Sunday, October 22, 2017

KANCHEEPURAM

Ramaswamy enjoyed his bath, it was the only time he could call his own, when no one would disturb him or his thoughts. As he poured the sombu of cold water over his head, he dreamt design and colour. He came out smiling with a wet towel round his torso and went straight to the deities on the wall, and  lit the camphor his wife kept ready for him in the dhoopakalsa. The ringing of the puja bell told everyone in the household that Ramu was almost ready for his work. Ponni handed him a plate of two dry dosais and yesterday’s chutney. He wolfed it down with indecent haste with a hot cup of coffee. Ponni was a good wife.
He touched the loom and pressed his hands to his forehead. The loom. So sacred to him. Ramaswamy lived in Kancheepuram, the sacred temple city which gave him life and now probably his death. The city of weavers like him who worked so hard that their joints pained with the continuous work. They believed they were descendents of the Sage Markandeya weaver of the Gods. They were told that the first fabric woven was by him out of lotus fibre.
People who visited Kancheepuram were struck at the coloured warp threads stretched across the roads, tied to forked bamboo poles. Early morning weavers could be seen carrying the warp on giant spools and setting them up.
Every home in Kancheepuram the silk city had a loom. The loom was the centre of their daily life, it was like a wooden giant occupying the biggest room in the house. All life flowed round the loom. Adjacent was a backyard leading to the kitchen where he could see Ponni start her daily chores of cooking and cleaning. Children played in the yard, vessels were washed, and Ponni would sit there and spin the yarn and load it on bobbins and sang softly to herself. The loom gave them life, and the children sensing it would toddle across to their father. One of Ramu’s children would sleep under the loom as it was so cool.
Ramu eased himself into his hard stone seat and dangled his aching legs into the pit provided below. Above the jala with its tentacles of threads supervised his every move like a friendly giant spider. When he reached out and touched the heddles, it was taal to every beat. When he stroked the warp threads stretched across the loom, it was like playing a stringed instrument, a raga, it stirred his very soul.
His little son would watch him intently and when he was old enough he would come home from school and help to pass the shuttle, his slim nimble fingers would guide it through the threads. Ramu managed to weave korvai sarees, and hugged the payment of 5,000 rupees for a set of three sarees as just payment. There was money to be made in silk sarees, but cotton saree wages were very low, and weavers like him refused to weave them.
And then, in a well meaning move the Child Labour Act came into existence in the mid 80s. No child under twelve could work, even in their parents’ homes, and the repercussions would be serious.  Muthu, Ramu’s son was on an occasion twining the yarn in a spirit of playfulness. The Inspectors, tipped off, marched in and clamped a fine of 500 rupees for breaking the law, and no amount of pleading would make them relent. The oral tradition of weaving handlooms was slowly but surely being broken. Something which was as natural as breathing was taken away from them and that led to the death of the korvai sarees. If a family could not manage it, they could not afford to pay extra for outside labour.
Long hours at the pit loom led to arthritis, straining led to eye problems. Ramu sighed. His children would be educated and they would no longer be slaves to a vocation which killed them sapping them of all energy.
NGOs sympathised, they brought in innovation and high wages for a project, and an exhibition. After that a vaccum. No market visibility.The government offered them support, continuous work if they joined co-operatives. Ramu refused, he had his own reasons.
The wheel of destiny had to come full circle. Suddenly handlooms were celebrated, the weavers venerated, old designs were rehashed by die hard traditionalists, every effort was a giant drop in the ocean. But the damage was done. The young were no longer interested, they drifted off to the corporate world which had the stamp of respectability where they were offered better wages and sustainable livelihoods…
As he wove, Ponni brought him hot pakodas. He refused to touch them as it would dirty the yarn. She fed him one. “What are you weaving?” she asked. “A sari for my queen for Deepavalli,” he said. He placed the mirror under the warp and a beautiful small intricately woven border of deep pink and gold showed itself. “At least this year I can afford it!” he said.

