Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Silk shop

These days, it is easy to forget that Madras came into being because of cloth and weaving. A strong argument that Francis Day made for setting up a 'factory' at (what was to become) Fort St George was "excellent long Cloath and better cheape by 20 per cent than anywhere else" could be had from close by; and among the earliest settlements (if not actually the first one) that were made by the founders was a colony of weavers, out to the west of Fort St George. That colony, originally called chinna thari pettai (the place of small looms) is what is called Chindadripet today.

These days, it is not the long 'cloath' that visitors to Chennai want to take back with them, but something much less coarse and more elegant. Being just 70-odd kilometers away, the silk weavers of Kanchipuram had long ago hitched their star to Madras, at least for selling their products. In 1911/12, when King George V visited Madras, the weavers of Kanchipuram chose a certain Nalli Chinnasami Chetty to present the king a specially woven Kanchipuram Silk Saree. Chinnasami Chetty crafted a special border for this saree, naming it the 'Durbar Pet' (Coronation Border), because the King was visiting India for that reason. It is likely that Chinnasami Chetty was a trend-setter among the Kanchi weavers, for he was also one of the early adopters of chemical dyes manufactured by Geigy.

Keeping with that spirit of experimentation, Chinnasami was one of the first weavers to set up a sales outlet in Madras, eighty years ago. This store at Panagal Park came up much later, in 1951. But when a visitor to Chennai wants to go silk saree shopping, this is the place that he (yes, even 'he') or she thinks of. Nalli is no longer the only weaver to have an outlet in Madras; but with everyone else setting up their stores within shouting distance of this one, Nalli's pre-eminence in the silk saree business is pretty obvious!

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