Despite the history of turmoil, what is truly outstanding is that even today, India's textile craft traditions are alive and thriving.
Urbanisation and globalisation of consumer tastes have not robbed them of their place in India's cultural and social life. Double ikat Telia Rumal is one such example. India, Indonesia and Japan are the only three places in the world where double ikat is still manufactured.
Andhra Pradesh is India's most prolific producer of ikat. In fact, the ikat industry has grown immensely in the last four decades in Pochampalli. However, Pochampalli ikat owes its genesis to the Telia Rumal. The innate beauty of historical and contemporary Telia Rumal illustrates how traditional methods of hand weaving evolve and mature with limited resources and yet, have not changed fundamentally for centuries. They display an exceptionally high standard of craftsmanship and an intimate knowledge of materials handed down from generation to generation. No machine has been able to successfully reproduce the double Ikat.
INDIA'S TREASURE TROVE
Since time immemorial, the Indian sub-continent has been a storehouse of artistic talent including in the field of textiles. Ancient Indian texts, scriptures and myths have greatly influenced their shaping.
Ikat textile decoration can be called sui generis. Meticulous dexterity manifests in earthy designs. Though Rouffaer is credited with introducing the term ikat in Europe, it owes its origin to the Malay-Indonesian word mangikat which means to tie, wind or bind.
Ikat entails tying and dyeing of the yarn, before weaving, in a premeditated shade-design. Consequently, only the exposed portion of the thread is subjected to the dye effect, resulting in a typical motif.
There are three major types of ikat. In single Ikat either warp or weft is tied and dyed, before weaving. In Combined Ikat, intermittent overlapping at different portions is noticed as warp and weft effect. Double Ikat, using the Alizarin dyeing process, is the most intricate where both warp and weft are tied and dyed so intricately that the result is a unique woven design.
The ikat process varies in certain details throughout the world. Many ancient cultures practised Single Ikat craft but interestingly, India enjoys the distinction of carrying on the Double Ikat till date. Japan and Indonesia are the only other Ikat producers in the world.
Samples and information collected by historians establish the prevalence of deep-rooted Indian traditions of applying a wide spectrum of colours, mostly natural, from the ancient times up to the second half of the nineteenth century. This helped form the platform to showcase one of the world's finest Ikat techniques.
Carbon dating of Indian Ikat textiles can be traced back to murals of the Ajanta caves, indicating definite linkages with the Deccan Plateau. Over time, it seems to have passed on towards Gujarat, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh where it continues to be in vogue nowadays as Patola, Bandha and Chitki respectively.
Today, Andhra Pradesh is the most prolific producer of Ikat textiles in India. Known for its colourful saris and yardage produced in the villages of Nalgonda District near Hyderabad of which the best known is Pochampalli, the Ikat industry has grown immensely in the last four decades. Andhra Pradesh does, however, have a much older local tradition of cotton double Ikat weave of Telia Rumal, which is distinct from the market-led production that thrives there today, although it undoubtedly formed the basis of that industry and once was a crucial item of Indian textile trade under the British East India Company.
No written document is available to ascertain the origin or evolution of Telia weaving in this region. It is widely believed to have developed in the late 19th century. The earliest centre of Rumal production was Chirala, a coastal town in undivided Andhra Pradesh. This has been attributed to three important factors: soil suitable to grow cotton on, proximity to ports and availability of dyes.
The grid-like structure of the Telia Rumal is similar to the widely disseminated Madras handkerchief. The Telia Rumal was worn on the head as a turban by men. Two uncut Telia Rumal were worn as a loin cloth. Muslim women wore the two uncut Telia Rumal as a dupatta. Telia Rumal were often embroidered, with fine silver and gold stitching, by aristocratic Muslim ladies from Hyderabad. They were used as saris with exquisitely delicate geometric diamonds and squares in cream, red and black.
The innate beauty of Telia Rumal illustrates how traditional hand weaving evolved and matured with limited resources and has been passed down the generations. Change is bound to impact, in different and yet unknown ways, even the Telia Rumal. To stand up to change, the influences of current market scenario and contemporary lifestyle, detailed documentation of the craft, its history, process, motifs, colours and products are required to document its story.
Towards that end, a descriptive study was planned. The tools selected for data collection include a semi-structured interview schedule and observation method that provides more scope for cross questioning or rewording questions for relevant and complete information. The sample was selected through purposive and snowball sampling methods. Efforts were made to cover all aspects of operations involved in dyeing with Alizarin, an organic compound, followed by Ikat weaving. The processing of yarns, pre- and post- loom processes, weaving, design, training and marketing questions were also included to know about the problems faced and their aspirations for future generations, as also their craft. For authentic data, a multi-visit interview method was resorted to along with photographic documentation. Master weavers and scholars related to this craft were interviewed.
