Textiles
Heritage of the Loom - Gowri Ramnarain from "Homage to Rukmini Devi"

Weaving is an ancient craft practised in all the regions of Tamilnadu. The sophisticated methods that it has developed through the stages of designing, printing and dyeing have elevated weaving to an art form.

In the abscence of adequate historical records, literature of the sangam age (two thousand years ago) gives tantalizing glimpses of this then wide-spread cottage industry. In India, whole families and communities were involved in textile making. Unlike in many other manual crafts, women seem to have had a large share in the work. For example, the parutti pendir usually the old and the widowed, were the spinners of yarn.

The poets celebrate the fineness of the cloth by likening it to sloughed serpent skin, the tissue of bamboo, even to insubstantial smoke and vapour. Likewise, the beauty and splendour of designs, the motifs drawn often from nature such as flowers, seeds, leaves, birds and animals are described with a sense of wonder.

The weavers' community called aruvaiyar or kammiyar produced poets of classical stature such as Madurai Aruvai Vanikan Ilavettanar. Thiruvalluvar was an illustrious scion of this class. Literary references apart, painting and to a much lesser extent stone and bronze sculptures offer some supplementary evidence. The refinement of taste and texture becomes visible in the thousand year old Chola paintings of the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur. The queens of Rajaraja I are dressed in gossamer translucence.

One is bewildered by the sheer luxuriance of variety and diversity. Many centres like Tiruchi and Coimbatore built up a reputation for their specialised work. The Madurai Sungudi became justly famous for its fine-count, zari-bordered, maroon-black blend with tie-dyed work done by Saurashtrian women; Salem for its mayilkan and kuyilkan - three shuttle weaving of silk borders with a cotton body; Korainadu prints - fascinating experimentation in combining silk and cotton; while Kodalikarpur saris under Thanjavur Maratha royal patronage were unique in their craftsmanshi[ which united Jamdani weaving, handpainting and printing. Their high cost prohibited their use by anyone other than royalty.

The influence and interchange of ideas between the north and south were not exceptional. In fact skilled weavers were often imported by kings to enhance quality. But all adaptions kept the local flavour intact. Prior to British domination each centre of weaving had its own distinctive stamp of identity. It was easy to tell the Kollegalam silk from the Tribhuvanam pattu, the Kanchi cotton from the Arni due to variations in techniques, dyeing and designs.