14 Dec 2022

Cultural Imprint Of Chennai’s Textile Expressions

You need to re-set your outlook about Chennai, or Madras notable as the colonial outpost from which the British leapfrogged from being traders to rulers of India for 200-years. Now would be an appropriate time to remind you that the city’s native historical, cultural, spiritual and intellectual development are deeply embedded as intrinsic influencers in the multi-fold experiences of the cultural imprint of Chennai’s textile expressions. From its music and dance traditions to its stimulating creative expressions of the arts and architecture, cuisine and crafts, this ancient Dravidian stronghold mirrors some of the finest elements of these distinctive ethnic moorings.

Located on the legendary Coromandel Coast in south-east India alongside the Bay of Bengal, Chennai serves as an excellent gateway for explorations of South India. But the state capital of Tamil Nadu offers diversions enough as a centre of economic and cultural activity to tempt the traveller to linger.

Long before the arrival of the British, the dynastic imprint of Chera, Chola and Pandya rule over territories in Tamil Nadu witnessed trade relationships with the Greeks and the Romans from way back in the 4th century BCE. If you have plans to go to the French colonial outpost of Pondicherry, just three hours away from Chennai, do stop by at Arikemedu, an archaeological site which bears the imprint of its key role as an Indo-Roman trading city between the 2nd century BCE and the 8th century CE. The ruins themselves show distinctive elements of Roman and native architecture. In exchange for wine and olive oil from Rome, Arikemedu sent out shiploads of luxury merchandise including beads, spices, gemstones–and textiles; after all, the port city was a reputed hub for producing the finest cotton muslin cloth. Amongst the finds unearthed here are a warehouse, dyeing vats, Mediterranean amphorae, Arretine tableware from Italy’s Tuscan region, glassware, coins, beads of stone, glass and gold, and gems. Even archaeological recoveries from the hinterland have provided evidence of Roman interfaces with Kanchipuram for its legendary silk.

A shopping spree in Chennai gives you the privilege of taking home a slice of Tamil Nadu’s treasure trove of spinning and weaving traditions, as the Romans did back in the day.

A visit to Chennai’s textile outlets will surely remind you of those diverse and precious expressions of Chennai’s textile heritage and the ancient Indo-Roman connection with the maritime Silk Roads exchange, which brought together these two great centuries-old civilisations.

From locally produced cotton and chintz for the English in the 17th century, to ‘bleeding Madras’ checks (kattam) for the in the 1950s for the American market for that distinctive ‘preppy style’ of Ivy League college students, Chennai’s textiles have left their indelible stamp on global textile traditions.

Gather rich pickings from hereditary weavers of prized Kanchi silks, cotton muslins, organic cotton cloth, Chettinad weaves, indigo-dyed fabrics, sungudi fabric from around the weaving societies around Madurai to open up conversations, time and again about the wonderments of Tamil Nadu’s contributions of distinctive textiles techniques to further enrich India’s legendary textile heritage.

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