The making of Tirupathi Kodais – Part 2

IMG_0100.JPGThis circular bamboo rim for the umbrella base spans from 4.5 ft to 18 feet, and knotting to open out and close the umbrella is an art that has be learnt on the ground.

A layer of canvas, Gada cloth goes in to the inner and outer lining. Finally a pure white jacquard layer finishes the look inside the rim, and a cream and gold in the outer rim. The ends of the umbrella are finished with a bright red lining, with tassels hanging to give a decorative look. The tassels are done by the women folks at home. Finally the inner side of umbrella is embellished with velvet strips and gold coloured lace designs.

Adhesives play an important role and the entire designs in velvet in the inner circular dome are stuck to the fabric. (During older times, they used an organic paste made from tamarind seeds or Puliyankottai, which is replaced with Fevicol now )


Every year they try to innovate with new designs, but the temples insist on sticking to traditional motifs. The artists don’t want to reveal the motifs and keep it as a surprise until the “Kodai poduthal” ceremony happens.

Both appliqué work and hand embroidery is used for designs within the umbrella.


One more type of umbrella made for temples and religious heads are these “Kerala Umbrellas” made in colourful velvets.



The making of Tirupathi Kodais – Part 1

The umbrella is a traditional Indian symbol of royalty of protection. The greater the number of umbrellas, the higher the royalty’s rank, and traditionally thirteen parasols defined the status of a king.  As the umbrella is held above, it symbolizes honour and respect.

For the Raja upachara of Hindu gods, we offer “Chatram, Chamaram, Vadhyam and Nrithyam” (umbrella, fanning, music and dance) – The utsava murthys will step out  without a “”Chatram” or umbrella; the final upachara will be fanning for the gods with a fly whisk or a “Chamaram

It is a sight to behold to see the gigantic milky-white umbrellas over deities in a procession.  There is a famous colloquial saying that “Sri Rangam Nadai Azhagu, Kancheepuram Kudai Azhagu, Thirupathi Vadai Azhagu, Mel Kotai Mudi Azhagu, and Azhagar Malai Dhosai Azhagu


Iyya Mudali Street in Chindradripet makes special set of  umbrellas to Lord Venkateshwara for the annual 12 day Brahmotsavam festival. During this time at Tirumala, the Lord’s utsava vighraham is taken on procession twice a day – one in the day time, and again in the night with the appropriate vahanam.

Nine pairs of huge umbrellas, which span 9 feet are given by various donors to the Lord of Tirumala, and each day a new umbrella is used. The most important days in the Brahmotsavam are the fifth, eight an eleventh – the fifth day is the Garuda Seva, the car festival or “rathotsavam” is on the eight day and on the eleventh day, the processional deity is taken to Swami Pushkarini for a bath.

The umbrella protects the lord from sun and rain. The temple authorities guard the Lord dearly and you can notice that they even take “Koodarams” or tent along (as a backup) in the procession, and in case of sudden rains, the deity is brought under the tent

Iyya mudali street artistans keep these tirupathi kodai designs and embellishments as a surprise factor, mostly secret, especially for the main huge umbrellas. Orders are in huge demand for smaller umbrellas too from donors who wish to offer these to the Lord as a mark of thanksgiving. This has made lot of youngsters from the Saurashtrian community continue their family profession.

The yearly practice of carrying the umbrellas and walking all the way to Tirupathi starts from Kesava Perumal temple in Sowcarpet. On September 21st this month, we can view this spectacle of the jewelled parasols being carried to Tirumala Brahmotsavam, and the sighting the entire crowd singing and dancing, crying out “Govinda Govinda” at Yanai Kavuni – “Elephant Gate” is awesome!

The trade is run by the artist clan who have “Sah” as their surname, and about 15 families who live on this street are actively engaged. Tirupati kodais are entirely handmade – right from the frame, to the layering of cloth in the inner and outer rim being hand stitched to this frame, and mostly the work is carried out by men. The toughest part is the making of the bamboo frame, the thick bamboo is split into lean strips and sharpened..