“Yes we will see better times,” said Ponni, chuckling with the typical optimism that she was blessed with, knowing that they would always be mired in the groove of a traditional vocation as they knew no other skill. And once Muthu started earning, they could retire and live in comfort……

Saturday, March 11, 2017

WEAVING RELIGION INTO TEXTILES


I write this on a day celebrated by the whole of India as handloom day,  though for me, every day is handloom day. Textiles constitute the second largest industry in India, second only to agriculture, providing employment to over a million people India can boast of the beginnings of hand woven cloth, going by the discovery of a piece of madder dyed  cloth, in a silver pot in the ruins of Harappa dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. The silver, acting like a mordant kept the red dye alive for centuries. Ancient Sind deserts unearthed terracotta spindle whorls and a bronze needle. It established the fact that not only did the early inhabitants of the Indus Valley know how to spin and weave but the coarse scrap of madder indicated that they knew how to dye the cloth that they wove.
Religion and textiles have been interminably melded and apart from social significance religious overtones have existed  from time immemorial. Temple towns like Kancheepuram became the base for the weaving communities. Lord Shiva was an ascetic who favoured cotton, so cotton looms sprung up near Shiva temples. Lord Vishnu wore silk, so you could account for the cluster of silk looms around Vishnu temples.
Sage Markandeya, was believed,to be the weaver of the gods who fashioned the first fabric from the lotus fibre emanating from Vishnu’s navel. Weavers of Kancheepuram, claim descent from the sage. The aura of religion enveloped the weaver communities, who deemed it an honour to weave ritual cloth for the gods. Indeed it was the most skilled weaver who was designated this job, and only the finest of cloth devoid of any flaws considered  good enough to be offered to the temple deity. This became a test and a challenge of finely honed skills and artistic ability exercised with  the utmost devotion.. Ritual cloths have different expressions in various parts of India.

The South has been a stronghold of these kind of painted cloths famous of which are Srikalahasthi, Madurai, Pallakollu, and Tanjore. The stories were hand painted with the brilliance of  indigo and madder, some of them combined with the technique of hand block printing. Mythological stories were handpainted on cloth, and it is a skill which is present even today, though the religious significance has faded with the advent of time.

Devotees offer saris to the temples, which are later preserved in special boxes to be taken out on festive occasions to be worn by the idols. Certain temples return the saris to the devotees, who preserve them in their homes, in a wicker basket, and limes, agarbatti and camphor are placed on them. On special occasions the basket is taken  out by the oldest member of the family and the entire family worships the deity which has been offered the sari. The saris were sometimes auctioned and sold as temple saris.
In Srivilliputhur,  such ornamental sarees measuring 10 yards, are offered to Goddess Andal, and later the cut pieces from these  sent to various Vaishnav temples.
The offering of saris to the deity is common among Hindus, and one such votive offering to the Mother Goddess is the Amman Selai, to seek benediction and mercy from her. This is to mainly avert natural calamities, preventing pox, loss of life and cattle. These special saris are usually ordered and procured from craftspersons specialising in ritual saris. The Amman Selai is produced in Pasumpon Mathuramalingam district, Tirunelveli district and some parts of Tamil Nadu.
Originally the drawings of God Karupannaswami and Goddess Kali  were drawn directly by the artist, but today, the old designs are traced and reproduced. Wax is applied over the figures in the pallu and in places where colour is not to be suffused and the whole sari dipped in red dye which is made from rose red powder and raktha chivappu dissolved in hot water.
The antiquity of pata-chitra goes back to the 8th century. This style of painting is a combination of folk and classical painting drawing heavily on  Krishna Leela and Jaganath themes. This style of icon-painting of Puri occupies pride of place among various forms of pictorial arts in Orissa through wall paintings, manuscript paintings and palm-leaf etchings.
The candarvo is a Gujerati tradition which establishes the sacred space around the shrine over which it may be suspended, or by which the shrine is enclosed.
Similarly in Gujerat the pachedi follows the same tradition of hand-painting and block printing using black and madder colours.  The pachedi and candarvo were surrounded by the same sanctity that enveloped the deities.
An abiding faith in religion and mythology gave strength and  continuity to a strong oral tradition, and time honoured techniques.
Always, religion was the pivot around which this art blossomed. This slowly yielded to royal patronage, and when this too deteriorated, the artisans looked to new markets, designers, and the government  for continued support for a sustainable livelihood.








