Song of the South

Sungudi tunic and Chettinad palazzo,Mantra

Colour-obsessed as I am, it was so easy to run amok in the ‘city of jasmines’ — the enigmatic temple town of Madurai. Designed like the petals of a lotus, its interconnected streets bump into one other at quadrangles, with all of them leading to one of the temple gates. This is a city where you can never get lost, the locals say, with a very philosophical tongue firmly in cheek. When it is not likened to a lotus, it is a phoenix bird — rising from the ashes of repeated destruction over the centuries, and living on in full glory, throbbing rich in art, culture, cuisine, crafts and textiles. Take the pudhu mandapam for instance: One of the world’s oldest shopping arcades, the 17th century architectural marvel built by king Thirumalai Nayak, is a bustling marketplace teeming with shops. Every tiny square foot is given to the hawking merchandise of all kinds; stacked on the floor, splayed on the walls, and skewered on wires hanging from an intricately carved stone ceiling. Like a torrent in full vent, colours gush out of every nook and cranny onto streets that bear names of the months in the Tamil calendar, awash with kempu ( crimson), pacchai ( green ), paasai ( olive), manjal (yellow), arakku ( lac red ) and neelam ( blue). It was like a gulp of the local soul-coolant— jiljiljigarthanda — for my senses, liberally dousing my insides with a feel of one of South India’s cultural mill ponds.

Thirumalai Nayak is also known for another good deed. He brought weavers and artisans from faraway Saurashtra to settle in Madurai, who expanded the textile repertoire of the region with their inputs. The migrant artisans, the Pattu-nool-karar as they were called, wanted to create a unique design that appealed to Southern sensibilities with reminiscences of the rich tie-dye heritage of Gujarat. The outcome was South India’s own ‘star spangled banner’ — the Sungudi sari, the first product from Madurai to be conferred the Geographical Indication mark. To create these designs, tiny tufts of fabric were pinched together and tied with cotton thread. After dyeing, when opened out, the tied parts retained the original base colour, while the rest absorbed the dye. The resulting design looked like stars scattered on a midnight sky. An inch or so of zari at the edges completed this pretty picture. The traditional Sungudi sari was hand woven, had single dot patterns and was dyed in natural dyes. As the prices of these saris shot up, block printing and wax printing were introduced along with chemical dyes, to serve an insatiable demand.

The design vocabulary of a temple town is clearly discernible in its arts and crafts. “Play within strictly drawn lines…”Meenakshi Amman seemed to be saying, wagging an admonishing finger in the direction of the arts and crafts that flourish in her precincts. What the goddess wants, she gets. Similar to the structure recognisable in the classical art forms of this region, Carnatic music and Bharatnatyam, a well-defined structure was always the foundation for experimentation. The grid marked on the sari with long, sharp finger nails — grown especially for this purpose — was sacrosanct. Improvisations in design and colour stayed well within its ambit, much like the daily act of drawing kolam with rice powder. Wasn’t that enough food for thought on a peaceful night in thoonga-nagaram – the city that never sleeps? I couldn’t rightly tell, for the stars on the Sungudi saris kept me awake!

The spell cast by the temple town barely wore away before I stumbled, as if in a dream, into another wonderland filled with large sprawling mansions, tall brooding gates, a hundred rooms here, and a thousand windows there. I wandered glazed-eyed into Karaikudi — 80 km north east of Madurai, where a collection of 70-odd villages dot the semi-arid countryside of the Sivaganga district. Home to the Nattukottai Nagarathars, the business community of Tamilnadu, Karaikudi and its surrounding areas are referred to as Chettinadu. Avid globe-trotters, these entrepreneurs were known as much for their business acumen and financial wizardry, as for their keen aesthetic sensibilities. Everything that caught the discerning Chettiar eye was brought home. The result was a surreal magnum opus of global influences, their chateau-like homes, giant, art-deco-style melting pots of Burmese teak, Italian marble, Dutch tiles, Belgian mirrors, French crystals, Indonesian crockery, Japanese ceramic ware — the list gets curiouser and curiouser — stirred intermittently with ladles-ful of Tamil aesthetic. I lost track of time and place in the quaint antique shops of Karaikudi; their shelves, a magpie-like amassment of anachronistic curios, the floors, a glowing jumble of athangudi tiles, and the walls, a mad hatter’s party of moustachioed Chettiars, Victorian ladies and Hindu deities in gilded frames.

Sumptuous maximalism must surely be the motto of this land; the spread for lunch was a feast fit for kings —Poricha-kolli, sura-puttu, aadu-dosa, rabbit chukka, kaada fry, eral-maanga-kuzhambu, and nandu masala. I must admit, it wasn’t difficult to elicit the mandatory burp after a meal like that. But soon, gasps followed burps in quick succession, during visits to the hand-made tile factory, and kottan workshops — known for their multi-hued basketry. But the piece de resistance of this trip was the kandaangi sari. With their operatic usage of colour and contrasting borders, these saris are known for their vibrancy as well as their weight — made originally with a 40’s count, but later adopting the 60’s and 80’s count to suit contemporary designs. Commonly referred to as the Chettinad sari, this tapestry of Chettiar culture is a beautiful medley of checks and stripes. That grid again! It was as if all geometry and no play would render the kandaangi too dull. So, if the landlords of this region, disciplined to a fault as they were, splurged on their palatial homes, so could its craftsmen on their wares. The starkness of design, I thought appreciatively, was offset by the bold extravagance of colour- vivid South Indian hues, abrim with the ethos of Chettinadu. Rounding off the trip was a customary jaunt to a loom. Over frothing hot, filter kaapi in steel tumblers, I was introduced to Tamilazhasi, a lady who ran her own loom. Apparently, with the on-going trend of men seeking more lucrative employment elsewhere, the women of the household had stepped out to take charge of the looms and traditions left behind.

Wistfully, I headed back with memories, every passing second of the return journey spent mulling over how I would incorporate these myriad images into a cogent collection. ‘Song of the South’, I whispered to myself, remembering the ditty that began it all. This ambitious project may have taken months to come together, but finally, it chutnifies the cultural ingredients of these towns, set in aspic for centuries, to serve up a collection that captures the essence of the Tamil speaking lands. Savour then, these simple, elegant lines for a taste of our fare this season.


She is the tale all mothers tell

To daughters, by word of mouth;

She is the story, woven in time

She is — the song of the South


She is the daughter of ancient times

Which every woman knows about.

And in her every weave rings a soaring note;

She is — the song of the South


She is the time that time forgot,

The mantra of an ageless fount.

Crafted for queens, by faraway hands

She is – the song of the South


She is elegance, radiance and grace defined;

An anchor for tradition, a grout.

Mother, sister, daughter, wife, all know

She is – the song of the South


Dec 19, 2015


Sungudi tunic from Song of the South, Shalini James' Mantra.
Navy blue sungudi tunic with asymmetrical hemline
Sungudi dress from Song of the South, Shalini James'Mantra
Tiered dress in dark violet sungudi.
Sungudi tunic and flared pants from Song of the South,Shalini James' Mantra
Mustard Sungudi tunic worn with magenta sungudi flared pants. Styled with a green chettinad stole!
Chettinad flared pants and sungudi camisole from Song of the South, Shalini James' Mantra
Green sungudi camisole worn with magenta chettinad flared pants.
To view the Song of the South look book, please click here.

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