Revival looms over TN looms

Revival looms over TN looms

In 1995 Santhanalakkshmi held her first exhibition-cum-sale in Bangalore, the collection comprising mainly of traditional saris, including some for the wedding trousseau. Lo and behold! She sold 600 of them, in just two days!

Her success spurred her on to embark on a mission to revive the once famous Chinnalampattu sarees. The garment derives its name from the town where it is produced, Chinnalapatti. It is located in Dindigal district near Madurai, Tamil Nadu, where Santhanalakkshmi was born.

The handloom industry supports Chinnalapatti’s economy to a large extent. Weaving had been a way of life here since time immemorial. Sadly, the weaving industry is almost extinct now. Santhanalakkshmi has taken it upon herself to revive the tradition and to make it a rage amongst the urbanites. Her determination and hard work have fetched her yards and yards of dividends!

Her preparation for the task was both brisk and elaborate. First she enrolled at the two-month EDP training programme with IDBI and FKCCI, to equip herself with the nuances of setting up a saree business in Bangalore. With a loan of Rs 3 lakh and marketing assistance from AWAKE, she set up her small shop in 2003, on Bowring Hospital Road. The same year Canara Bank, her financiers, encouraged her to conduct an exhibition-cum-sale at Can Bazaar. She also attended the bank’s EDP programme for women.

Born in Madurai and educated in Coimbatore, Santhanalakkshmi, a qualified lawyer, was used to seeing weavers visiting her house regularly. Her parents always picked up custom-woven saris for the women in the house. With a  hotelier father and a supportive mother, she was drawn naturally more towards entrepreneurship than law books.
When she first landed in Bangalore way back in 1987, she sported long hair, neatly braided, and a string of jasmine in it, wore crisp Kanchi cotton sarees, a typical picture of a young  married woman from Tamil Nadu, but the fashion culture of the garden city caught up with her and changed her lifestyle! She got her hair cut  to shoulder length, and started using cosmetics. Now she not only wears lovely sarees, but she also produces them.

Asked why she chose Chinnalampattu sarees, she replies, “Pure silk saree prices were soaring and became out of reach for most saree lovers. This was the next best option. After all, Chinnalampattu is  known as the poor woman’s Kanjeevaram!” she smiles.
Santhanalakkshmi visits her loom at Naickampettai, 22 km from Kanchipuram, every week to supervise her team of 32 craftsmen, and an all-women team that handles block printing and patch work. She pays personal attention to detail in weaving, dyeing and printing. Her collections are a fine blend of cotton in warp and naarpattu or art silk, in weft, rendering them totally comfortable.

Married to a finance consultant, an MBA from BITS Pilani, she is a mother of two daughters. But neither her doctor daughter nor her CA aspirant daughter is inclined towards her saree business. Says she “Everyone likes my sarees, buys them and wears them, but neither my cousins nor my kids have shown an interest in joining me or carrying this business forward!”

Today Santhanalakkshmi supplies lovely printed Chinnalampattu sarees to the supervisory and front office staff of Infosys in Bangalore and Mysore. Infosys was clear in its specificattions: ‘No zari and no garish colours. We want eco-friendly, fast colors, zero shrinkage, wash and wear’. The uniform is a lovely matt-finish beige shade Chinnalampattu with simple prints in contrasting hues and check borders.
Santhanalakkshmi designs and supplies uniform sarees also to the sales staff of Bangalore’s reputed jewellers C Krishniah Chetty & Sons.

Santhanalakkshmi’s sarees offer a wide range of colours and prints, embroidered, patch work, bordered, zardosi work, and what have you at prices ranging between Rs 300 and Rs 1,100 per saree. Besides reviving the art of weaving new patterns on art silk fabric, she experiments with pure Kanchi cottons complemented with ravishing pure silk borders and innovative designs on silk cotton sarees, to meet market demands.

On the future of this industry, and continued demand for the fabric, she has mixed feelings. Production has dropped, she says. “As against 1,000 sarees per month a few years ago, I am currently able to produce only 500. Our ancestral weaving heritage of dyeing is dying, slowly.”

As long as original creativity and hard work synergize to keep our heritage alive, the demand for good traditional sarees, will never die, we are confident.

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