BED MAKING

As a child I loved going through English magazines bought by my mother, and, fed on the glory of the British Raj and their impeccable, sophisticated ways I admired English ladies. I wasn’t inducted into the raptures of desi décor and craft as I am now. I soaked in  Georgette Hayer and Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and dreamt of wearing crinoline dresses and being swept off my feet by a Clark Gable look alike!! As a young teenager, buying curtains and georgette sarees and chiffons were certainly out of my reach, but the next best thing was the dressing of beds and windows. My mother who was a good seamstress, made frilly curtains and valances out of printed voile sarees and lace window blinds, and it pleased me that she shared my passion.
Many married years later and when maturity sunk in, I learnt to appreciate Indian textiles and the wealth of culture we inherited.  I couldn’t even bear to store a host of imported ceramic curios in glass cupboards crafted for this purpose. But our bed mania persisted, and the beds had to be perfectly made without a single crease, and my paranoia infected the whole household. That spelt doom for our domestics who could not understand why folds in the under sheet mattered so much, and why beds should be made at night and remade the next morning. They talked with pride how they worked in homes where there was only a single sheet, and pillows outside and  bed linen changed once a week, and that they never ever had this backbreaking chore.
We made (and unmade) our beds ourselves, till I decided to pass on this skill to our maids. Maybe it was an unwise decision, but having got into that mode, I am not getting out of it, and each of us has our own vision as to how a bed has to be made. Fortunately, of late, husband Kittu has made a foray into domestic activities. Retired men please note, it might or might not be a good thing. Depends on the tolerance of your spouse.
Well, my husband tucks in both the inner sheet and the outer right in at the footboard. This is to facilitate easy unbedmaking at night and remaking the next morning till sheets are changed. The inner sheet is spread out, tucked securely at the sides, mattress lifted up for this purpose, no shortcuts please and   woe to the woman who tries to push it in, with the tips of her fingers. Never mind if it is a heavy Kurl On mattress, you don’t have to do weights at the Gym. If you’re the kind who doesn’t gym, all the more reason, to believe that bedmaking is sure to improve your biceps and triceps, and if you draw your tummy in during the process you will help the core muscles. . If you are a young woman between 35 and 40 and weigh let us say 65 kg with a height of 5’ 5” you will burn about 60 calories an hour, making the bed, if it is any comfort.
To continue, after the sheets are stretched taut (according to my husband he was taught at the hostel that if properly made, a coin would bounce off the sheet) they are are folded backwards, pillows placed on the fold after being plumped out and the folded end of the sheet placed over the pillows. Then the small cushions are arranged in an artistic manner.
What purpose do these cushions serve?” I am asked. More work, more tailoring, and if ready made covers are bought the fit is reminiscent of an old lady wearing a loose fitting gown, or if it is too tight, you invariably tear the cushion in attempting to stuff it in…
Mum has her own ideas on bed making while the morning session remains the same, the night session varies. The top sheet is entirely removed and folded in a particular way at the foot of the bed, in an absolutely straight fashion.
And to crown it all our maid is blessed with parallax error in her vision. I took out my beautiful indigo ajrakh counterpane with its exquisite borders. All it required was adjusting the borders to the edge of the bed. No way, the borders were placed in near diagonal fashion, with one side of the sheet hanging lower than the other. According to my maid the borders were perfectly aligned and it was we who had warped vision thanks to the onset of old age.
Either way it is a losing battle. Either we pray for a suffusion of enormous patience to take up the challenges of training,  or we give up with good grace and learn to discipline ourselves to do the beds ourselves as we did once upon a time

