A Karuppur Sari

This article on rug and textile masterpieces looks at a little-known group of South Indian textiles woven for the Rajas of Tanjore. The author, Research Associate for Southeast Asian Textiles at the Textile Museum in Washington explains how their humble designs belie sophisticated weaving and dyeing techniques.

The Maratha rulers of Tanjore could have elected any of India’s fabled cloths of silk and gold as their court wear. That which was selected is remarkable for its apparent modesty in its choice of sombre red grounds of handspun cotton interworked with muted metallic yarns. These were the prerogative of the rajas and their consorts and served as royal gifts. Named for the village in which they were woven the Karuppur saris,(1) head wrappers and dhoti bring together the skills of weavers and dyers in a most remarkable type of textile, unique to this south Indian region.

The Textile Museum is fortunate to claim two of these textiles in its collections, a fragment of a sari and a complete sari.(2 )The latter is currently on display until 30 July 2006 in the exhibition ‘Seldom Seen: Director’s Choice from the Museum’s Collections’ introduced by Director Daniel Walker in HALI 145, pp.87-89.

A close inspection of the cloths belies an initial suggestion of modesty. In the course of weaving, metallic yarns were worked as supplementary wefts in certain areas of the white warp. These areas serve as the background for design elements or as the filling for designs, usually simple geometric forms. When removed from the loom, the design elements were outlined with a wax resist which, after dyeing, left a white outline to articulate the forms. These outlines are further enhanced with fine black and red lines created by mordants applied with a pen (kalam).

An understanding of the role of mordants and the construction of these metallic yarns contributes to an appreciation of what endows these textiles with their very subtle quality. A mordant permits the colouring agent in a dye to bind with a cotton fibre. In the Karuppur instance, alum combined with madder for the red, and iron, when steeped with an acidic substance, yielded a mordant that would combine with tannin to create black.(3) In the process of applying the alum mordant the metallic yarn was also affected. As is customary, the metallic yarn is a strip of metal wrapped around a core which may be silk, a plant fibre, or parchment. In this instance, the metal is widely spaced, permitting much of the core to be visible. The mordant also acts on these core fibres and, after dyeing, they blend perfectly into the ground colour, leaving only suggestions of the glittering metal in and around the design elements.(4)

The design inventory of the Karuppur textiles is not extensive and the Textile Museum example in the exhibition is one of the most lyrical. Two deep parallel rows of trees with arched limbs bearing birds and stylised leaves crown the pallu, the decorative end panel of the sari. Framing these are rows of simple geometric forms each outlined in red, black and white and connected by a tracery of white resist pattern. Offset rows of metallic circles with the usual outlines interspersed with three undulating lines of white dots completely fill the centrefield of the sari. The large size of the Museum example is also characteristic of these cloths.

Karuppur textiles are thought to have been made from 1780 to 1855. When the last of the Maratha rulers, Raja Sarfoji (1799-1833), died without a male heir, the kingdom passed to British control and production of the labour intensive cloths diminished without royal patronage. A survey conducted in 1915 found only table covers, hangings and book wrappers continued to be woven. It is not known if the tradition of the Karuppur textiles existed before the Maratha dynasty.

In anticipation of the 1982 Festival of India in England, an attempt was undertaken by the Madras Weaver’s Service Centre in the 1970s to revive the Karuppur tradition.(5) The research for the project was based on examples remaining in Indian collections. The details of the reconstruction, as outlined in Schumacher, included three months of trials, five months of weaving and one month of dyeing to create the exhibition example. Subsequently, block printed saris of commercial cotton that utilise old Karuppur patterns have been a more realistic answer to demand.

A major holding of Karuppur textiles exists in the Calico Museum of Textiles in Ahmedabad. A few other examples with early collecting dates exist in the Government School of Arts and Crafts in Madras (Chennai) where they were deposited by the English writer Hadaway in the early 1900s. Some of extraordinary size are in the Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay (Mumbai).

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Karuppur sari (detail) made for the Maratha rulers of Tanjore, Tamil Nadu, south India, 19th century. 1.07 x 9.07m (3'6" x 29'9"). Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1935. The Textile Museum, Washington DC, TM 6.78


1 | Kodali Karuppur is in Tamil Nadu close to the southern city of Tanjore (Thanjavur). 2 | The fragment (TM6.45) was acquired  by George Hewitt Myers in 1931 and the sari (TM 6.78) in 1935. 3 | Mattiebelle Gittinger, Master Dyers to the World, Washington D. 1982, pp.20-21.  4 | The Textile Museum’s Karuppur  textiles have not been tested to identify confidently the metallic yarn.  5 | Ann Schumacher, ‘The Karuppur Sari of South India: A Lost Fabric Revived’, Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot, Vol XXVI no.2, Issue 102, 1995, pp.42-44.

by Doris Leslie Blau