More in Part 2..

Handlooms & information age…. Any connect?

Charles Babbage had a new exhibit in his gallery. An unassuming portrait of an inventor in his workshop, sitting in a luxurious chair, holding a pair of calipers against long strips of cardboard that have tiny holes punched in them. On the wall you can see the chisels, tools and rolled up plans. Is it an engraving?


In 1842, he invites the Duke of Wellington and Prince Albert  to see the portrait. Because it would help him in explaining the nature of his calculating machine – the Analytical engine.

He then informs the Duke that the portrait is not an engraving, but a woven piece of fabric. Yes, this is the portrait is of Joseph Marie Jacquard, the inventor of the jacquard loom – the worlds first automatic machine for weaving elaborate and beautiful images in to silk – and this portrait was woven on his loom!

Jacquard’s father was a master silk weaver in Lyons, France and to accommodate different weaving patterns (say for eg., roses or violets), he turned to inventing and demonstrated the final version of a draw loom in Paris Industrial exhibition in 1801, and received a bronze medal too.

In 1805 came the famous punched card device which is attached to a regular hand loom and operated simply by two treadles. And, this invention was greeted with hostility by Lyon weavers who thought it would destroy their employments; they burnt many models. But by 1812, there were over 18000 looms equipped with Jacquard heads, and the great french silk industry revived. In 1819 he received the Legion of Honour, and the very next year this technique was introduced in England.

Now coming back to South India, can you recognize these bridal photo sarees? This might not be exactly our cup of tea, but still..

Bridal phto

Sirumugai cluster specializes in bringing portraits to woven sarees – for special occasions!


Ikats of India – Orissa – Part 2

The two main distinct yet important weaving clusters are Sambalpur and Nuapatna. The migratory Bhulia weavers (Mehers) are in Sambalphur while the Patra Community occupy Nuapatna. Let’s look at the major weaves – Sambalpuri, Nuapatna, Koraput and Bomkai.

The basic form of ikat in Orissa is the weft ikat, and look at the “kumbha’ borders – it could have been invented a substitute for woven techniques.


Sambalpuri Ikats

Indira Gandhi was the best ambassador for Sambalpuri ikats.  And her last journey was in one.

Indira death.jpg

Sambalpur is one of the major weaving clusters, was earlier a part of Chattisgarh (Central Province), and famous for its tussar silk. But the most famous is its  mercerised cotton ikats. One of the distinguishing feature is the usage of black colour both in border and pallu in Sambalpuris, and the traditional motifs of fish, conch, shell, birds, animals and floral designs are predominant in border/pallu.

The two traditional and very popular versions of Sambalpuri are : Sakatpar and Bichitrapuri desings.


In this Sakatpar design, spot this striking ikat checkerboard designs. Observe closely, the sakatpar (Checks) is warp and weft ikats, while the black band in between ( the fish portion) is warp ikat.

The Pallu is weft ikat – five broad bands of ducks, fish, flowers, see how it overlays the warp design. Again the border is weft ikat!

The checkerboard designs are also called Pasapalli  – signifying the board dice game, an auspicious symbol and is traditionally played by the bride and groom after the wedding

Similar to this is the Bichitrapuri designs – “Bichitra” or patterned ikats – instead of checker boards, this will have alternating rows of warp ikat designs, with weft ikat pallu


Nuapatna sarees

This area around Cuttack is famous for its silk, and so you can find beautiful silk ikats in tussar. The range of colours in Nuaptana is more than Sambalpur. The weaver communities are Gaudia Patras and Asani Patra (Patra refers to the traditional occupation of weaving. Two famous Nuapatna textiles are Gita Govinda and Khandua Patta.

Gita Govinda ikats


(took this picture in valluvar kottam exhibition from an orissa weaver – the length and breadth is  huge to accomodate the deities, and costs around 60k)

The calligraphic ritual textile offered to Puri Jagannath. It is said that the poet Jayadeva himself initiated the practice of inscribing the verses on the cloh as a temple offering. A report of 1719 refers to the silk as “Bandha Gita Govindha” meaning that the verses were tied and dyed in ikat.