Or should we go back to the chattai- and thin sheet routine at least in summer?BED MAKING
Sabita Radhakrishna
As a child I loved going through English magazines bought by my mother, and, fed on the glory of the British Raj and their impeccable, sophisticated ways I admired English ladies. I wasn’t inducted into the raptures of desi décor and craft as I am now. I soaked in  Georgette Hayer and Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and dreamt of wearing crinoline dresses and being swept off my feet by a Clark Gable look alike!! As a young teenager, buying curtains and georgette sarees and chiffons were certainly out of my reach, but the next best thing was the dressing of beds and windows. My mother who was a good seamstress, made frilly curtains and valances out of printed voile sarees and lace window blinds, and it pleased me that she shared my passion.
Many married years later and when maturity sunk in, I learnt to appreciate Indian textiles and the wealth of culture we inherited.  I couldn’t even bear to store a host of imported ceramic curios in glass cupboards crafted for this purpose. But our bed mania persisted, and the beds had to be perfectly made without a single crease, and my paranoia infected the whole household. That spelt doom for our domestics who could not understand why folds in the under sheet mattered so much, and why beds should be made at night and remade the next morning. They talked with pride how they worked in homes where there was only a single sheet, and pillows outside and  bed linen changed once a week, and that they never ever had this backbreaking chore.
We made (and unmade) our beds ourselves, till I decided to pass on this skill to our maids. Maybe it was an unwise decision, but having got into that mode, I am not getting out of it, and each of us has our own vision as to how a bed has to be made. Fortunately, of late, husband Kittu has made a foray into domestic activities. Retired men please note, it might or might not be a good thing. Depends on the tolerance of your spouse.
Well, my husband tucks in both the inner sheet and the outer right in at the footboard. This is to facilitate easy unbedmaking at night and remaking the next morning till sheets are changed. The inner sheet is spread out, tucked securely at the sides, mattress lifted up for this purpose, no shortcuts please and   woe to the woman who tries to push it in, with the tips of her fingers. Never mind if it is a heavy Kurl On mattress, you don’t have to do weights at the Gym. If you’re the kind who doesn’t gym, all the more reason, to believe that bedmaking is sure to improve your biceps and triceps, and if you draw your tummy in during the process you will help the core muscles. . If you are a young woman between 35 and 40 and weigh let us say 65 kg with a height of 5’ 5” you will burn about 60 calories an hour, making the bed, if it is any comfort.
To continue, after the sheets are stretched taut (according to my husband he was taught at the hostel that if properly made, a coin would bounce off the sheet) they are are folded backwards, pillows placed on the fold after being plumped out and the folded end of the sheet placed over the pillows. Then the small cushions are arranged in an artistic manner.
What purpose do these cushions serve?” I am asked. More work, more tailoring, and if ready made covers are bought the fit is reminiscent of an old lady wearing a loose fitting gown, or if it is too tight, you invariably tear the cushion in attempting to stuff it in…
Mum has her own ideas on bed making while the morning session remains the same, the night session varies. The top sheet is entirely removed and folded in a particular way at the foot of the bed, in an absolutely straight fashion.
And to crown it all our maid is blessed with parallax error in her vision. I took out my beautiful indigo ajrakh counterpane with its exquisite borders. All it required was adjusting the borders to the edge of the bed. No way, the borders were placed in near diagonal fashion, with one side of the sheet hanging lower than the other. According to my maid the borders were perfectly aligned and it was we who had warped vision thanks to the onset of old age.
Either way it is a losing battle. Either we pray for a suffusion of enormous patience to take up the challenges of training,  or we give up with good grace and learn to discipline ourselves to do the beds ourselves as we did once upon a time
Or should we go back to the chattai- and thin sheet routine at least in summer?
AFTER DUSK
Sabita Radhakrishna
