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Madurai Sungudi- Six Yards of Knots and Dots

It is a struggle to keep the traditional art alive when the market is  flooded with chemically-dyed screen-printed sarees sold as the famous  Madurai Sungudi - The Hindu
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What do I love more – the six yards or golden era Hindi music? This is a very tough question for me to answer. It is almost like asking which eye I like more – the right one or the left? I have been meaning to write a post on the Madurai Sungudi for quite some time now (even as I continue to write posts on old Hindi film music). Finally, I have found the time to put my thoughts in words. The impetus to write this post has been my recent purchase of a lovely black and red Madurai Sungudi (online of course), from Co-optex.

The city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, situated on the banks of the revered river Vaigai, has a lot to be proud of – the blessings of goddess Meenakshi, the malli or jasmine (which also has a GI Tag!) the refreshing jigarthanda and last but not the least – the Sungudi saree. The Madurai Sungudi was adorned with a GI tag in December, 2005, thereby establishing its uniqueness. However, unfortunately this recognition has not translated into the Sungudi earning extra patronage. Learning more about the Sungudi tradition of tie and dye is imperative before delving into the issues facing the craftsmen.

When the tie and dye tradition is mentioned, the first image that flashes in our mind is that of the Bandhani or Bandhej sarees and dupattas of Rajasthan and Gujarat. The art of tie and dye in Rajasthan and Gujarat is considered to be about 5000 years old. It is believed that the Muslim Khatri community of Kutch was the first to use this form of dyeing. However, what is seldom highlighted is that there is a small pocket down south in Madurai which has also emerged as a distinct and independent hub of the tie and dye technique. It owes its emergence to the migration of weavers from Saurashtra (Gujarat) in the 16th century to south India where they were welcomed with open arms. Some of them settled down in Madurai because the local Nayaka king accepted them and extended his hospitality. This community came to be known as Patnulkarans (silk weavers).  They wanted to express their gratitude to the king and at the same time create something that was suitable for the hot weather of south India. Thus, silk was replaced by cotton and the unique Sungudi pattern was conceived.

Sungudi is a Saurashtrian word derived from the Sanskrit word Sunnam meaning “round” denoting the circular dots which are the hallmark of these sarees. It was the twinkling stars in the firmament and the manner in which women knotted their hair that gave them the aha moment. When these two ideas merged, the kaleidoscope called the Madurai Sungudi was created. This goes to prove that inspiration can be derived from the most mundane of sights and activities. The pattern of dots was to be created by tying small knots on the saree according to the design and dyeing the saree in the desired colour so that when pulled gently after dyeing, the circular dots would stand out and resemble the stars in the night sky. This perhaps explains the choice of dark colours for dyeing the sarees so that the dots would appear more prominent.

The traditional Madurai Sungudi saree was hand-woven, had single dot patterns and was dyed with natural dyes. A lot has changed for the Madurai Sungudi with time and the change is now posing a challenge to the original Madurai Sungudi as old timers would have known it. Even though the sacred Vaigai still flows, generously offering her waters for the dyeing process, the dyes which earlier used to be natural have been replaced by chemical dyes. For example, earlier the the orange came from saffron wood chips and yellow from turmeric. Since the process of extracting dyes from natural sources is quite painstaking, there is a greater use of chemical dyes now though the colours are still bright and traditional.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_20201027_103916-madurai-sungudi-cropped.jpg
The tag attached to a Madurai Sungudi saree I bought from Co-optex

The other change which in fact has robbed the Sungudi of one of its defining characteristics is that the knots have disappeared. Earlier each Sungudi saree would boast of about 15,000 to 20,000 knots which in turn would translate as those many dots. But now, though the dots remain, the knots have vanished! The tag (shown alongside) that accompanied the Madurai Sungudi saree that I bought from Co-optex says it all. You can see how it first mentions the traditional method of tie and dye and then elaborates on how contemporary designs are made with the wax printing method using wooden blocks and then dyed with traditional dark colours. The reasons for this change are not difficult to fathom. The number of those who make the Sungudi sarees in the traditional way by pinching the fabric with the nail and skillfully tying the knots has dwindled drastically to just 150 from 30,000 a few decades ago. It takes about 10 to 15 days to create a Madurai Sungudi in the traditional manner by tying knots. For this back breaking effort which is put in by the womenfolk – who are the ones who tie the knots – the remuneration is measly and just not rewarding enough to motivate them to continue the age old skill. It takes almost a week to tie 4,500 knots on a saree and the payment is a pittance – just ₹600 per saree.

A.K. Ramesh, Secretary of Federation of Tie and Dye Associations and Madurai Sungudi Manufacturers and Sellers Associations, with his wife Vasumathi are trying their best to revive the dying tie and dye tradition. The future of the original Sungudi can be salvaged only if the younger generation, especially the students of fashion designing are trained in the conventional technique of tie and dye Sungudi. Further, the entire technique needs to be properly documented, showcased and popularized so that the distinction between the original and the fakes can be made obvious, which presently can be done only by a discerning eye. There is no doubt that an authentic hand crafted Madurai Sungudi is more expensive than the machine made/screen printed variants that masquerade as the Madurai Sungudi. But once the Herculean effort that goes into creating the authentic Madurai Sungudi is brought before the lovers of the six yards, I am sure there will be appreciation accompanied with patronage.

Sungudi Day: Who will save Madurai’s precious weave?
Knots being tied in the traditional manner by the womenfolk
Image Courtesy

Diversification is also the name of the game. Just like Ikat has become a fashion statement by diversifying, Sungudi will also have to follow suit by not just restricting the tradition to sarees and dupattas but by incorporating more products such as pouches, bags, purses, scarves and bed linen in its repertoire.

Getting the GI tag for Madurai Sungudi is only the beginning of the struggle for its resurrection. Though the GI tag has made it easier for the craftsmen to apply for loans from NABARD, open sales outlets at airports and other public places and create awareness about the real Madurai Sungudi, a lot of ground still needs to be covered. In order to regain its past glory, the dots will have to be pinched with the nail, knotted and connected and by no means printed!! It is in strengthening the knots that people like you and me can contribute by buying only the authentic Madurai Sungudi so that a dying tradition can be both restored and furthered.

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