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Rooftop detail of a Chettinad mansion.

An interior courtyard of a Chettinad mansion.

An exterior view of a temple in Chettinad

An aathungadi tile created with soil from Tamil Nadu.

A woven kottan from Chettinad.

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Showcase 30 Apr 2013

Living craft traditions of Chettinad

From the palatial mansions and handmade aathangudi tiles to the textile and basket crafts, Chettinad’s rich cultural traditions permeate its architecture, spaces, and lifestyles.

Southern India’s rich architectural and craft heritage stems from the diversity of its traditions. These crafts, unique to each region, have grown and developed as a blend of influences, resources, and needs. The Chettinad region in the Sivaganga district of Tamil Nadu is a prominent cultural hub. Historically, the Chettiars were a banking and business community whose prosperity had resulted in thriving art and craft practices.  The living traditions of these crafts continue to provide inspiration for modern day architecture and design.

Chettinad Architecture 

The exposure from trade and commerce with various Southeast Asian countries, coupled later with colonial British influences, is reflected in the eclectic aesthetic of Chettiar architecture and interiors. The palatial homes, built in a heterogenous amalgamation of styles, are signature of a warm and welcoming, yet opulent and grand Chettinad. 

A massive mogappu or entrance to the home was built using wood or stone and would lead to multiple rows of kalyan kottais or open courtyards surrounded by spacious rooms. The smooth, highly polished walls were especially plastered with a locally made paste of egg whites. This in itself, a dying craft, is known as Madras plaster. Found inside these homes were intricately carved Burmese teak pillars, doors, and beams of colossal sizes. Furniture and lighting imported from Southeast Asian countries were used in conjunction with marble imported from Italy, cutlery from England, Victorian paintings, and indigenously produced aathangudi tiles. 

Following Burmese and Malaysian independence, trade and commerce opportunities for the Chettiars lessened and their economic stronghold was challenged, making it difficult to maintain their grand homes. Since their heyday, the number of Chettinad mansions have been fast dwindling, but efforts are being made to preserve its tradition and aesthetics. Besides conscious efforts to restore and preserve architectural sites, the traditional aesthetic continues to inspire design and decor for contemporary dwellings.

Aathangudi Tiles

Tamil Nadu’s characteristic soil is used to form the unique handmade tiles of Chettinad known as aathangudi tiles. The craft originated from the need to create an indigenous and cost effective replacement for the then imported Japanese and Belgian tiles. 

The glass of the tile is polished with daily use and over time gains a luminous quality. The tiles are a medley of bright playful hues together with more earthy tones. Aathangudi tiles are now used to impart a traditional touch to modern, urban spaces.

Kottans

Colourful Chettinad baskets called kottans are created using leaves from palmyra trees common in Tamil Nadu. Often, to offset the texture and colour of the dried and braided leaf, brightly coloured cotton fabric and beads are woven into the basket.  

There has been a concentrated effort to generate and renew interest in the kottan craft through upgrading and mechanising original craft processes, encouraging weaving as a vocation, and building new markets for Chettinad’s crafts.

Chettinad Saris

Traditionally, Chettinad saris are woven using cotton on a handloom. The weave produces a thick fabric with bold contrasting colours that are combined in stripes or checks. In the past, the width of the Chettinad sari used to be shorter than a typical sari, allowing jewellery around the ankles to be exposed. 

Nowadays, the processes used to craft the sari are being used to craft different forms of clothing. Zari and silk have been introduced into the once pure cotton sari, providing weavers with greater opportunities for experimentation with texture, pattern, and colour.

 

IMAGES
• All images courtesy Birgitte Riber Hald »flickr.com/ photos/36526739@N03/ with the exception of;
• Symphoney Symphoney » flickr.com/photos/ symphoney/110151813/ and
• The kottan basket, photographed by Codesign