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Photo: Nathan G./Mint
Photo: Nathan G./Mint

Going bananas over Madras checks

Anakaputhur, a suburb in Chennai, hopes to revive its past identity as a weavers' village using the humble banana stem

On 7 August 2015, at the Centenary Auditorium of the University of Madras, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the first National Handloom Day celebrations and unveiled a logo for the handloom sector. The significance of the date, as mentioned in his speech on the occasion, was the launch of the Swadeshi movement on this day in 1905 as a call for boycott of imported textiles.

Among the tributes presented to the prime minister on this occasion was a shawl woven using 25 types of natural fibre, including one from the banana stem, made by the Anakaputhur Jute Weavers Association (AJWA).

Anakaputhur is a suburb of Chennai that lies a little beyond the international airport on the banks of the Adyar, a non-perennial river that originates near Manimangalam village by Chembarambakkam lake and weaves through three districts—Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur and Chennai—before culminating the nearly 43km long journey into the Bay of Bengal. Like the Cooum river, the Adyar flows through Chennai, carrying away the sewage and effluence that the city spews into it.

Anakaputhur was once a weavers’ village, one of many that produced plaid-inspired checked fabric, mainly for export. The Real Madras Handkerchief that was woven here has a history with close links to the slave trade. As a drape, it was popular in Africa, especially Nigeria, but since the coup in 1966 and the subsequent civil war, the demand for Madras Handkerchiefs also came down.

Madras checks, sometimes simply known as “Madras", became popular in the US—advertising guru David Ogilvy is known to have played up its limited edition handloom appeal and turned its tendency to bleed colour into a selling point. Industrialization, colour-fast dyes and the price of cotton yarn have since eclipsed the handloom process.

In Anakaputhur itself, the difference is stark. C. Sekar, a third-generation weaver who heads the AJWA, says that while there were 5,000-odd handlooms 25 years ago, there are only about 350 today. About 70% of the weavers make lungi fabric; the rest are weavers of silk-cotton sarees and those, like Sekar, who weave using natural fibre.

Sekar is famous in these parts and brings together about 12 women’s self-help groups under the banner of the AJWA to extract banana stem fibre, turn it into yarn and weave yardage and sarees.

At Sekar’s home in Anakaputhur, every inch of floor space in what would otherwise be a living room has been taken up by four pit looms, their teeming heddles and a spinning wheel fashioned from a bicycle wheel frame on which Sekar’s wife spins the yarn onto a bobbin. There is barely enough space for a single person to pass between the clacking looms, so we sit outside, on the thinnai or verandah reserved for visitors.

C. Sekar. Photo: Nathan G./Mint
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C. Sekar. Photo: Nathan G./Mint

“About 20 years ago," begins Sekar, “I read a version of the Ramayana in a Tamil weekly magazine, and came across a story where the abducted Sita needed a change of clothes, and did not want to ask Ravana for it. She asked Hanuman instead, for vaazhai naaru or banana fibre and wove a saree out of it. As a weaver, I was intrigued."

The most commonly quoted example of fabric made from banana fibre is that of Japan’s bashôfu, an integral part of Okinawan heritage. In the Philippines, they weave fabric from pineapple leaves in a similar process. The machi is a fabric made of the warp and weft of the banana fibre and is considered sacred in the Micronesian island of Fais.

Sekar, however, came across few references on the fabric in India, so he decided to experiment until he fine-tuned the process over the years.

The process of weaving banana fibre fabric begins with sourcing the pseudostem of the banana tree. India is one of the foremost banana cultivators in the world and Tamil Nadu is one of the leading producers in the country. The sheaths of the banana stem are waste by-products sourced from the markets of Chennai or from wholesalers in places like Kundrathur, which lies just across the river from Anakaputhur.

Sekar suggests I visit the workshop of one of the self-help groups he works with, to get a better idea of how the stem is converted to yarn. With the exception of the four women I meet, the rest have taken the day off to offer prayers at the Murugan temple on Aadi Krithigai, an astrologically auspicious date.

The women present are neatly attired in their synthetic sarees and salwar kameez, and live on the same street. There is a terrace-cum-workshop that has a row of sewing machines to create products like bags, baskets and files from dried natural fibre, and just enough space to process natural fibre to make yarn.

Laila is the vociferous self-appointed spokeswoman for the group. She picks out a still-tender banana stem sheath, presses down on the flat strip with a blunt knife and scrapes the succulent flesh off it with quick, sure strokes. First, you see the grid of veins in the layer, and as she continues, the fibres emerge. She picks a single thread of banana fibre and demonstrates its strength by trying to snap it like cotton thread. It holds its wiriness and has a natural sheen.