The Gita Govinda cloths are done in different sizes, colours and dimensions for each of the three deities, usually woven by the Buddhist weaves. The verses are mostly in Oriya script, sometimes they use Devanagari also.

Khandua Patta – Earlier worn by the brides as a shoulder cloth, these designs have been adapted to silk ikats. Observe closely to see the temples are actually weft ikats


Now to the tribal Koraput or Kotpad sarees :


The coarse cotton sarees from the Koraput region sport the tribal designs and used to be dyed with natural dye colours. Now you get all the colorful versions. The motifs woven are birds, flowers and animals.

Most of the tribal sarees are in offwhite, but some of them are in deep red colour, which is extracted from the root of the “aal” trees. The tribal sarees of the Koraput-Bastr region are in heavy count, and the height was also short (as the tribes wore it short length). Look at the three shuttle interlock patterning in the border with Kumbha motifs, predominantly done in unbleached cotton (white), deep red derived from Aal or madder darkened with the addition of iron sulphate.

Finally to the Bomkai saree – Named after a village, this is one of the rare original weaves of Orissa, woven in pit looms. These thick cottons have extra weft designs on the pallu – peacocks, parrots, trees, flowers, fishes. The weft panels are called as “Mukta Panji” which is “Panel of diamond beads”, and this was so named after the village in which it was created. There is no ikat in the body unlike other sarees, but the pallu is long and striking, with panels of different coloured warps!

Bomkai silk.jpg

This is a Bomkai coarse cotton design, and with this I wrap up the Orissa ikats!



Ikats of India – Orissa – (Part 1)

From an inscription dating back to 600 BC found in Khandagiri caves, we learn that Utkala (Orissa) was known worldwide for expertise in weaving.

Orissa was created in 1948, carved out of the existing Central province and Madras Presidency.

Sambalpuri ikats2.jpg

(The fine curvilinear sambalpuri ikats, a national award winning design)

The Orissa ikat is known as “bandha” (tie & dye) and what’s unique is that the designs are reflected on both the sides in  sharper & finer count yarns. The striking resemblance of the temple border known as the “Kumbha” – the three shuttle method of weaving is so predominant, as in the neighbouring states of Andhra and TN.


Out of the different types of ikats produced in India, Bandha of orissa stands out. Not only because of its designs – but because of the tie and dye process and its expression, which is a poetry on the loom!  In Bandha, the motifs used are mostly inspired from nature, and the designs are the same as in front and the back.


(The huge 9×9 wheel of Konark Sun temple, the temple was referred as Black Pagoda by the travellers, and Tagore rightly mentioned “Here the language of stone surpasses the language of human”).

Bandha is the reflection of Orissa’s tradition, social norms and all above, one can watch in awe when the entire city looks up to the huge temple tower of Puri Jagannath, where the arati is shown atop its tower every evening around 6 pm, when the flag is hoisted on the Neel Chakra with a single mantra –  “Jai Jagannath” – See how the design has percolated in this saree!


The lion motif is taken from the Singha Dwar – the lions guarding at the gates of Jagannath. The four adornments of Jagannath – Sankha (conch shell), Chakra the divine wheel (also the Konark wheel), Padma, the lotus and Gada (the mace) are found as motifs.


(Pic Credit – V&A Museum)

Orissa sarees broadly can be categorized in to three types of designs :

  1. Architectural designs – embellishments found in temple walls, gateways – major influence being Konark sun temple and a host of other major temples in that region
  2. Religious designs – Depictions of various deities and motifs associated with them, especially with the Jagannath culture ( eg., the motifs of DasaAvathara, Shanka, fish, kumba, elephant, bird, lion, lamp, dice motifs depicted in the pallu
  3. Landscape designs – Flora & animal designs

In the next part, let’s see the various clusters and major weaves..



The blog would be incomplete without a Rath Yatra, (a painting from V&A)

Is this MS Blue?

