Oct 30, 2009

Silk Floor Mats from Thirunalveli - Pattamadai Paai

Silk mat/ Pattu paai / Pattamadai pAi (mat) is a beautifully crafted floor mat which reminds me of the afternoon naps at my grandma's house. Every tamil family would be familiar with the pattu paai and may have had one at home.

Apart from the regular weaves and patterns, Pattamadai paais are made to order for wedding ceremonies. The bride and the groom's names and the wedding date are woven in to the mat make the occasion memorable. This particular handicraft is original to Pattamaadai, a small village in Thirunalveli district of Tamil Naadu, and hence its name. It is also called Korai or Gorai paai as it is made of a special kind of grass called "Korai/Gorai".

Here is how the grass: Korai looks like when harvested.

Image Courtesy:ropeinternational.com
The Weaving ...

The process of mat weaving is time consuming and painstaking. The art and craft of weaving and blending intricate designs of Pattamadai mats are considered unique to this region. "Korai' grass grows in swampy lands and riverbeds. Online research mentions a specific set of Labbai/Lubbai and Rauther Muslim families are involved in weaving these mats or making the loom. According a research submitted at a seminar in New Delhi -by Ms Soumhya Venkatesan in 2003, this household cottage industry contributes to over 75% of the local income in Pattamadai.

Processing the Korai grass...
Conventional method of mat making involves lengthy processes of drying, soaking, splitting and dyeing the grass. The harvest season fall during the months of September/ October and February/March . The grass  is cut while it is still green. Strips of grass are sun-dried and are not to exposed to humidity as they tend to turn black with the exposure. As the dried grass strips turn a yellowish green, they are boiled in a pot of water and then dried again. Bundles of  dried grass are then soaked in running water and kept below the surface of the water for three to seven days. This process makes the grass to swell up to three times its original size. After it is then dried again and then taken to a floor loom.  Finally a woven mat is dried in the sun for a short time before being polished.

There are three different categories of the silk mat available in the market and the classification depends on the weave: Coarse weave, medium and the fine weave. The outer skins of the grass is stripped to bring out the fine strand from within for weaving the finer variety.

The loom which consists of a warp supported by the mukali (means a tripod - in tamil )(a bamboo tripod). The weft of korai strands is inserted in the needle and made to pass over and under the warp of starched cotton threads according to the design, very similar to the process of weaving fabric. Water is used to soften the grass throughout the process.

In the picture below, you can see the supportive mukali and the mat (a work-in-progress) on the floor.

The loom:

Image courtesy: sadashivan.com

Traditionally, woven on hand-looms, these mats are now mass produced on power looms to meet domestic and international demand.These beautiful mats are weaved using cotton or silk in the weft. Predominant use of silk (pattu) thread for weaving gave it its other name - Silk mat or pattu paai. Use of silk thread gives a royal sheen and definite appeal to the mat. Look at the beautiful custom silk border in this mat!...drool...

Image courtesy: shalinicrafts

Motifs and patterns...

Traditional colours include rich "Indian" colours : black , brown and red as these are the colours derived from sappan tree.  Dyed grass strands are woven into bold stripe patterns with a thick set of streaks on both ends to make conventional looking mats. Beautiful traditional motifs and designs bring out the luxurious look of these mats. I prefer the natural scent of these mats to the stinky plastic odor any day!

Over the years, traditional designs are giving way to contemporary patterns, designs and custom motifs.Traditional colours have been replaced by use of synthetic dyes which provide a wider colour choice (I am in favour of natural dyes).These paais are ideal for hot and humid climates and most importantly are eco-friendly (with natural dyes), a major selling point for people like me. Buyers may choose their own set of details to be spun into the paai to suit any occasion or ceremony.

There has been an increase in demand for other korai grass products such as shopping bags, placemats, table runners, small office folders etc. How about a few decorative pillows?...

Image courtesy: cultural elements.com
Industry Overview...

The mat industry has gone through a cycle of transition from being most coveted to the most ignored and then back in demand. Efforts by a few organizations to promote this handicraft led to an influx of commercial interests. This cycle doesn't benefit any craft/art form, and the same applies to the Pattamadai mats industry as well.

