“Documentary evidence says that from the 16th to 18th Century, there were 280 varieties of textiles in Tamil Nadu, and most of them were exported from the ports of the Coromandel Coast,” says Jeyaseela Stephen, director, Institute of Indo European Studies, France.
These textiles, popularly known as Real Madras Handkerchief (RMHK), were also named based on the place of origin or the design of the weaving. Though there were many weaving styles, it was the checked fabric that was most prominent among the goods traded. It was exported to South East Asian countries, and in the 18th Century, 14 ships loaded with textiles sourced from various parts of Tamil Nadu sailed from Madras to Manila. “Ships carrying textiles from Tamil Nadu went as far as Europe and Africa. The early RMHK found their way into the colours of the wrappers worn by the Kalabari tribes of Nigeria. And there is evidence that it was exported to China also,” he says.
The world-renowned researcher was speaking at a seminar on ‘The Checked Fabric of Tamil Nadu’, organised at DakshinaChitra, recently.
Stephen says that that the fabric became synonymous with Tamil textiles. “Red, blue and white checks were typical of Madras, and samples of these are preserved and exhibited in museums in Spain. These fabrics were handwoven in Pulicat, some regions in Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Puducherry,” he points out.
M Mohan Rao, president of the Rashtriya Chenetha Jana Samakya, Chirala, Andhra Pradesh, explains the reason behind the nomenclature. “‘Real’ because there were a lot of countries like Switzerland, Japan, and Korea manufacturing ‘Imitation Madras’; ‘Madras’ because, finally, the goods were exported out of Madras even though textiles came from all over Tamil Nadu and Andhra.”
When we talk about the Kattam and Kodu of Madras textile, lungi (a handwoven checked fabric in tubular form, draped around the waist by men) was considered the pearl of Indian weaving as patterns such as stripe, checks and plaids were derived by handloom weavers. M Vasantha of NIFT, Chennai, who has done extensive research on lungi, says that the all-weather adaptable garment became immensely popular among the Muslim community in India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brueni, Srilanka, Malyasia and Mayanmar. “Today, there are only 10 % weavers who mastered this craft weaving it today.”
Reinvention or revival
Sreemathy Mohan, a textile researcher provided her perspective on the RMHK and how the changing market dynamics have made them almost extinct. Based on her case study conducted at weaving clusters of Thirutani, Wallajah, Chirala, Cuddalore, Kurinjipadi and Kanchipuram, she says that the RMHK has vanished completely, and there are only a few weavers left and the major exporters have closed their product division since 2013. “The powerloom designs replicating the handloomed RMHK has been the primary reason for its disappearance. And Nigerai’s 1976 trade ban, which was followed by huge import tax and the lack of credit market further diminished the prospects.”
The hand-woven handkerchief is extinct today, she says, “We can still revive the rich tradition with design intervention... But the question remains whether reinvention is possible in the ever-changing fashion scenario.”
(The exhibition is on till April 30 at DakshinaChitra)