She sang the thousand names of Vishnu, and she continues to give power to our daily lives through her Suprabhatams, and each and every bit of song. And all we remember is the colour of a saree, MS Blue!

None of her official website, or The Hindu’s special publication show the MS blue colour of her saree – Except the book of Shakunthala Ramani of Kalakshetra – (the saree has a copper sulphate or Anandha blue hue with Navy blue (Rettai pettu) border)


These two pictures below are from the The Hindu’s special publication MS Revisited – There is no mention of MS blue here either. 

image1 (1)


Two years back when I did the Textile trail of T.Nagar, Shri Nalli mentioned the story of how MSS walked with a particular shade of blue with a sample silk yarn. According to him, this exquisite MS Blue shade was an interplay of 7-8 colours of blue pigments, and of course Muthu Chettiar wove the saree for her.  She would never wear anyone else’s sarees, you see! She would never touch a “kumbakonam saree”, and for her it was always a “Kanjeevaram” saree..

Google for MS Blue colour, each retailer defines their own MS Blue lexicon. 

When I met Mrs. Gowri Ramnarayan recently, I inquired whether the family had an old sample of the famous MS Blue. There was none.

The below picture of MF Husain who dedicated her portrait in 2004 at Madras – It shows her in a deep red sari, with the trademark nose and earrings, and jasmine strands in her “Kondai”. What he mentioned was more interesting – ” Thirty years ago, the Benares universtiy honoured her with a doctorate. She sang for just two minutes. It was so divine, I can never forget it in my lifetime”


For me, the below photo in black and white evokes so many emotions than her MS blue saree. The spritual connect makes us yearn for whatever MSS wore or sang.

The picture is before the recording of Venkatesa Suprabhatam, and she learnt the perfect pronunciation from the Sanskrit tutelage of Agnihotram Thathachari Iyengar


Ikats of Andhra

 The term ikat is from Malay – “Mangikat”meaning to bind, knot or wind.

The quiet town of Puttapakka and Koyyelgudam (Nalgonda district) is  home to Single and double ikats of Andhra, and the Telia Rumal; their stunning and precise geometric patterns conveys the dexterity and experience of the weavers!

The yarns are pre-dyed in both single and double ikats. The reason why double ikats are expensive is that both warp and weft threads are tied and dyed separately (which calls for precision) and precision in weaving to match the designs in warp and weft (matching the axis of a pointed star, or any other pattern as the case may be).

Chirala was the oldest center for weaving, which was a part of yesteryears’ Madras Presidency. The famous Telia Rumals and chowkas (diamond within a sqaure) were worn by the Indian fisherfolk, cowherds as lungis, loincloths and turbans. In 1930’s, there were exported to Burma, Middle east and east aftrica and they were known as Asia Rumal.

The unique differentiation in a Telia rumal is the pre-treatment of yarn before dying. The yarn is soaked in castor oil or gingelly oil, and the dye spreads uniformly and gives a density to the color. And also helped the fisherfolks in their fabrics being water-resistant to a certain degree.

Double ikat tie and dye, translation of designs, mathematical precision lies in the unsaid technical brilliance of the dyers and  weavers. See how the fine silk double ikat designs are translated to weft first, and with the aid of graphs.

Weft 1.jpg


And the technical brilliance of the handloom weavers come in when they actually match the warp precisely over the weft – and so that’s why its called a double ikat!

Double ikat silk.jpg

Puttapakka has about 25000 weavers, and the good news is the demand exceeds supply. And the market and unique designs goes to the master weavers first. The weavers prefer to work on silk double ikats than cottons because of the wages!

Had a chance to meet the master weaver, “Gajam Anjaiah” – he is the National award winner for 1987, Sant Kabir Award 2010, Padma Shri Award 2013!

In a simple khadi white shirt, smile and sundara telugu, he shows and explains the award winning 16 symbol motif saree of Jainism.

Gajam Anjaih

And see his video of the making of this saree!


Colors – Synthetic Pigments

Colours pervades all aspects of our lives. In textiles, there are in the form of colorants.