To coin a clichéd phrase you never know what’s round the corner. It’s a blessing we don’t.  However, we need to prepare for the inevitable, when death knocks at the door, plucking a partner who has been there all your life, someone who has taken care of all the practical aspects of everyday life, like banking, finance, etc. which people like me find utterly boring and daunting.
As a rule with most women of my generation, we keep off these “trivialities” as we label them despite entreaties from our men who want us to learn how to live. One friend reminded me of an article in an old Readers Digest which was titled How to Help Your Wife be a Good Widow…it sounded so frivolous at the time, but not funny any more in the present context where you are left alone to cope with a situation beyond your control, bereft of children who will hold your hand, handle everything and leave you to grieve in peace. The present gen expects you to be independent, strong, invincible and get through all the formalities without a whimper.
Out of experience, I would advise all couples to discuss what each would do if  one dies. We did.  Each of us should write a Living Will. Take a bound diary, one which will not get misplaced easily and note down what is where.
Declutter first, getting rid of all unnecessary garbage in your files, which have gathered over the years. Don’t throw away what you don’t understand…your spouse might have kept it for a particular reason. In your Living Will book, write down the list of  important files you have…topping the list should be Medical and Insurance.  Always let someone know where you keep these files and keep them handy to be grabbed at a moment’s notice. Write down where you keep your fixed deposits, cheque books and pass books, where the key to your bank locker is kept. Note down the number on each deposit and when it matures, and how much interest you will get and when.
Make a note of where you keep your property papers and your will. These papers are best placed in the locker in your home where your heirs will have easy access and it will be the obvious place to find them. A woman should keep a stock of your jewellery, where they lie, and to whom they will ultimately be bequeathed. Encourage the children to take away what is theirs instead of having you as custodian which adds to the responsibility of living.
And you cannot ignore the lesser important details, yet vital for daily life like payments made to your staff, salaries, advances, bills that have been paid on a regular basis, like milk, telephone, gas, electricity, so on and so forth. Cumbersome, yes but it gives you peace to know your affairs are in order, and the ones who take over will not curse you for living a life of disorder though blissfully you will be unaware of it.
I am still in the process of getting my own life in order, and since my husband was one of those meticulous types, I don’t have to seek frantically, to find. And yet it has to conform to my system of working and one which I find convenient.
Mobilising your finances, not spreading them too wide, over many banks and not speculating after a certain age is sensible. Accounts should be easily accessed and you should be in a position to handle them..
We are fast reaching a paper less society and the sooner we train ourselves to online banking, fund transfers etc, the better otherwise we will be left behind in the race. The world is moving at a very fast rate, technologically as well, and if you can’t keep pace, get help, for your own survival..
The list of responsibilities a survivor has is overwhelming. Apart from the grief which is a dead weight in your heart there are so many formalities to look into. Don’t push yourself so much at the same time don’t procrastinate, keep your mind active. Try to slowly get back into the mainstream of life however hard it may seem but only when you are ready. Cry when you feel like it, don’t ever stifle your sobs as it is nothing to be ashamed of.  A sudden gust of familiar fragrance, the glimpse of a dear friend, that music which you both loved, the clothes, a scarf….is enough to set up emotions which are difficult to restrain.
Slowly the gruesome scars, are less gory in the process of healing, the sludge inside you turns to something more pleasant though the pain will remain for the rest of your life. Friends urge me to get out of the house,  taking a break, like a movie with friends, driving down the beach, visiting someone. Without the guilt that creeps in.
Believe me, I’m trying hard.
And now I will get back to filling the first page in my Living Will Book…