Results and discussion
During a visit to Chirala, once the cradle for Telia Rumal, as astonishing fact came to light: This craft is extinct in Chirala. Most of the weavers were not even aware of its nuances. Telia Rumal is now woven around Nalgonda district, in villages of Pochampalli and Puttapaka though and at least 20 villages within the 70 kilometre radius of Hyderabad where Ikat textiles are woven. All the respondents belonged to the traditional weaver community of Padmasalis and Devangas who have attained, over generations, a high degree of skill in weaving double Ikat. The data confirmed that the majority of respondents started learning finer nuances of the craft of weaving and dyeing between the ages of 9 and 10 years.
As whole households are involved in the weaving process, most of them inherited the know-how from their fathers and grandfathers. A few attended various training programmes conducted in the village, learning the Alizarin process used for traditional Telia Rumal. Most Telia weavers worked for master weavers as job workers and relied entirely on them for supply of raw material. Traditional Alizarin dying was at its decline as most used synthetic, fast dyes. Only 15 per cent weavers were aware of the natural Alizarin process although they do not practice it as it is time consuming, offers negligible returns and cannot withstand the production levels of new synthetic dyed fabric.
Very few weavers want to teach Ikat weaving to their children. The young members of the family were inclined towards office jobs which are less laborious and have more assured returns. Production is based on demand. They use all counts of yarn starting from 20s, used for bed sheets and furnishing. Yarn count of 80 is mainly used for dress material though a few better trained weavers work on 120s mercerised cotton and are even using silk to produce superior quality materials and saris.
Tools and equipments
All the respondents worked on fly shuttle pit looms called Maggan, made of teak wood. Almost all the looms were more than 25 years old but there were no power looms for Telia production.
Dyeing Telia Rumal
Alizarin dyeing, which is a mordant style of dyeing, is used to produce traditional red and black colour. It requires pre-treatment of yarn which, in turn, needs 15-16 days of processing before dyeing. This information was shared by Padmashree Master Weaver of Telia, Shri Gajam Govardhan of Puttapaka, Telangana.
Pre-Treatment of Yarn
The yarn is steeped for 24 hours in the solution prepared with sheep dung or cow dung. Then, it is dried. Foreign matter is removed by shaking the yarn. Castor seed shells are burnt and mixed vigorously with water for a clear solution after precipitation. Then, this solution is mixed with ginger oil to make it thick. The yarn treated with dung solution is now soaked in the above in small quantities and worked for about 15 minutes, squeezed and dried. Thereafter, the whole process is repeated, in the sun, for 16 days, before washing and drying. Now, the yarn is ready for preparation of warp and weft. This process makes the yarn completely saturated and soft. The castor seed pod ash contains alumina which ensures richer, deeper and intense red colour, when dyed with Alizarin. Thus, the yarn develops a typical oily smell which leads to coining of the square pieces as Telia (or oily) Rumal.
The double Ikat technique used for manufacturing Telia Rumal is distinctive for its geometric patterns following a grid. The design is first worked on graph paper while details like number of threads and colour scheme are calculated. The frame is marked for warp and weft yarn. The resist design in different colours is possible by tying with cotton or rubber strings. The tied yarn is then dyed in a bath prepared with equal quantities of alum --- which is used as a mordant --- and Alizarin. The dyeing process takes two to three hours at 60 degree celsius, and the yarn has to be steeped for twelve hours to get the correct shade of red. The yarn is then squeezed uniformly, washed the next day and dried.
The yarn is again tied with rubber strips according to the design and treated in a solution prepared with equal quantities of Alizarin and Earakasu for two hours at 60 degree Celsius. This gives produces the colour black. The yarn is then squeezed uniformly, washed and dried.
The tied colour warp is then dressed on a fly shuttle pit loom. The tie and dye yarn is interlaced with the warp according to the graph pattern to get the original design on fabric.
The traditional Telia Rumal is restricted to three colours: Red -- anything from crimson to orange, brown-red and maroon, natural colour and black or dark blue. Sometimes, there is a hint of yellow or orange or pink. If the patterned centre is predominantly dark, then the plain outer border is red. If the centre is predominantly red, the outer border is kept dark. These plain borders have delicate white lines that cross at the corners of the kerchief to form a fine grid created by the Ikat process.