Dyes and Pigments together are referred as colorants. First we look at two synthetic colorants which ruled the world – Egyptian blue and Prussian blue..

Synthetic colorants have an ancient history – the Egyptian blue is the first ever artificial pigment – Made of Silica, lime and copper which brings the colour! They added the gemstone pigments in to their paintings, ceramic ware and tombstones.

Featured image: Egyptian blue shown in an image of Ramses III 1170 BC


It was also known as “Alexandria blue” – For Egyptians it was the color of heavens, associated with Nile, and the luminescence of blue was due to Lapis Lazuli, which made it expensive!


Prussian Blue was the first modern synthetic pigment – also called as “engineer’s blue”, and used in blue prints, laundry bluing and of course it was the uniform of Prussian army too. It was first synthesized by Diesbach, a German dye producer.


Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night uses Prussian and Cerulean blue pigments



An outstanding puppeteer who keeps entertaining and educating

My Article in Grassroots (June 2017) issue of Press Institute of India.

The Kamala Award for contribution to crafts instituted by The Crafts Council of India in 2000 honours senior craftspersons for their contribution towards the development of traditional craft and training of younger people. One of the senior awardees this year is M.R. Ranganatha Rao from Karnataka. At 85, his eyes light up as he recalls Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay playing a pivotal role in his decision to take up puppetry as a full-time profession, and quitting his government teaching job.


M.R. Ranganatha Rao broke family traditions to teach all aspects of puppetry and, along with his wife, trained artisans and troupes in puppet-making, script-writing, music and costume-designing. As a child, Ranganatha was intrigued to see his grandfather, Narasingha Rao, handling the puppets with such dexterity which brought them to life, enthralling the village audiences.

Though he had a basic training in puppetry in the family, he went on to teach History in government secondary schools. Backed by an academic background in drama and theatre and a career as a schoolteacher, it was natural for Ranganatha Rao to use puppets as a medium of expression to teach children in school. Rao vividly recalls the day when he attended a talk by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay when she mentioned the mastery of his grandfather’s art form and enquired about his whereabouts. Rao was forty years old then. After the talk, he introduced himself to Chattopadhyay and provided an update about the treasured puppets carved by his grandfather. He also spoke to her about the traditional art of ‘rod puppets’ of Karnataka. Chattopadhyay, the remarkable woman who had resurrected the disappearing art craft and theatre forms in India, insisted that she be driven to his ancestral home to have a look at his grandfather’s puppets. She took a look at the treasured puppets of his grandfather’s popular Bhama Kalapam. On the way back, Chattopadhyay convinced and encouraged Rao to quit his teaching job and take to puppetry as a full-time profession.


(Rao’s son, Chaitra Kumar, has quit his job, like his father, to continue the heritage art form)

The word ‘puppet’ in Sanskrit is derived from the word putta, which is equivalent to putra (son). As an art form, puppetry is more diverse than painting, sculpture, dance, song or story, and includes most of them. So, Rao had to equip himself with an additional honour’s degree in Kannada to script to new plays and songs for presenting different puppet stories.

Indian puppetry takes one of the four forms – glove, rod, string and shadow. Rao’s family specialises in rod puppetry. The rod puppet is the most difficult to manipulate because they are one of the largest puppets measuring three feet tall and weighing about 15 kilos. The entire movement is controlled by two thin rods attached to the two hands of the puppet. The artist also wears a circular ring on his head to make flexible manipulations to make life-like movements of the puppet’s head and body. Not only that, the feet movements have to be fluid, mingling with the characters of the story.

The traditional art form was kept a secret with an individual family. They had a unique style of rendition and motion of puppetry, and specialised in a particular mythological theme, along with lyrics and music. The master pulled the strings literally, from composing the story to writing the dialogues and setting up the stage, apart from carving the wooden puppets and designing the costumes as well.

Rao’s grandfather’s puppets weighed 15 kilos, and to make the craft more effective, Rao conceived new puppets with indigenous raw material. He used different kinds of wood to carve the entire puppet. A lighter wood for the body, with the traditional wood used for the puppet’s face and arms!