Commercial weaving led to increased use of pure cotton and nylon threads instead of silk thread. Over the years, excessive exploitation and stress for over production resulted to waning in use of traditional methods. As I have always maintained, over production and apparent, in flow of money in the short term doesn't translate to "growth".

Increased domestic and international Demand and supply imbalance eventually led to increased use of synthetic dyes, shorter product life cycles, and lesser focus on long term benefits for the weaver and the industry as a whole. I remember members of my family discussing a drastic fall in quality of mats produced. With plastic mats making a foray into the market, silk mat industry lost its foot hold and its patrons among Indian buyers. My research led me to this video(in tamil) highlighting the current state of affairs in the Pattamadai pattu paai industry in general.

Video courtesy: spike.com

Issues with synthetic dyes...

It is common knowledge that natural dyes and product are more eco-friendly and do not impact a weaver's health and the community/environment they live in. Human tendency, in general, is to put long term gains on the back burner for minimal short term benefit. What pains me is emphasis on shot term benefit despite its negative long term impacts on all the Earthlings. Sappan plants were originally used as colouring agents and grown for their natural red dye. Botanical name for this tree being, Caesalpinia sappan.

Image courtesy: blog: thoughtstoliveby

Market dictat and the extinction of this species of trees led to increased use of synthetic dyes. Sappan has been categorized under endangered species category by World Conservation Monitoring Center (1998). Caesalpinia sappan. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. Another article in The Hindu mentioned a research program dedicated to reviving this tree species and the effort a few organizations were putting in to promote traditional practices.

One thing disheartening about any industry in India is their tendency to concentrate on the export market. Agreed that international market contributes to a major chunk of their revenue, but spending potential of the Indian middle class needs to be given its due credit.

The Silver Lining...

Off late, eco-conservationist organizations have taken interest in this matter and according to a few news articles, a few of these production houses are reverting back to traditional methods of dyeing and processing of the Korai grass. This article in The Hindu, Dec 2005 mentions efforts by an organization in promoting use of natural dyes and motivating weavers to get back to using Sappan. Free saplings were distributed during the workshop.

More such workshops and educational seminars later, I hope to see more number of weavers adapting traditional dying methods and understanding the pros of using eco-friendly methods and techniques.

Paai : The one I bought....
I wanted one such paai for my wedding. However, we used a brand new plastic paai ! (frown) for the ceremonies as we couldn't source a pattu paai on time. Thanks to my amma, I have one now. She bought it as a wedding (sixth) anniversary gift this diwali. It is now being used to seat guests during vetthalai paaku  other festive ceremonies at home. I simply love the feel of this paai. A plastic one can never match the chic a pattu paai adds to your decor. Mine is a simple one and sans any personalization. I preferred a very traditional design with strong earth tones. Here is a picture of my paai.....take care.

Oct 22, 2009

Brumby Rocker ~ and my Rex Rocker

I bought a rocker on craigslist. The seller was quite helpful and brought it to my house as I could not arrange for transport. The moment I saw the rocker, I knew there must be an interesting history associated with it. Previous owners had used it in their nursery and only knew that it was a locally made piece. He mentioned that it was from a Furniture Co based in Marietta, GA. Called Rex.

An exhaustive research led me to the name and origins of  the manufacturers of this rocker - Rex Co. One search led to another and I was sad to find that the company was going to discontinue their rocker production. The reason being, dwindling supply of air dried white oak wood used for making these classics. As such most furniture makers use kiln dried wood.

After knowing more about rocking chair companies, I researched further and came to know about Brumby Rockers  Here is the link to the manufacturer: Brumby Rocker , GA. I was excited to read about the history associated with the jumbo rocker. A few other write ups in various magazines mention these rockers were a southern United States porch/veranda staple. It was exciting to know that 39th US President Jimmy Carter had one such piece on the white house porch during his presidency.

Mine is a similar style, and I am ok cos i cannot afford an original Brumby right now.

Here is the picture of the one I bought! one from Rex Co.

Oct 8, 2009

My Grandpa and me - The Mid Century Enthusiasts

I seem to have taken on my grandfather for my interest in furniture design. His idea of design meant utility and simple lines. My grandfather was a true modernist, he lived in the era when Eames, Charles Ray and George Nelson brought in revolutionary ideas to Interior Decor on this side of the world, and he lived in India.

