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They came to Madurai a few centuries ago, fleeing drought and famine in their home province of Gujarat and bringing with them their weaving skills and the unique dye-resist craft of ‘Bandhini’ or ‘Chundadi’ tie and dye veils worn by Gujarati women.
The migrant weavers came to be known as Saurashtras in Tamil country as they integrated and settled town in their new environment creating their own space as weavers and textile embellishers. Their humming looms soon began to create saris instead of traditional veils, which they decorated with the bandhini tie and dye technique. This ancient technique involves parts of the cloth being painstakingly tied with thread in order to resist from receiving the dye. The saris came to be known as Sungudi cottons. Some are woven with narrow zari borders with puli kattivadhu (tie resist) and kattu kattivadhu or clamp resist dyeing. The border and pallu of the traditional Sungudi were dyed in contrasting colours to the body of the sari, which were usually dyed red, black, dark blue and purple.
While the tie and dye techniques or Sungudi followed that of bandhini, the patterning began to reflect its own identity. The weavers followed the angular geometrics of the kolam patterning depicted only through dots. It made for uniquely striking visuals. By the mid-19th century, a Sungudi was a ‘must have’ in a Tamil woman’s wardrobe.
By the late 20th century, however, this allure began to dim, as screen-printed Sungudis and cheap mill-made imitations flooded the market. As even the most carefully preserved Sungudi sari began to crumble and give way, only scraps and swatches remained with textile collectors, reminders of Tamil Nadu’s eclectic textile heritage.
It was one such swatch collection put together by the then president of the World Crafts Council, Usha Krishna, which inspired her to begin crafting another significant milestone in the iconic Sungudi story, that of ‘revival’. Realising that handcrafted Sungudi was under siege, Usha mooted a revival strategy under the aegis of the World Crafts Council and the Crafts Council of India.
Says Usha, “I felt that Sungudi’s tie had come to be revived and reinvented.” The plan took off with a survey followed by a training programme for 39 trainees mostly from the Saurashtra community. The programme, according to Sudha Ravi, member of the Revival Team, comprised “educating the trainees on the history of Sungudi, preparation of cloth and design, teaching the technique of tie and dye as well as yoga, dance and so on.”
CCI’s Darley Verghese was the over-all in-charge of the training programme. Usha’s old swatches were used for designs. The tedious process of tying with thread was taught by traditional artisans Saroja and Mahalakshmi while the onerous task of transferring design on cloth was taught to the trainers by Prakash, who hailed from a paramparik Saurashtra weaving family.
Darley experimented with Sungudi on Kota saris in a palette of soft, warmer colours. The workshop produced 150 beautifully finished saris, which were exhibited at Apparao Gallery.
Meanwhile the ‘revival’ ripples grew exponentially. Just when the WCC-CCI team was beginning to think in terms of expanding the reach of Sungudi training programmes to locals and non-Saurashtras, Sridevi Suresh, a local Sungudi enthusiast, volunteered to help the WCC team. On their advice, she formed a group named Taarigai, comprising women professionals. WCC now approached Gandhi Gram for training the wives of agricultural workers with whom Gandhi Gram worked in areas of organic farming and health.
A new Sungudi training programme was launched with a batch of new trainees, NID designer Anuradha Pasupati and Taarigai member participants. Since Gandhi Gram also had dyeing expertise, WCC provided them with a vat, equipment and training in azo-free dyeing.
The workshop was a success. Using the Sungudi technique, designer Pasupati created a range of fabric aimed at taking Sungudi into non-traditional fashion spaces. When Anuradha took swatches of her fabrics to Azure boutique owner Deepu Krishnamurthi, she was given huge orders in varied dot sizes of Sungudi, Shibori, etc. Stylish tops, kurtas, dresses and skirts were fashioned by Azure designers with yokes and asymmetrical hems.
Where does Sungudi go from here? Noted fashion designer Sabyasachi bought bales of the newly created Sungudi and used it as soft, ethereal lining for his fashion line. Experiments are being done in vegetable dyes and Azure’s Sungudi Line is flying off the shelves. Taarigai is conducting its own training workshops and the Revival Team has no plans of stepping back from its ‘Awareness, Aesthetics and Appreciation’ project. Perhaps, as Usha Krishna put it “The Sungudi’s time has indeed come.” The range is available at Azure -77/5 Corporation Complex, C.P. Ramaswamy Road, Alwarpet.
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