Photo: Nathan G./Mint
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Photo: Nathan G./Mint

To make the yarn, the extracted threads of varying lengths are dried and then knotted in one of two ways to make it usable on a handloom. This is a labour- and time-intensive process, and while there is a machine available to do this, it is unaffordable for a small self-help group like this one.

The challenge is not of demand, but supply, says Laila, who admits to processing the banana stem even while watching her favourite television mega-serial at home.

Laila (second from left). Photo: Nathan G./Mint
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Laila (second from left). Photo: Nathan G./Mint

The yarn is then handed to the weaver, like Sekar, who first spins it onto a bobbin. This threaded bobbin is placed in water until it can be used on the loom. It is inserted into the wooden shuttle that is passed through the cotton or silk warp, making the banana fibre yarn the weft in the loom.While Sekar has experimented with using banana fibre yarn in both the warp and the weft, he believes that using a blend of cotton or silk makes it less time-consuming and more durable.

The dyeing can be done at two stages in the process, either as yarn or after the fabric is woven, and in artificial dyes or natural ones, depending on the order received. While natural and off-white colours are preferred abroad, the Indian clientele favours dark and vibrant shades.

Along with the self-help groups and his weavers, Sekar has experimented with extracting and weaving a variety of natural fibre. “The shawl that the PM was gifted last year was a blend of many natural fibres, including banana, aloe vera, bamboo, erukkan, cissal, vetiver, coconut and pineapple. There is even a herbal fabric that we created with natural fibre treated in a solution of neem, turmeric and tulsi," he says.

On this day, Sekar has only three sarees to show. While the dyed ones look no different in texture or colour from silk-cotton sarees, the natural one stands out with its subdued sheen and a hint of copper.

Down the river from Anakaputhur, the locality of Adyar in Chennai is named after the river, which is at its widest here, before it joins the sea. Vanitha Vadivelu, whose family hails from the Salem district, renowned for its handloom industry, sources sarees from Sekar for her outlet here. For a little over a year, she has been actively promoting the use of sarees made from natural fibre among her clients.

Vanitha believes that the banana fibre fabric has been woven in India for decades, if not centuries. She speaks of a visitor to her outlet, a 65-year-old customer, who took one look at one such saree and remembered it as being similar to naaru-pattu or fabric made from banana fibre.

“Her grandfather draped a length of the fabric over himself when he performed pujas, requiring a greater degree of madi or sanctity. In India, we have always had banana fibre fabric, but cotton became a cash crop and this part of our cultural legacy was forgotten," says Vanitha.

She admits that when it is dyed, the banana fibre saree looks no different from a silk-cotton one, but clients have returned for more, delighted that the fabric breathes better than others in the heat and humidity of summer.

In terms of care and maintenance, the cotton in the warp is already treated for shrinkage before the weaving process, and the strength of the banana fibre yarn gives the saree a starched appearance. The fabric needs to be hand-washed like traditional Kanjeevaram silk, using shikakai or reetha (soapnuts), and avoiding “blue liquid" and detergent.

For the present, Sekar faces a production challenge, not one of demand. The biggest hurdle that faces the handloom weavers of Anakaputhur is not a lack of looms or material, but a lack of space to install pit looms and the finance to extract fibre mechanically.

Sekar speaks of allocations under the National Fibre Policy and how banana fibre is deemed as a game-changer in the category of “Other Natural Fibres". But today, he is, in essence, a weaver with orders in hand and no means of increasing production without the help of the government in what he believes is the only solution— a handloom cluster.

In the year since the first National Handloom Day celebrations, Anakaputhur’s weaving community has also faced setbacks in the form of flooding of the Adyar river in December 2015, which not only destroyed the banana crop upstream but also damaged raw processed fibre, dyes and looms in Anakaputhur.

Despite these setbacks, Sekar’s pride is palpable when he speaks of a shawl woven by his weavers being draped over Modi’s shoulder. The future also seems promising, for despite education and job opportunities that could upgrade the social status of the family, one of Sekar’s sons has expressed an interest in following in his father’s footsteps.

Vanitha, too, is proud of following in the footsteps of her forefathers from the handloom belt of Salem by enabling the revival of an ancient form of weaving by creating demand for it.

Laila’s pride, however, is significantly different. Despite the damages caused to her livelihood by the flooding, she bristles, taking offence to the word kalva being used to refer to the river—kalva, due to rapid urbanization, has come to mean “sewer".

“In these parts, the Adyar is still a river," she says with native pride.

Saritha Rao is an independent writer based in Chennai

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