Sungudi, The Tie and Dye of Madurai City
I was introduced to the term “sungudi” during my recent trip to Pochampally. Sungudi is essentially the traditional tie and dye, only that it is specific to Madurai city. It also works on the resist methodology just like the conventional tie and dye. My trip to Madurai was in order when I was in Pochampally so I collected all necessary details to witness the art of Sungudi. Madurai sungudi is basically cotton fabrics adorned with designs and patterns made using tie and die. Unlike Bandhani which is done on georgette and silk, sungudi is only done on cotton.
I met Vasumati wife of A.K. Ramesh who is the secretary of the Federation of Tie and Dye Associations (FTDA), to get more details on sungudi. She welcomed me with a smile, her simple cotton saree spoke volumes about the austerity of her life. She was amazed as to why I was interested in sungudi in the first place. I spoke a little about by recently burgeoning love for textile and handlooms and she seemed happy with my response. I had a lot of questions and she patiently answered all of them.
Vasumati works with around 20-25 women who create the magic of sungudi quietly sitting at their homes in Madurai.
When I asked about the motivation she said:
“It is all about reviving the art. The raw materials for sungudi are expensive plus there is the high risk of damage which is making people drift away from the traditional form of sungudi. Also, there are easier and cheaper options available in the market which lure people into ignoring the authentic sungudi. Even today there aren’t too many people who come seeking the real sungudi work but there is a small percentage of women who know the value of it and they keep coming back for it. I along with my husband are doing everything in our capacity to make sure that those women never go empty-handed, because they are also playing a vital role in keeping this art alive.“
Majority of people who are privy to intricate sungudi are the descendants of Saurashtrian community who migrated to Madurai around 500 years ago. The art has passed down from one generation to another. Madurai is not only famous for sungudi it is also popular for weaving and hence caters to the significant demand for raw materials for sungudi.
Talking about finances and making living out of this art, Vasumati smiled and explained:
“There isn’t a lot of money but we are doing okay. We sell from our facebook page and website and sales have been decent. Majority of the sales happen through word of mouth. There are so many people who come here (pointing to her house) and buy from here directly. We also have exhibitions in various cities which also fetches some money to the business. We cannot handle bulk work because fine sungudi takes a lot of time. Creating a saree with the detailed pattern of sungudi can take 10-15 days and considering the tight manpower, we have to confine ourselves to very limited orders. Majority of women working for us are housewives and they dedicate all their time to sungudi after finishing off their household chores and we only have twenty-four hours in a day, she chuckled”.
“Another important factor that affects sale is the unpredicted trend of demands. The wax printing and screen printing fabrics are fast moving. It takes less time hence comparatively cheaper and it imitates sungudi very well thus a hit for gifting purposes. So it is bought my masses but those who have the eye for the craft they come asking for authentic sungudi. The cost of a cotton sungudi starts from 2000 Indian Rupees whereas the wax and screen prints start from 500 Indian Rupees.
We have to forecast our demands well because we also need to pay the women working for us.
Keeping a fine sungudi cotton saree sitting pretty in our house is something we cannot afford. It needs to move so that we can continue the whole cycle of creation. The payout is per knot, the higher the knots the intricate the design and thus more money. The money is less for us but enough to prevent the art from dying a slow death.”
When she finished explaining the financial aspect I enquired more about the process. To which she responded:
“It is just like any other tie and dye. You need to pinch the cloth and tie to resist the dye. The smaller the ties the complex the designs are. Once the whole fabric is tied as per the conceptualized design, it is sent for dying. Dyes are also of two kinds, we have natural dyes and chemical dyes. Natural dyes are expensive and we do the dying here at home only. Due to chemical fumes and other health hazard considerations chemical dying is done in a factory. We make the majority of natural dyes ourselves and some specific ones we get from Bangalore and Chennai.”
Vasumati also showed me the little dying place at her house where she does all the natural dying process. In the middle of the conversation, she mentioned about her daughter who is now married and lives in Chennai. With a lot of proud she told me that her daughter also does the sungudi work in Chennai, she does the tying and then sends the fabric to back to her and she does the dying bit.
So many efforts just to keep an art form alive for our next generations.
Amid the whole conversation, one point that constantly prodded me was the fact that Vasumati is working with much less number of women. I expressed my concern and she explained that they have been trying to spread the word around Madurai city. She wants to encourage more and more women to come forward and learn the art of sungudi. Plans of opening a small institute for teaching sungudi is also on the cards. It would be an effort towards women empowerment and revival of the art both. Holding an artisan member card from the Office of Development Commission – Handicrafts (Ministry of Textiles) also helps with a lot of initiatives.
Vasumati showed me the collection that was ready for sale. Flashing the sarees one after another with a lot of pride, she explained various levels of intricacies in every saree. While arranging them neatly in the racks she said, “we don’t want the art to die with us, that is the whole motive behind all these efforts. This is a rich legacy and it should be passed on to the next generations. More and more efforts should be put in place to make sure it doesn’t get absolved in the era of machines.”
My short visit to Vasumati’s abode was full of revelations.
Be it the small weaving villages of Pochampally or be it Madurai city, there are still few set of passionate people who have dedicated their lives to keep our art alive. Though I could easily sit there and listen to Vasumati speak about the art for hours, I also realized I was keeping her away from work. I took her leave and all through my way back I kept thinking about her passion towards keeping the art alive. If you are in Madurai make sure you buy an authentic sungudi for yourself. That could be your contribution towards the revival of the art.
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