From a headgear to a design element

TEXTILE TREASURE

Exquisite: ‘Telia Rumal’ pattern and as a design on the sari (below)

This is done to produce telia rumal (literally oily handkerchief) a type of ikat weaving made at Pochampalli district in Andhra Pradesh. The treatment, which involves soaking of the yarn in a concoction of castor ash and oil repeatedly for 15 days, renders the cloth with the natural colour retaining cooling properties. This cloth is used extensively by rural working women and fishermen who work long hours in the sun, to keep their heads cool.

The oil treatment is necessary for the yarn to receive natural dyes in the characteristic ikat way. Here we have to explain the technique of ikat. Ikat is a style of weaving that uses a resist dyeing process, on either the warp or weft, before the threads are woven to create a pattern. There are three categories of ikat

i) Single ikat (Warp ikat or Weft ikat): It involves tying and dyeing of either warp or weft threads.

ii) Combined ikat: Both warp and weft ikat coexist in different parts of the fabric, with both thread systems occasionally overlapping.

iii) Double ikat: Both warp and weft threads are tied and dyed in such a manner, that when woven, threads from both axes mesh exactly at predetermined points, to form a motif or pattern. Telia rumal, which is of the double ikat type can easily be distinguished from other ikat works, in the way one or two motifs are repeated several times in the design. These rumals are woven in pairs. When exported to Arabia, the rectangular rumal/dupatta was used as a veil by Muslim women and as a multipurpose cloth by men
This has lead most historians to conclude that, the ‘dipping the yarn in the oil’ practice developed in the mid 1800’s, producing large numbers of rumals that were sent to the Persian Gulf, Aden and even East Africa, where they were used as turbans and loincloths.
Customers would sniff the cloth and chew a thread picked out of the cut edge to check for the oil content and to test for authenticity.

However ‘tastes’ changed and printed imitations of the rumals produced in Manchester mills of UK undercut the market greatly, so that by the time of World War II the demand gradually declined. 100s of weavers lost their livelihood and turned to other work. By 1979 only one master weaver and dyer, supported by five families, still continued the rumal production in Andhra Pradesh.

When this disastrous news reached the late Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, the doyenne of handicrafts in India, she rushed to Chirala village and asked the weavers to do the same ikat pattern for a sari. The weavers said no one would wear them. She assured them twice the wages of a rumal for a sari and the cost of making the larger loom and thus the telia rumal as a saree was born. She also ensured that the weavers were sent to Benares to learn silk weaving. This revival succeeded and according to Gajam Yadagiri, youngest among the Gajam brothers from Puttapaka, who are the only ones who still keep the designs alive, the saris have a great demand from the north. Their Murali Emporium near Dilsukhnagar in Hyderabad is the only place in the city from where one can get the telia rumal. But these days, the weavers are no longer using natural dyes and have found the artificial dyes a good substitute. Yet, the saris are much coveted and worn even by celebrities such as Sonia Gandhi and Jaya Bachchan.

After the success of the saris, the weavers have also developed wider width bed covers and hangings using traditional motifs of the telia rumal. Modern designers are using the style and motifs of telia rumals and adapting them for use today as yard goods, saris, and articles of home furnishing. This has helped expand the market and preserve the skill of resist dyeing, if not the actual dyeing process.

Bina Rao is a designer, trained at the National Design Institute in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Her trained eye has transformed the telia rumals as a design element and has proceeded to adapt it for modern usage. She uses computer graphics to prepare work for village weavers to produce. This modern day approach is helping preserve these skills.

Suraiya Hasan’s Safrani Exports sends telia rumal items to France, the US, Dubai and the UK. Within India, her line is retailed with Fab India stores in Bangalore and Chennai.
As such, the celebrated sari flutters from the ruins of the telia rumal heritage like a flicker of hope. With the Integrated Handloom Cluster Development Programme sponsored by the Ministry of Textiles choosing Puttapaka, the village of the Gajam family, as one among the clusters under this scheme, the telia rumal as a design element has a promising future.

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