Puppets don’t have legs,” says Rao, “the costume or a long skirt covers the length to give it a full appearance.” Originally when the Bommallatam performances took place in the open without a stage, the feet of the puppeteer would become those of the puppet, showing from under its long skirt. The storyteller, or Bhagavata, sang throughout the performance and sat with the musicians – a drummer, a violinist and a harmonium player – behind the stage. Sometimes, the puppeteers themselves would speak on behalf of their puppets.

Along what has been a wonderful journey, Rao has built an expert team of performers and singers to make a wholesome mini theatre of rod puppets bound in the ethos of traditional folk music and culture. The mythological stories in the art form always revolve around Lord Krishna, he mentions. His popular and his personal favourite is Krishna Parijatha, the story of how Krishna brought the divine flowering tree of parijatham from heaven for his wife Sathyabama.

Meticulously, he explains the three mythological stories – one before and after Krishna Parijatha, the prior story of Narakasura, and the latter story of Thulabaara where Rukmini explains the value of thulasi. Clearly, you can see the passion in his storytelling.

Starting from the 1970s, Rao and his troupe toured around the country conducting shows, lecture demonstrations and workshops to prove that the rod puppet could be a wonderful medium of entertainment and education. And went to Delhi, too, at the invitation of Chattopadhyay. In recognition of his work and contribution to rebuild the art form, the Sangeet Natak Academy conferred Rao with a national award in 1981.

With a series of international tours representing India to global audiences, Rao was also associated with the Swiss Puppet Museum in Fribourg. The Indian giant puppet that he made in Switzerland with locally available material for the 25th anniversary of the museum was a huge popular attraction.

Proudly, Rao introduces his wife, Gayathri. She is the costume and jewellery designer for all the characters of the puppets. She explains how the beautiful jadai alankaram and an entire sari is draped fresh for each and every performance.

Rao’s puppets are displayed in prominent museums around the world including the Victoria Albert Museum (UK), Swiss Puppet Museum (Fribourg, Switzerland), Tokyo Puppet Museum (Japan) and China Puppet Musem (Beijing). The Karnataka State Rajyotsva Award for 2016 and the Kamala Award from the Crafts Council of India this year speak volumes about his contribution to the field of puppetry.


Nehru’s style

Today is Nehru’s 52nd death anniversary.


The ashes of Nehru were strewn in the sacred Ganges river as per his will – “A handful of ashes to be thrown in the Ganges, not because of religious sentiment, but because he “had been attached” to the river since childhood. The ashes of his wife, Kamala, who died 28 years before him was also immersed in Allahabad. He had kept a small casket of ashes in his bedroom since her death. Indian Air Force planes had scattered his remaining ashes “over the fields where the peasants of India toil”

Have a glimpse of his will at

As the ashes drifted in to the water, a single cannon was fired from Akbar’s fort and a military band on a floating barge played “Abide with me” a favorite christian hymn of Nehru’s. Twelve minutes before nine, Nehru’s teenage grandsons Rajiv and Sanjay emptied the ashes in to muddy waters. Indira Gandhi, and Nehru’s two sisters Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hutheesing – all clad in white saris of mourning, emptied basket of rose petals and marigolds in to the water!

The pink khadi sari woven by Nehru when he was in jail is a family heirloom was worn by Indira on her wedding day, then by Sonia in 1968, and then by Priyanka in 1996!


Discarding the boater and harlequin jacket, Jawaharlal Nehru took to the swadeshi uniform of the Congress with all the passion of a new convert. From 1921 to 1947,  he wore the Khadi Dhoti-kurta. After 1947, the dhoti never re-entered his wardrobe, and was replaced by long achkan/sherwani and a tight churidhar. The distinguishing look was the “mandarin collar” and a signature style red rose in the buttonhole of his sherwani.


In the early 1970’s, the Beatles made it popular, and Sean Connery wore it in Dr No, and the villain Kamal Khan in Octopussy donned a similar jacket. Look at the Sears ad!



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