01 Sep 2015 20:01 IST

The hidden treasures of T.Nagar

A lot more to offer than just silk and gold

There are usually a few typical things an outsider to the city associates with Chennai. Filter coffee. Silk sarees. Mahendra Singh Dhoni in the Chennai Super Kings team. Rajinikanth. And possibly the Lungi Dance song from the movie Chennai Express, thanks to a great deal of stereotyping by Bollywood.

The city’s culture and heritage are captured, every year, in the Madras Week celebrations which, this year, took place between August 15 and 23. The week was marked by a series of heritage walks, lectures, film and documentary screenings, and public shows. One of the heritage walks, held on Madras Day by textiles enthusiast and Chennai resident Sreemathy Mohan, focused on an area of the city that is rich in traditions of many kinds: Theagaraya Nagar, or T.Nagar. Known as the city’s crowded and bustling shopping district, T.Nagar has a lot more to offer than just silk and gold.

Handloom weavers of Tamil Nadu

As the capital of the State, Chennai is home to the Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society Ltd. (commonly known as Co-optex). Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, Co-optex has one lakh weavers as members and 200 showrooms across the country, with an annual turnover of ₹306 crore.

While Kanchipuram silk sarees remain the favoured choice among consumers and continue to be a trademark of the South, Co-optex weavers come from districts such as Thanjavur, Coimbatore, Madurai, and Salem. Contrary to the general belief, Co-optex’s range of products extends from silk sarees to organic cotton sarees, and even home textiles.

In order to recognise the skill and expertise of each individual weaver who is a member, Co-optex recently introduced a ‘Weaver Identity Card’ attached to all its products. This card displays a picture of the weaver responsible for creating the product.

Dedicated to women’s garments

Naidu Hall is a name synonymous with women’s garments in Chennai. Established in 1939 by MG Naidu, who developed a skill for designing and tailoring women’s innerwear, the once small establishment in Pondy Bazaar has now become a landmark, and has several branches across the city.

MG Naidu is said to have intricate and specialised knowledge in the design of women’s garments, especially the petticoat worn by women underneath a saree. While it may seem like a simple wraparound that is easily made, the technology and design are complex, and said to have been mastered by Naidu, and passed on to teams of tailors over generations.

A union of hawkers

T.Nagar is also well-known for its street businessmen, or hawkers. These sales-people have become an integral part of the area, conducting their business here for over 25 years. In 2013, the hawkers moved to a structure of their own, away from the streets, and became the East Usman Road Hawkers' Association. From imitations of brands to the cheapest wares anyone can find, these hawkers have it all.

The unique characteristic of these hawkers is the slang they have developed to interact among themselves and with their customers. While it may seem like gibberish to a buyer, it is, in fact, a play on the Tamil words, sometimes even a word said backwards (for example, the word they use to mean price, laive, is actually the word velai, said backwards).

A plethora of legacy

In addition to these establishments, the other clothing outlets we visited were Ramraj Cotton (the one-stop shop for dhotis and veshtis in the city), Palam Silks (famous for designing the costumes for Chennai Express).

The last stop was at the world-famous Nalli Silks, where the proprietor, Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti, runs the show with a childlike enthusiasm and passion for silks. During the visit, he displayed a replica of the Durbar Pet Kanchipuram silk saree gifted by his grandfather (Nalli Silks’ founder Nalli Chinnasami Chetty) to King George V in 1911. He concluded the walk by distributing copies of his book T Nagar, Andrum Indrum.

Recommended for you