It’s been a few months since I returned from my whirlwind travels and a piece of my heart has taken root in the verdant hills of Anamalai and the small towns in its plains. Ever so often, I drape one of the Negamam cotton sarees that came home with me from the land of their origin and I am transported to a couple of days spent in the company of a gracious family and an unknown friend.
The 80s count Negamam saree is a little known weave and is typically lumped under the generic Coimbatore cotton umbrella. It is soft and hardy, extremely breathable and perfect for our tropical climate. Traditional designs include checks and stripes, like the ones the women in the village wear. Infact, Soundamma, one of the ladies we met was wearing a checquered saree that she had woven herself. These days, there are more intricate designs as well as solid colour sarees to pander to contemporary urban tastes.
We reached the cluster after a pleasant drive out of Sethumadai and were greeted with a spotlessly clean village of freshly whitewashed houses with pretty Margazhi kolams. As we entered the first house, the husband spotted an old game, Chenna Mane, from his childhood and Saavitri Paati’s daughter-in-law quickly showed him how it was played. It made me a tad bit sad that our children no longer have the pleasure of these rustic games made of seeds and stones. In the march of progress, we have lost many simple delights.
Saavitri Paati and her husband managed the spinning of all the cotton fibres onto the bobbins. The mechanised spinning makes for a very pretty boomerang like picture. About 25 of these are required for the length of 6 sarees, the usual that was stretched on the huge drums for warping. These then found their way to the dyers house where the pallus were given a different colour.
These days the yarn comes pre-dyed and only the pallu section is separately dyed. There is a separation of the six lengths into the body and pallu which are tied to mark the portion that gets dyed. The remaining length is securely covered in plastic.
Unfortunately, the dyes used are chemical as natural ones are not commercially viable. The hazards of the open flame, fumes and chemicals were of no consequence and when asked, they credited yoga with keeping them healthy. It was fascinating to see how they matched the shades sent for the sarees to the T using nothing but crude tools, the most intriguing of which were coins with holes! These were used to measure the powders and get the desired shades. We were treated to the magic of the yarn changing from no colour to a beautiful teal in a matter of minutes! The hanks of yarn were then left to dry before being sent for warping.
Usually, these large drums accommodate 2 different sets of six making for a total of 12 saree lengths. It’s a tricky task with the turning the whole contraption clockwise a certain number of times and then the other way around. Missing one turn can ruin the length but Soundamma and her husband, Dandapaani make it seem effortless as they explain what they do. Their pride in their work is obvious and they are more than happy to talk at length.
The looms are mostly pit looms but there are a few that are over the ground. It is backbreaking work to sit angled on the stone ledge for hours on end. As a spectator, it is almost hypnotising to watch the shuttle fly non-stop with it’s clackety clack while the radio hums in the background. There is extensive use of jacquard cards which allow beautiful motifs to come alive on the saree. Paisleys, flowers and creepers as well as peacocks are common while geometrical designs also find their place. Some of them with a muted zaree make for mildly dressy sarees which have a quiet elegance. The looms work through the month except on Amavasya day in honour of Soundamma devi.
The trip courtesy Thadam Experiences, was educational for a handloom enthusiast like me but far deeper than the sheer skill and artistry was the richness of their seemingly limited means. All the houses we went to were far more welcoming and hospitable than some of the richer homes in the cities. All of them invited us to stay and share a meal which I would have been honoured to partake had I the time. There was contentment and purpose as they went about their lives of hard physical labour and large hearts that shared their art and home to absolute strangers.
Theirs is probably the last generation that will weave these fine cotton sarees and with the end of their age, the looms may sing no more. There is a sense of urgency with creating these sarees to suit modern sensibilities and the looms have a frenetic touch to them as they marry warp and weft. There are hardly any takers from the next generation of their families to continue the hard life and most of the children study and move on with urban jobs to secure their life ahead. While there is a sense of loss looming in the not so distant future for the weaves of this green land, there is also the fullness of song before dusk falls. It is the nature of life, birth and death and art is no exception. However, there are always seeds of hope. Many old weaves have found revival. I do hope, there would be someway this legacy can continue.
The sarees that came home with me will always remain special for I have seen where they were born and watched as the hands created magic. They will be cherished and worn with love and pride and someday in the future they will pass on as heirlooms to my daughters. And within the folds of these lovely sarees will be the strains of old songs of Negamam and a brief afternoon with some of the happiest people I have met.