CHENNAI: From the outside, Thari Aadaiyagam wears an unassuming facade — nothing to suggest the significant scale on which they work. On the inside, however, one is surrounded by stacks of handloom products sourced from artisans across Tamil Nadu. Leading the initiative is S Shanmugam, industrialist and Rotarian, who founded the organisation in 2017.
“Thari” is Tamil for the traditional loom, so there’s no beating around the bush as to what the organisation stands for. Just a few minutes into the conversation, Shanmugam is quick to point out that the shirt he’s wearing is also handwoven.
“In pre-industrialised Tamil Nadu, the economy relied chiefly on agriculture and handloom textiles. Places like Kanchipuram, South Arcot, Thanjavur, Tirunelveli and Aruppukotai were vibrant centres for handloom weaving, and their products were in great demand,” he said. The industrial revolution and automation, which brought with it the promise of faster products at a mass scale and quicker profits, made the time-intensive process of handloom clothing unfashionable. While colonial policymaking in the 19th and 20th centuries did much to dent the market for handspun, matters weren’t helped by homegrown industrialists who rode high on the increased profits of the new technology, or by the many co-operatives that were formed post-independence to provide support for the ailing craft.
Born into the craft
The resultant lack of demand for handloom meant weavers had to seek other means of livelihood, and one of them was Shanmugam. Born to a family of weavers in South Arcot, he has vivid recollections of learning the craft from his father. “The initial learning process is pretty tough, and you often end up with scalded fingers before achieving any mastery,” he recalls.
With the little money he earned from weaving, he managed to secure a college education, joining the ranks of several others in his community who had to leave their hereditary professions in search of better lives. “In the 1970s, there were about 1,500 weavers in that area. That number has now dwindled to 150,” he observes. After four decades as an industrialist, the time was ripe to go full circle.
Thari works on a no-profit principle. “Whatever profit we make is given to the weavers,” he says, adding that this is not something many handloom companies do. Thari also offers a higher remuneration for each product.
As Shanmugam took out samples from the stacks and spoke of each of them, it became obvious that he knows the craft inside out. The thickness of the yarn, how it affects the quality of the end product and hence its price, all became lucidly clear. Picking a lungi produced at a loom in Cuddalore, he explains the roughness of its texture resulting from the coarseness of the yarn.
“This is a 60-40, the least in terms of thickness. The quality is lower and so is the price.” He next took out a Vadacheri veshti, made of thicker yarn, which felt smoother on the skin. “This is 80-80, and one can already feel the difference,” he adds. The lush texture also meant a higher price.
Then there were the products meant for export. A bath towel was spread out on the table. “This one is 100-100, the best in terms of quality,” he says, and it was not hard to see why — it stood out in sharp contrast to the others in pure visual appeal. And it was headed for Germany. A sari from Tiruchy soon followed, again of noticeably superior quality, and shirts, half-sleeve and full-sleeve, of varying sizes and quality.
But it’s not all handloom at Thari. “We have a client base with varied requirements, all of which cannot be met by handloom products alone. Hence the t-shirts, innerwear and children’s clothing, sourced from mills ranging from Tirupur to Ludhiana,” he adds.
With fast fashion coming under the scanner these past few years, there has been a noticeable revival of interest in sustainable fashion, though such interest is limited to those who can afford the relatively higher price tag. Through Thari, Shanmugam hopes to widen the market for handspun both as sustainable clothing and as a way of giving back to the community where he has his roots.
Visit Thari at 7/12 CTH Road, Ambattur Industrial Estate; 10 am to 9 pm.