Telia Rumal weavers use a variety of images based on the sub-divisions of a square. The dot, square, cross, chevron, rectangle and various step motifs are common. Initial patterns were strictly geometric but figurative designs of lions, elephants, birds even clocks and aeroplanes, which required higher weaving skills, came in after the 1930s.
Telia Rumal to Pochampalli Ikat
Telia Rumal has an interesting journey. It evolved at Chirala, an ancient weaving centre, and moved on to Pochampalli, a town several hundred miles away. In the nineteenth century, Chirala seems to have been the primary centre for Telia production in Andhra Pradesh. Chirala developed its own Ikat style with an enormous variety of designs and a fascinating double Ikat technique.
In the first half of the twentieth century, manufacture expanded from more or less local markets to export markets where they were valued for their oil treatment courtesy Alizarin dyes as this keeps the head cool, wards off dust and softens with every wash. Thousands of cloths were exported under the trademark Asia-Rumal to the Middle East, and as far as East Africa and the island of Lamu in northern Kenya.
Historians agree that the technique spread westward to meet higher export demands, from Chirala to Ponchampalli, Nalgoda District, Andhra Pradesh. In 1915, two practitioners went to Ponchampalli to train other weavers in Rumal production. In the beginning, these secondary centers were of minor importance in Telia Rumal production for both local consumers and export. After Independence, they developed into flourishing centres of the Ikat craft.
With time, the production methods and details of Ikat produced in different places began to vary. There are many local variants in choice of raw materials used to prepare, group and wrap weft and wrap threads and in the dyeing process. Chirala Telia Rumal used coarser cotton which could withstand rigorous mordant dyeing procedure where they used Alizarin with alum for the traditional crimson red. The white was changed to muddy white because of the pre-treatment procedures given to the yarn. This is now the identity for Telia Rumal.
The modern evolution in Pochampalli, Puttapaka and other villages of Nalgonda District indicates rationalisation that began with change in dyeing material. The old Alizarin dyeing was replaced by synthetic dyes. This led to decrease in dyeing time so results were quicker and made better economic sense. Though it lost its cooling properties, yet colours are fast. This further led to use of finer mercerised yarns up to 120s count which suited contemporary demand and lifestyle. It also allowed the rather recent use of silk yarn.
Today, what began with a handkerchief produces a broad range of textile products in different qualities. This includes saris, loin cloths, yardage material and piece goods such as handkerchiefs, table cloths and bed sheets, made of coarse or medium cotton or cheap staple yarn, up fine mercerized cotton or silk.
More recently, better devices for warping and grouping warp sets contributed to more flexibility. Newly developed semi-circular frames for wrapping, unwrapping and reeling Ikat weft yarn and improved fly shuttle pit looms with higher output kept up the momentum. Modern wrapping material such as rubber bands and plastic strips made Pochampalli India's versatile Ikat producer and simultaneously, led to the downfall of Chirala Telia Rumal which could not adapt to newer methods of production. It failed to compete with the cheap, chequered, Singapore loin cloths or kawila lungi, printed mill-made Telia Rumal imitations and Patola designs which became serious rivals to take the once-flourishing trade head on.
Another reason for the enormous success of Pochampalli Ikat is rooted in its efficient economic organisation. The sunrise industry in Pochampalli and its neighbouring villages developed a strong co-operative organisation and a more efficient marketing system. Products were sold through diverse channels and to a variety of different upper and middle class clientele. Peddlers, private dealers and co-operative society shops supplied the local market. Nowadays, private and government stores in Hyderabad sell to private clientele from the city and to customers abroad and even send the fabric to other big Indian cities. That is why the Patola-style saris may be found in any important handicraft shop.
(The production clusters are in Prakasam district: Chirala, Nalgonda district: Puttapaka, Koyalagudem, Choutupal)
Save the Telia
Telia Rumal has seen significant ups and downs. Nevertheless, it is still one of the most vibrant and vital aspects of the contemporary Ikat style of Andhra Pradesh.
This traditional craft meant for use by the marginalised group of local people in Chirala, lagged because they had low sense of decoration. It was hit by meagre demand, lengthy production procedures and little market support. It also languished from a lack of adaptability to new customer demands and lifestyle.
Post Independence, Ikat production spread in Andhra around the Pochampalli cluster because it provides better marketing to both the domestic and export market. During the course of the journey from Chirala to Pochampalli, it lost its distinctive cooling property which made it famous worldwide. Use of natural and sustainable dyeing procedures require immediate attention if we are to revive old methods with better yarn quality and design vocabulary.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Purva Khurana is Associate Professor, Dr. Suman Pant is Professor and Dr Chanchal is Reader at National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi (NIFT).