His precision in designing and keen eye for clean lines were my greatest inspirations. I am sure that his exposure to idea of MCM would have been almost nil. He may have not known one designer from the other. Can't blame him, as never traveled out of India.Although, his job with the Armed Forces took him from one corner of the country to the other for 33 long years.

I am amazed by how similar his ideas were to the ones from the Scandinavian style and the mid century period. Given the minimal resources in terms of books, or any other media he must have had, I am sure he built on the ideas from what he could lay his hands on.

Another reason I presume, could have been the time he spent in the Royal Air Force and then the Indian Air Force. Over exposure to colonial furniture must have increased his desire to go more clean and geometric with furniture design.

To be frank, I never knew about Mid Century Modernism or minimalism or any other associated terminology until recently. My exposure to Apartment Therapy and criagslist were what led me to researching on MCM and furniture design eras.

Coming from India, I was familiar with traditional Indian and other Asian Design and styles. I love carvings and detailed wood work done by craftsmen back home. I admired my grandfather's carpentry and welding skills. I remember being an eager 8 year old handing out a hammer, a spanner or a screwdriver and seeking his approval for everything. Time flew and I grew to appreciate him even more for his design ideas and choice of furniture.

I come from a typical Tambram middle class family with minimum in terms of furniture. Most of us in the family did not have a cot or a mattress unless we were too old to sleep on floor mats. Our decor staples until recently were a few folding chairs in the living room, a TV, a stand for the TV and a small table. Walls were filled with solid wood frames with a pleasing multi-colored print of Hindu Gods, and our ancestors. Hh! how could I forget a calender dangling from a rusty nail. Not that we dint like it, we just dint know anything different. Most of us fondly remember our decorating sessions which meant dusting a table or the folding chairs before a relative or a friend visited. The steel tumbler and davara (a small cup/saucer) to serve a steaming cup of tea or coffee. We used to wait for festivals so that amma would pull out all the fine brass ware -kutthu vilaku, trays (thambalams) and silver poojai saaman :). All of them were promptly returned to the huge wooden chest (carefully wrapped in appa old veshti).

Bollywood and Regional movies showcased credenzas and dressers which were what the film stars could afford! (thats what I thgt !). Notice the eclectic decor in this movie set : Anand Special focus on the 6 drawer at the back everything else which went into making this "home" while enjoying the song.

Did you notice the danish modern credenza, hollywood regency style sofa and chairs, the dining table and chairs. The chair in which the Rajesh Khanna's friend and wife are sitting is a cool chaise with the danish modern look. Check this site : to relate to what I am talking about: swanklighting.com

Another song clip from the movie: Golmaal (my amma would be smiling at this).. for you to see the Retro looking art direction.This was bollywood in the seventies. Their clothes are a sure giveaway! Notice the Indian accents added to the classy retro furniture through out the house.

Now back to our humble homes, we had a steel iron armoire in our bedrooms to store expensive clothes and jewels and may be a cot. I found this cute cartoon so had to share it with you. Source: outlookindia.com

Our family did not have a refrigerator until 1995. Our kitchens had a decent two burner gas stoves. Having said that, we loved our life and never missed out on anything. Late eighties is when most of the Indian Middle class was able to afford a sofa set and a center table in the living room. now when I come to think of it,furniture design in was mostly danish style or retro. Most of the furniture was made by a local contractor/ carpenter. We had to go through the hassle of buying raw materials and putting up with them while they worked in our foyer or the veranda.

No complaints! People who could afford or had heirloom furniture had the classic Indian carved colonial furniture. They were the "panakaara" (tamil for the rich and elite) for me. Things have changed a lot in the last to decades. We are evolving slowly and are able to source the most expensive of things from around the world. Thanks to our liberalized economic policies. I am however not convinced that cost brought in quality. That is another topic up for debate.

Now coming back to my grandpa and his ideas. I would like to share one of his table designs. I recently realized it was similar to a Mid Century Modern design - Modernica Case sold in the 1960z here. 

I inherited the table and constantly think of ways to use it in my house.I came across a similar looking design  from a manufaturer/seller called 1stdibs.
TV stand - Thatha
I will be jotting down more as I explore my thoughts and the Internet. Happy reading!
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