Today is Sungudi Day — a day that was last marked by the Madurai district administration six years ago. In the interim, the colourful cotton saris with their signature dots have remained underappreciated. The reality is that sungudi ’s original form is fading.
In a handful of Saurashtrian homes in the temple town, a few middle-aged women struggle to breathe life into the craft, pinching a tiny piece of cloth and winding a thread around it tightly. “There are not more than 20 women today willing to give time to a job with such low remuneration,” says Vasumathi, who hand-ties sungudis . A skilled pair of hands takes roughly a week to tie 4,500 knots on a sari and the payment is just ₹600 per sari.
- Sungudi saris are traditionally handloom, woven on pit looms. With 100 warp and 80 weft counts, the pure cotton saris come with plank-dyed contrast borders that often feature zari. The dots appear randomly done, but follow a grid to achieve motifs. Madurai sungudi is inspired by kolam patterns and the constellations.
Till the 1980s, most of the families lived near the Mahal area where their ancestors were hosted by King Tirumalai Naicker (who brought them from Gujarat for their exquisite weaving skills). “Hundreds of women would sit at their doorsteps, chatting and tying the knots,” she says. The saris would then be natural-dyed by the men, in their backyards. The sheer love for the craft generated business. But not any longer.
“From more than 30,000 weavers and dyers six decades ago, we’re reduced to 150 trying to keep the tradition alive. Youngsters are not keen to take up the labour-intensive community work,” says AK Ramesh, secretary of the Madurai Sungudi Javuli Urpathiyalargal and Viyaparigal Sangam, which is looking to revive the craft.
Craft and collabs
Today, the market is flooded with chemically-dyed or screen-printed imitations. Only those with a discerning eye can tell the difference. (Fakes start from ₹500, but an original will cost upwards of ₹12,000). While attempts have been made in the past decade to save it, sungudi hasn’t turned the corner. “A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive. When we integrate disciplines like fashion, design and craft, we can foster the latter through innovation,” says textiles researcher K Sreemathy. If State governments and designers have helped revive ikat , uppada silks, benarasi and khadi , then why not sungudi ?
A.K. Ramesh, Secretary of Federation of Tie and Dye Associations and Madurai Sungudi Manufacturers and Sellers Associations, with his wife Vasumathi
Collaborative initiatives with designers and entrepreneurs will help open new avenues of business and empower artisans, believes World Crafts Council’s past president, Usha Krishna. But for that, it needs national attention. “Our designers, who are mostly from the North, need to understand and value the South Indian cultural ethos,” says Jaya Jaitly, crafts revivalist and founder of Dastkari Haat Samiti. “The best way to bring back sungudi ’s fame is by having an exhibition of all the original designs collected from the people who own it. We need to showcase the history to be able to value its worth.”
Defining a new aesthetic is also imperative to help the crafts persons access the global market. Sumita Pai, founder of the online handloom platform, Kai Thari, believes that with e-commerce and active social media platforms, it shouldn’t be too difficult to relaunch a forgotten weave — like the Udupi sari from Karnataka that her forum helped revive. “When we started working with the weavers, there were only 10 looms (reduced from 300). Kai Thari members pooled in money to upgrade the looms and elevate their working conditions. Today 50 looms are active and the weavers supply at least 1,000 six and nine yard saris a year.”
The GI advantage
Artisans need to change their outlook, too. “The authentic craft and patterns are known to very few and are guarded by the community members,” says Lisa Mathew from NID, who’d documented its decline for the World Crafts Council (WCC) a few years ago. “Unless they share the skills, it will die with them.”
Uma Kannan, member of Crafts Council of India and INTACH Madurai, agrees. “We have to give them dignity and esteem, and make them realise they hold the living treasure of our cultural heritage.” There is also the responsibility to ensure their work can be carried forward by future generations. “A public-private engagement, and encouraging the youth to pursue sungudi as a hobby, could help,” she says.
Currently, several stakeholders are working to revitalise the art. Ramesh has started training students of fashion in the art of tying and dying the knots. The artisans are diversifying from saris, too, creating dupattas , stoles, bags, table covers and shirts. Meanwhile, District Collector S Natarajan has announced the possibility of establishing a museum and has requested people to donate their old sungudis , photographs and any other related material. The idea of a textile park with a natural dyeing unit and a sales showroom is also being explored.
Advocate Sanjay Gandhi, who got sungudi its GI registration, feels the association should diversify and push for visibility — especially since GI-tagged products can be sold at airports and other public places. “Like the Madurai Meenakshi, malli and jigarthanda , the city can become known for authentic sungudi as it used to be earlier,” he concludes.
What bandhini is to the North, sungudi is to the South, but the former is popular across borders. There is no ideal solution, only a balancing act to bring back what is lost. There are enough people who care for the artisanal skill, and I’d like to explore the possibilities of taking the real sungudi out of Madurai. — Sumita Pai, founder, Kai Thari
I’ve not seen the sungudi, but having revived the Goan Kunbi, I embrace the revival of saris, both in its original form and a designer form. When I revived the Kunbi, I changed everything, from the fabric weave count to colour and design. The end result was a sudden interest in the original sari, too. — Wendell Rodricks, designer