Art in all its various forms has always been an integral part of Indian culture. From our exotic dances and unique music styles to our architecture and sculptures. Perhaps, this is why we were once revered worldwide for our handicrafts. Since ancient times, India has been trading artisan-produced goods. During the rule of the Mughals, India was one of the largest suppliers of textile goods and handicrafts. Each product of the loom was an exquisite work of art.
Unfortunately, British occupation and the Industrial Revolution turned India into an exporter of raw goods instead of a producer of finished products. The British used raw goods from India to manufacture goods in their home country. With the expansion of railways and roads, they were able to establish a market for their goods in India, reaching even interior areas. This affected our cottage industries, which were unable to compete with the mass-produced goods from Britain.
While cotton-weaving and spinning took the worst hit. Silk, woolen textiles, iron, pottery, glass, paper, metals, guns, tanning and dyeing industries were no exceptions. The decline of our cottage industries had a detrimental effect on our country’s economy. It also resulted in excessive dependency on our agriculture sector that we still haven’t recovered from.
In the current scenario, cottage industries have been exiled to the rural parts of our country, still struggling to stay afloat. Various factors have contributed to their depreciation including but not limited to improper infrastructure, labor intensity, minimum wages, need for innovative design and technology. Nevertheless, it is not beyond the scope of architecture to help revive these industries. Re-establishing cottage industries apart from creating revenue for the country will generate employment opportunities and therefore improve the standards of living in rural communities.
When we talk about development in a rural context. We must think past stable concrete structures and newly paved roads. Vernacular Architecture was wildly ingenious. Like cottage industries, vernacular houses are indigenous to the different regions, their planning based on the lifestyles of their occupants.
This is in contrast to the concrete structures that are a result of poorly executed development projects. They are of no use beyond the very basics for the people living in them. When we shift focus to developing sustainable rural communities, by boosting their small-scale industries we may lessen mass migration from rural to urban areas. Consequently, helping with overpopulation in cities and the urban housing crisis.
Pattamadai is a small town in Tamil Nadu known for its Korai mats. They were famous all around the world for their unparalleled craftsmanship. They were gifted to Soviet leaders, even Queen Victoria was gifted one. These mats are woven from Korai grass found on the banks of the Thamirabarani River. The grass is soaked in water, dried and stripped into strands for weaving. They are often dyed in bright colors and are woven into interesting geometrical patterns.
The most well-known of these is the Pattu Pai (Silk mat) which isn’t made of silk but instead strands of Korai that are so fine, they feel like silk. Despite its success in yesteryears, the craft is now progressively deteriorating.
The town itself is massively underdeveloped in most areas despite government housing schemes that ended up in the construction of small concrete houses with narrow streets and deplorable sewage system, the deplorable part of it is that there isn’t one, just open pits on the side of one-meter-wide streets. Women who were the primary weavers of these mats were no longer able to weave in their homes. They had to rent a common hall and walk to and from with the required materials to balance their work and personal lives, causing many of them to give up on it forever.
Before these development projects, these people had houses with a wide ‘thinnai’ which is Tamil for front porch. This is where they set up the weave. They also kept big barrels to soak their Korai grass in, in the courtyards which are also where they dyed the grass. Every part of their thatch house was an asset, a lending hand to their profession.
I must however give credit where it is due. The government has set up grants for handicraft communities such as this. And a private union of weavers has pooled resources to construct a community weaving center which is where most of the work happens today. By establishing architecture that caters to the needs of the people instead of hindering it we create a development that isn’t temporary. Rural community centers play a huge part in the upholding of small-scale industries in the country.
Another major problem is the low demand for these products. The factory-produced plastic maps are cheaper in comparison. As the world is surely but slowly shifting towards biodegradable products, it is possible to create demand for these products again. The weavers of Pattamadai have branched out to create purses, handbags and baskets in addition to the mats. They may discover more innovations in design through experimentation or collaborations with product designers.
Pattamadai is the only one town that I know of. There are hundreds of little towns and villages like this in India. Little pockets of sunshine, culture and vibrant history in need of a makeover to rise to their full potential because this country truly is incredible; not just because of its towering temples, or white marble tombs but because of its people and their art.