The M. Rm. Rm. Cultural Foundation
The Chettinad region in Tamil Nadu is considered the hometown of the Chettiar community, renowned for its business acumen and historical trade links across South East Asia. It is here that the seeds of a cultural revival have been sown by Visalakshi Ramaswamy and her M. Rm. Rm. Cultural Foundation.
When Visalakshi Ramaswamy set out to co-author a book called The Chettiar Heritage along with S. Muthiah and Meenakshi Meyappan, she found that the very heritage they were trying to document and photograph, was disappearing at a shocking rate. Traditional buildings were being razed to the ground or transformed beyond recognition. Craftspersons were giving up their skills to move on to better paying occupations or relocating to cities.
In the year 2000, Visalakshi Ramaswamy began the M. Rm. Rm. Cultural Foundation to ensure that these craftspersons from the Chettinad region were provided a steady income hoping that this would, in turn, infuse new life into those languishing traditions. The Foundation hopes to preserve the past by extensively documenting these traditions and hopes to also create future demand by roping in professionals and design students to contemporise the colours and design of the products.
In order to be a self-sustaining venture, the Foundation began work with the Kandaghi saree. The Kandanghi was traditionally woven as a thick drape, to be worn without a blouse or an in-skirt, and pleated at the back. The Foundation sourced old sarees from friends and family and then began the process of creating a design directory. The Foundation worked closely with weavers, even putting them on a payroll, to produce a more urban version, considerably lighter, and lending itself well to the contemporary saree wearing style. There is even a Kandanghi saree variety with a cotton body and a rich silk border, making it a comfortable alternative to all-silk sarees.
The Foundation is now reviving the Kottan palm leaf baskets, traditionally used for ritualistic purposes, and now repositioned as elegant gift boxes for weddings and Diwali. The Foundation coordinates with one local leader and about 5 groups of basket weavers. For every basket, a sequence of colour codes is communicated to the weaver who is able to reproduce this sequence in actual product. Every finished basket also has a tag with the weaver's name on it, to ensure accountability and maintain quality. Today, at least 100 of the 150 families that are into Kottan basketry, earn about Rs. 5000 a month.
Traditional Chettiar architecture makes use of the unique egg-lime wall plastering technique and handmade Athangudi floor tiles with floral and geometric patterns. The Foundation seeks to revive these crafts too, by documenting as well as creating enough demand for the craftsperson's skills. Ramu was one such craftsperson who now has one full-fledged Athangudi tile factory and is already setting up one more. A recent innovation is the use of wall stencils to create stenciled wooden ceiling panels that can be installed easily and dismantled to be moved elsewhere if required.
Visalakshmi Ramaswamy believes that marketing these products is not as much a challenge as ensuring craftspersons receive enough orders month on month to sustain their families and provide for their childrens' education. She hopes that through the Foundation, craftspersons will also gain the respect they truly deserve for their skills.
The products created by the M. Rm. Rm. Foundation are retailed through its store in Chennai, Manjal, named after the auspicious turmeric root.
An edited version appeared in Culturama's April 2012 Issue