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Divine decorations

It is a sight to behold whenever a temple car rolls down the streets with the `thombai' swaying in gentle breeze, writes T. SARAVANAN

Collage by J. Sahaya Vincent

NO TEMPLE festival is complete without the temple car and no temple car is complete without the `thombai' — the cylindrical-shaped hanging decorations filled with appliqué work.

The applique is a collage of colourful fabrics and intricately woven designs. Essentially, the decorative art requires sewing small and separate pieces of cloth into one big frame. The bright colours selected for the purpose are eye-catching and the design created is appealing.

Given the nature of work, majority of the appliqués are ornamental in character. The `thombais' are traditionally used in South Indian temples as decorative hangings particularly during major festivals or any other grand occasion.

The craft is practiced all over India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. The themes and designs differ from State to State. From geometric designs to floral and images of Gods and Goddesses, the appliqué art is exemplary.

The traditional form from Punjab is called the `phulkari', which means blossoming, as the surface of the cloth resembles flowering petals. In Andhra Pradesh, the dress of Banjara tribal women are not only embroidered but also decorated with appliqué and mirror work. In Rajasthan, it is also known for its appliqué `gota', created by sewing the edges of `zari' ribbon on the fabric, to create elaborate patterns. It is commonly used for making costumes for women.

Basically a tailor-oriented craft, appliqué work flourished under royal patronage. The artisans stayed in temples for years together to finish a job on hand. The appliqué art is centuries old in the Temple City. It is estimated that thousands of families were involved in the business in Tamil Nadu. But now the community is almost extinct with only a handful of families carrying on this work of art and trying to make both ends meet. Majority of the people practising appliqué in yesteryears and their successive generations have moved out in search of greener pastures.

It is said that the kings engaged the craftspersons in the service of Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple and other big temples around Madurai. The King of Puri is believed to have even set up an exclusive village called Pipli for the appliqué craftsmen to live and earn their income.

In the olden days, the craftsmen used to make canopies, banners and umbrellas in appliqué for all major festivals held in Madurai's famous temple. As the craft's popularity spread far and wide through the mouth of pilgrims visiting the city, the craftsmen started making other decorative and utility items as well. "We are doing this work for generations. My father S.N.Vallimuthu Pillai dedicated his life and time only to this work. He used to visit temples and work there. In those days, there were no sewing machines and all the appliqué was done with hands. Therefore, it took more than a year to complete any single piece of work. But now, with the advent of sewing machines our job has become relatively easy," says V.Sundara Vadivel, from a family involved in this age-old business.

Pic by K. Ganesan

Various products of appliqué work such as `Thombai', `Vasamalai' (archwork), Thoranam (ornamental art work hung on door frames) etc., are used in the temple to enhance the aesthetic look.

"Not only the craftsman has to be a good tailor but should also be an artist with an ability to visualise his art. He has to create appliqué motifs in contrasting colours in the shape of animals, birds, flowers, minor deities and other geometric shapes. He is required to have a fair sense of symmetry, which is usually practiced on dazzling red, purple, yellow, green and white fabric. The base is usually in the shape of a square, a rectangle or a circle on which motifs are stitched in an aesthetic arrangement," he details the finer aspects of his job.

Esoteric techniques and colourful combinations are used in preparing the appliqué in order to enchant the devotees. Once the motifs are placed in order, the borders of the base are stitched in some bright contrasting colour. No wonder that the art involves enormous skills and depending upon the potential of the artisan the work is usually allocated. The more skilled get the job of creating intricate designs whereas the less experienced are given the simple jobs like stitching the borders and creating the base fabric.

"The Saivites and Vaishnavites have distinct difference in the appliqué work for the temple car. While the Saivite temple car is called as `Pattu Ther', the Vaishnavite temple car is known as `Alangara Ther'. The `thombai' of Saivite temple car will have the pictures of `lingam' and other related temple deities such as the `Nandi'," according to Sundara Vadivel.

The appliqué can also be made in silk and velvet, besides the traditional cotton. For the dedicated band of artisans, creating canopies and decorative umbrellas for temples is "something divine". However, at present, the appliqué craftspersons are in a precarious position and allow middlemen to ensure saleability of their products.

"The Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation's Poompuhar procures applique products but asks for credit which we cannot afford. Hence most of our workers encourage the middlemen in this business,"says Sundara Vadivel.

But certain organisations approach him directly also. Like the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department. He informs that the appliques made in Maudrai are also exported to Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka.

But due to paucity of funds, majority of the temples no longer ask for new appliqués for their temple cars and do with what they have in their stock," laments Sundara Vadivel, who is known for his exemplary work for the Thiruvarur Thiagaraja Swamy Temple Car considered to be the biggest in the State.

It is a sight to behold whenever a temple car rolls down the streets of the city with the `thombai' swaying in gentle breeze. They add colour to the festive occasion. When you see one next time, just remember the likes of Sundara Vadivel and his clan who are trying to keep an old tradition alive, howsoever hard it may be on their lives.

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