Sungudi saris are traditional cotton saris from Tamil Nadu. There are defined by the pattern of block prints and tie and dye designs. The origins of Sungudi can be traced back to the Sourashtrians who brought the art with them when they migrated to South India. The dots in the saris are said to be inspired from the cosmos which is why most sungudi saris remind one of a starry night.
Tying the knots of the sari demands a great amount of precision from the craftsman. Ideally a three inch gap between the body and the zari border and also with the pallu lends a neat and symmetrical look to the crude dots. The designs are sometimes marked with a pencil on the fabric for ease in the process.
The Sungudi art has seven basic designs that can be modified with different permutations and combinations to provide variety and highlight the creativity of the craftsman. The smaller the dot the better the expertise and this comes only with extensive practice and time. In the early days people used rudimentary methods like tying the knots with mustard or peppercorn seeds. Although this seems like a rural and unpolished method, its success lay in its simplicity.
As in most traditional arts, the dyers had learnt everything they knew from the familial traditions passed down to them. Until recently most of the villagers practicing this were doing so without any formal training or organized process. Authentic Sungudi is more than just tying of knots. There is a lot of meticulousness that goes into producing a piece that looks effortless. Every stage from weaving to tying and dyeing is labour-intensive and time-consuming. Earlier, handwoven saris were dyed by the men in the backyards of their homes and the womenfolk worked the knots. Organic dye was created using a combination of dried flowers, leaves, tree bark, fruit peels and herbs. Different shades warranted a different combination of ingredients. These dyes once prepared would be boiled on firewood for many hours to make them pure.
Once the women tie the knots in the desired pattern, the sari is clamped. Clamping involves pleating, twisting, folding and wrapping it tightly before dyeing it for around two hours. Then the sari is subjected to two rounds of washing with cold water with an organic fixing agent followed by drying and ironing. The resultant fabric is a beautiful sheet like stars in the sky, a pure labour of love. Those still practicing the craft, want to pass on the skills and information to future generations but are not able to get a healthy response. From a community of 30,000 weavers and dyers during the independence era the workforce has trickled down to less than 200 who are struggling to keep the art alive.
By the 80’s the original art of hand tie and dye was slowly disappearing from Tamil Nadu as manufacturers began switching to chemical dyes, block prints and power looms. The simmering speed of production of the hand tie artisans was no match for this and as a result they became a dying breed. Work dwindled; newer generations of women lacked the patience and the passion to pursue the art. This left the weavers and dyers looking for external patronage to support them.
A decade ago the Crafts Council of India recognized the importance of the preservation of this art and gave the craftsmen the support they needed. Artisans were being provided with more structured training and the local craftsmen were also given guidance on how to market the products in a competitive scenario. In 2005 the art of Sungudi Tie and Dye got the GI recognition tag. Despite this, promoting the fabric has been a struggle.
Local Samaritans are heralding the preservation and promotion of the art now. More women are being encouraged to join in and create as many saris as possible for selling in the local, domestic and even international markets. The fabric's original purpose is for use as a sari, but now due to local demands it is also being used to make shirts, salwars, shawls, handbags and bed covers.