the authorities to decide whether to make more samples to create awareness and offer the same to the eager public.

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Printable version | Jun 8, 2021 6:29:52 AM |

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