Sunday, March 27, 2016

LESS IS MORE

Sometime in life you have to downsize.  If you have been a “collector” all your life it is indeed painful.  Every object bespeaks memories, at least for me. I have never been able to splurge on artefacts, as  I do believe that whatever you possess need not necessarily be expensive. A piece of craft exquisitively fashioned, moderately priced can bring the same amount of appreciation as any of the Lladro porcelain curios.
 I would rather spend on the home than adornments for myself. Spend on  curtains, cushions, table linen etc, the whole family enjoys it, as well as visitors to your home. When you buy expensive saris and jewellery, it is for yourself..If you surround yourself with objects that are beautiful to look at, it gives you unmitigated pleasure…right from the plates you use, the cutlery, the simple things like the salt and pepper cellar, your table napkins, durries, the list is endless.  When these items are priced less,  they are easier to throw away when they have outlived their looks and usefulness.
A good time to downsize, is when the children get married and leave home. It doesn’t mean you leave the home bare and devoid of any décor.  Just begin by bequeathing stuff you don’t use. The pain is less when you have children who would love to have things that you have enjoyed. They have sentimental value, and it gives you pleasure to see them installed in your childrens’ homes. Alas they don’t make the children like that any more.
Today’s gen have defined tastes their own, diametrically opposite to yours. There’s no marrying the old and the new, as we have done. For them, an ornately carved chair, or a divan with exquisitely engraved tiles don’t hold them in thrall.  If they are “antique” pieces passed on from your parents, they would, in a moment of weakness probably condescend to accept a couple of pieces not before breaking their heads as to where these would find a place in their modern homes. Their contemporary tastes would allow huge leather upholstered sofas, pristine white curios,  modern paintings which you don’t understand even if you pretend to…finally you reluctantly agree that your pieces of furniture and bric-a-brac would look incongruous in their homes. Sigh!
One strategy worked for me when we left our bunglalow to have it “reduced” to apartments. We labelled a large cardboard carton, “Throw”.  The second one was labelled “Consider”, and the third, “ Keep”.  The third carton got filled in no time, the second took next place and the first hardly rose to half.  Once I emptied the “Throw” carton, it gave me such a sense of liberation, that I delved into the “Consider” carton, and removed many items I had absolutely no use for. An old vermicelli press, antiquated coffee filters from various countries, umpteen gadgets, old pressure cooker parts, had no room in my smaller apartment.
The buzz word is “merciless” don’t give the discards a second dekho, otherwise you get swamped in nostalgia and regret. I can never throw away an old piece of textile, however tattered.  I have never spent money on rare saris, they happened to be very affordable when I bought them, and to me they are priceless, because I reinvent the designs, pass them on to my weavers and acquaint them with the colours they would otherwise never be familiar with. And as for wearable saris I face an impasse!
My children will not wear my  saris, not that they dislike them, but because their “occasions” do not warrant being wrapped in traditional wear. Wearing salwar kameez, palazzo pants,  or any kind of western wear, is admittedly so convenient, though I have been crying myself hoarse urging the younger ones to wear saris. Anyway I have made a firm resolve that any of my traditional saris that the girls in the family do not want, will go to a textile museum.
And the photographs, hundreds of them lie sepia coloured with age. Digitalise them  even if you can’t do it yourself, put them on DVDs and just dump the rest. It is heartbreaking to fling memories away, but you have to get on with it.
My husband decided to dump a large cardboard carton in the guest room much against my will. Anything unused would find its way into the carton. In no time it was full…would you believe it a junk man was called in and he gave us a thousand bucks for what I thought was rubbish! And this was three years ago. The money came in handy towards charities I support.
Every time you clean a cupboard, you discover junk to discard.  I have been inspired by my friend Sita a practical woman if there was ever one.  She lived alone, and when she reached the stage when she wanted to be cared for, and not bother about the household and cooking and servants, she set about executing her meticulous plan. Apart from the bare necessities, she threw away just about every item that she was not going to use hereafter. The “items” found their way into friends’ homes, the ones who loved to hoard these useful items for a later date. Ice cream churners, juicers, Rukmini cookers, whatever, and Sita achieved her goal of clearing her home. Moving became much easier.
And today we have Quik-r to dispose of stuff, but not before you photograph them, upload the pics on to their site and state the price you want for them. I decided to travel  the new route and placed my well maintained though old microwave oven up for sale. No success as I had probably quoted too high a price. It was so simple just giving it away to my kitchen help who is so interested in cooking and related gadgets. The joy on her face was enough compensation!
My modest library boasts of books on craft, textiles, food, travel, plays, computers etc etc. I generously offered my cookbooks to a young lady in the family who let out a polite no no. “When I can just type in what I need into the net, and get the most fabulous recipes what do I need cookbooks for?”  I asked myself why we cookbook authors bother to write. I am the biggest perpetrator of the collector- of- books crime.
My husband’s collection is relatively modest by comparison. He has an amazing collection of nuts, bolts, spanners, screw drivers, little nails, big nails, hammers of varying sizes and garden equipment, some of which will find their way into the bedroom…A handyman, who fixes so many things in the home, he will rarely go to  a hardware shop to buy the odd assortment of things.

I do hope this article tickles your conscience for throwing away rubbish, for that is what they become when they no longer have the same value that they did years ago. So get someone to empty your loft one by one, and enjoy the feeling of liberation when you reduce your wants as for most of us, less is more… 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Andal

