Woven with thick and coarse cotton in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu, the kandangi sari is characterised by a mubbagam or “tripartite design”, consisting of a checked or striped body and two broad, contrast borders, often woven with the temple motif.
Introduced and patronised by the Nagarathar Chettiars of Karaikudi, the tradition of kandangi weaving is believed to have originated in the Chettinad region over two hundred years ago. It has been a hereditary practice carried out in the homes of the weavers, most of whom are originally from the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. The saris travelled from India to Malaysia and Singapore through the mercantile Chettiars who settled there and among whom it continues to enjoy patronage.
Named in Tamil for the checked pattern with which it was originally identified, the kandangi sari was first made in silk and only began to be made in cotton in the twentieth century, upon the request of the Nagarathar women, to afford greater comfort in the hot weather of the region. Traditionally, they are woven earthy colours such as mustard, brick-red, brown and black but the subsequent use of synthetic dyes expanded the palette to include more vibrant colours such as green, purple and orange. Integral to the tradition of the kandangi is also the concept of its repurposing, after the period of its use as a sari, usually as cradles or crib liners.
Kandangi is smaller than the standard sari, measuring 5.1–5.6 metres in length and only about 0.9 metres in width, as against 1.2 metres, which is thought to have been meant to allow the wearers to display their anklets, as was the practice then. The traditional weaves that are made with heavier two-ply yarn than the more recent weaves are unique in that they do not require starching or ironing, making them more durable and easier to maintain. The saris are woven using a fly-shuttle and bobbin on a frame loom. The needle frame is usually custom-built in the town of Nilakottai with hand-spliced bamboo, although frames made from iron are also available. The threads are prepared with oil and rice starch (known in Tamil as kanji) and a length of approximately 22 metres or four sari-lengths are warped on the loom at once. Weaving the entire length takes at least a month, with one sari taking up to one week to complete.
Once a thriving centre for kandangi weaving, consisting of nearly a thousand weavers organised into about fifty weaving clusters, Karaikudi saw a steep decline in practice due, in large part, to imitative designs from other regions of Tamil Nadu flooding the market and diluting both its value and authenticity. As a result, only about two hundred weavers remain, who operate through cooperative societies. In recent times, however, efforts have been taken by government bodies, cooperative societies such as Cooptex, textile experts and retailers to revive the sari and reinvigorate the weaving practice through design interventions, financial support and technical training. The kandangi sari received recognition in 2019 as a Geographical Indication (GI) under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act, 1999 by the Government of India. It also received the “Indian Handloom Brand” tag from the Union Ministry of Textiles, which allowed for it to be marketed internationally.
A variant and close relative of the kandangi, often confused with it, is the koorai sari, which is woven using a combination of silk and cotton and a slightly different technique.
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