Go that extra yard

The Koorainadu weaves, which had enthralled even the likes of Raja Ravi Varma, cry for a revival. writes Sangeeta Venkatesh
Last Updated 11 January 2020, 20:00 IST

At the peak of his career, renowned painter Raja Ravi Varma and his talented brother Raja Varma undertook a tour taking their exhibition of paintings across the country. Their first stop was in Madurai, where they praised the gopurams of the city’s temples, to the delight of their hosts. In Chidambaram, they waxed eloquent about the library which housed ancient palm leaf manuscripts. Upon reaching Mayavaram (Myaladuthurai as it is now known officially), they would have praised the temples there too, until one of the local hosts mentioned the nine-yards saree woven by some talented weavers of the region. Intrigued, the brothers hired a bullock cart and reached a small hamlet called Koorainadu, where these sarees were being woven. To the eyes that had seen only white cotton and silks, worn by the women-folk in their families back home in Travancore, these sarees, with their silken finish and bright colours, were blindingly beautiful. They looked at the looms that were made from wood that made rhythmic sounds while the weavers worked and admired the way the threads became yards of colourful splendour.

Long-lasting association

What the Varma brothers witnessed was the production of koorai podvais or Koorainadu
sarees that were traditionally adorned by brides during their marriage. This saree was draped during the muhurtham, when the mangalsutra was tied. It was believed that wearing a Koorainadu saree during the wedding ensured a long-lasting marriage and not surprisingly, it was part of every Tamil bride’s trousseau till the 1950s. Recorded history says that in ancient times the weavers used only cotton to weave these sarees. Later, in the medieval era, on demand, the weavers included silk and cotton, both, on the warp and weft. The colour palette was limited to purple, orange, dark pink, turmeric and olive green. Silk was largely obtained from the Kollegal area of Karnataka and the cotton was procured locally. However, like many classical art forms in the country, the production of the Koorainadu saree started facing a slump in demand after the 1970s due to the arrival of power looms and aggressive advent of synthetic sarees. Despite the fine quality of the sarees, the sheer lack of patronage and inadequate marketing support spelled the death-knell of Koorainadu sarees.

Hidden gem

It was only in 2014 when T N Venkatesh, IAS, joined as the Managing Director of the Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society Ltd., popularly known as Co-optex that an attempt was made to revive the lost weave. Says Venkatesh, “My team and I researched and went back to the weavers of Koorainadu with original designs of the sarees and were successful in reviving them.”

Stunnng designs

This was no mean task, and soon they had a few classical designs in stunning colours and combinations waiting to be draped by customers. Several looms were subsequently activated to weave these sarees which were silk-cotton in warp and silk-cotton in weft of fine count. The unusual characteristic of this saree is the formation of cotton checks by the interlacement of warp and weft during weaving. This requires considerable expertise and can be woven only by few experienced weavers.

Believe it or not, but a weaver has to move his hands and legs at least 13,000 times to complete a saree. A contemporary saree of 6 yards takes nearly 5-10 days to be completed by the weavers depending on the complexity of the design.

The revival

Back to the revival story and Venkatesh acknowledges the role of R Manimegalai, the 54-year-old president of Kooraitex Weavers Society in Koorainadu, who he says, has been a pillar of support. “She was the first one to start weaving the Koorainadu saree, and subsequently motivated 10 more women of Koorainadu to weave these sarees. She helped getting us the best vintage sarees of Koorainadu revived. I am proud that she is one of the most successful women presidents of weavers of Tamil Nadu,” says Venkatesh. Subsequently, there have also been design intervention in collaboration with students of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad which has helped introduce new motifs and
colours. However, it is unfortunate that the struggle for a market for this wonderful weave still continues. .

(Published 11 January 2020, 19:56 IST)

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