Andal was a sensuous woman, who lived 100 years ago. She symbolised the era of the saree, when you start wearing it very early and learn to accept it as if it was your skin. She wore sarees from the age of 7 and she learnt to do everything in it, including playing hopscotch, climbing trees, and skipping. When she reached puberty, she looked at the mirror more often and liked what she saw. She applied kohl made at home on those almond shaped eyes and placed a big pottu on her forehead. She strung the jasmine which grew in her garden and adorned her hair with it. She wore the saree with grace, and since it was woven short she could show off her pretty anklets. Her blouse was made from the thin printed calico that was in vogue those days. She matched it with the colours from the saree which had yarn dyed in natural colours when the alchemy of synthetic dyes hadn’t stormed the bastion of dye workshops.
Her mother, aunts and grandmother only wore pattu sarees woven in simple designs, with motifs of hamsas, rudrakshams and vel darri. Often they were korvai sarees with solid contrast borders and pallus. The sarees were washed immediately after they were worn for a full day. They had lines strung in the back yard, and the pattu sarees were washed with punga kottai, which was a kind of soap nut, soaked in water and lather coaxed by hand. The soap nut was kind to the sarees and gave them a becoming sheen. With every wash, the saree became soft and clinging and felt so good next to the skin. The saris were dried without too much of wringing, and hung with the borders facing downwards, and if there was space, singly in a horizontal manner. Andal would smooth out the wrinkles while the saree was still wet so that when you took it out, it looked well laundered.
And when cotton sarees were washed, they were immersed in rice conjee diluted, and placed in a bucket, and strung singly on the line so that the saree did not stick to the next layer. The saree had to be very lightly starched, if at all. All sarees were dried in the shade, and carefully folded and placed under the pillow or under the mattress if you slept on one.
Andal like all young women liked to think of herself as progressive. She would keep smoothing the crinkles that were invariably present. She decided one day to use a brass pot with hot water and apply it to the saree and lo and behold it looked so wondrous and perfectly smooth. When she wore sarees people whispered behind her back that she knew some magic to make her sarees so exquisitely smooth. No one dared to ask Andal, but an urchin who looked through her bedroom window one afternoon, watched her iron her sarees painstakingly, wearing out all the wrinkles as she pressed. Of course it went round the village, and most women looked smug as they sported nicely ironed sarees.
The grand sarees worn for weddings were preserved differently. Andal’s mother used to wrap each saree in a soft mulmul waishti. She placed dried neem leaves in the folds of the waishti to ward off insects. Andal’s Ammamma a wise old lady told her never to keep a silk saree unwashed however expensive. She explained to Andal that the perspiration ruined a saree, and the starch with the weavers spread on the yarn, eventually would eat away the saree. And sarees should always be dried in the shade.
Andal passed on the wisdom of caring for sarees to her children and grandchildren. She told them that she would sneak some jasmine into the folds of the saree, so that the smell lingered for months. Of course you had to make sure that the jasmine did not let out any liquid and spoil the silk.
She taught her grandchildren as they grew up that the saree is the most graceful garment in the world, and no other new fangled fashion could ever replace the saree, a rich gift from the Gods themselves. Those children whose mothers and grandmothers told them these stories are all saree wearers and many of them are members of the Kai Thari group today.
Andal is a fictitious character, but everything written about her is true and taken from life. Sarees should be stacked and not hung, though we are all guilty of doing that. Sarees not worn for sometime should be taken out and aired otherwise they split at the folds.
Image courtesy Internet

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

OHH MIGOD!


If you look carefully round my home you will find maybe a hundred Ganeshas, in different mediums..he might be hidden under a leaf, behind a lamp, on the puja shelf, on my office desk, a doodle on my sketch pad, wherever. He is my ishta deivam,  my favourite among the pantheon of gods. Everything about him is lovable, his pot belly girded with a snake, the elephant head, with his flapping ears, the broken tusk….but the only thing which gives me a little shiver is his inseparable vahanam the mouse.
He is venerated  by most of us every year about this time, and we make his favourite kozhakattais and sundal in the south, the modaks in the north. Why then… (we have asked ourselves this question hundreds of times) do we buy a new Ganapathi only to sink him into the water? There is a touch of sadness, and we have asked seers and pundits who have not given us the right answer. There is only one explanation, according to me. Dust unto dust, a symbol of accepting the path we will all follow. But then, it is not the end, Ganapathi rises like the phoenix out of the ashes he was consigned to year after year when we rejoice and welcome him into our homes once again.
I have decided not to go through this practice. Every year my terracotta puliyar gifted by cousin Ganga sits decorated with flowers and jewelry and as tenderly he is placed back. What I do however, is fashion a stylised form of Ganesh in turmeric bearing a vermillion dot, which is discarded after the puja is over.

Every year I make kozhakattais, sundal, vadai, payasam, promising myself that next year I would do away with rituals knowing that Lord Ganesha will always bless me for my fervour and love for him even if I just pray to him with fruit and flowers. I know he will continue to remove obstacles from my path.  Then Ganesh Chaturti approaches, I see the twinkle in his eyes, and I fall for it, and I am perspiring over making the goodies for him….Will we Indians ever change!!!???