Relatively unknown among ancient textiles, the exquisite textiles of Karuppur can be understood only from existing masterpieces of saris, dhotis (loincloths), and turbans in museum collections, and from written accounts that appear in travelogues from India and abroad. Skilled craftsmen using special techniques appear to have made these textiles only for the royal courts of Tanjore (now known as Thanjavur), and no distribution elsewhere was recorded beyond this lineage, which does not extend past the nineteenth century.
The rulers of Tanjore, particularly Raja Sarfoji (r. 1799–1833), were strongly influenced by British taste and admired Western art in its contemporary neoclassical phase. Under Sarfoji there was a close integration of ancient tradition and European taste, which continued under his successor, Shivaji. There is no way of knowing with any degree of certainty the date at which the village craftsmen of Karuppur began to supply garments to the royal court of Tanjore. No records are available to indicate whether the fine robes had been provided from ancient times or whether they were introduced during the Maratha dynasty. It is certain, however, that the technique itself persisted from early times. Early cotton paintings of South India depict the dyeing technique, in which fine patterns are drawn with molten wax to appear white on the colored ground. The Karuppur textiles use the same technique, and early examples approach the skill of India's greatest craftsmen of the seventeenth century. The saris were still known to have been made in 1855; after that, the craft declined.
One can observe from museum pieces the fine workmanship of Karuppur textiles, which combine richness of pattern with simplicity and elegance, using a technique of resist dyeing and gold brocading. Each textile contains several shades of red and black and, in some pieces, a touch of blue, with hints of gold and the warm ecru color of the natural cotton outlining the design configurations. The nuances of color and texture change as the cloth is moved slightly. Though the predominant designs of Karuppur textiles tend to be geometrical forms arranged within framing borders and large central fields, the repertoire was not confined to these forms but included other motifs, such as delicate vines, deer, birds, and sometimes stolid elephants arranged in a grid pattern.
In Karuppur textiles, the patterns of gold yarn were worked in the ground, on the cotton warp, using the tapestry technique. The areas that became the centers of the configurations, as well as the lines of borders and panels, were woven in gold, and the rest were in plain weave. The design forms, freely drawn using a kalam, or pen, were created using a wax-resist technique; the mordant for red and black was applied, and the cloth dyed a deep red. For perfecting the shades of red and black, two important mordants, alum and iron, were used in varying concentrations. Alum in association with red dye (rubia tintorium, oldenlandia umbelleta) created shades of red. Iron, steeped in a sour acidic substance, yielded a mordant that, in conjunction with tannin, produced the black shades. To further enhance the depth of the design forms, selected outlines were enriched with a deeper red, immediately at the edge of the gold. With the exception of the wax-resist areas, the dye was absorbed all over the cloth, including the yarn that formed the core of the loosely wrapped woven gold. This resulted in a graceful blend of texture, with subtle hints of gold embedded in shades of deep red. Some superb samples had the resist applied on both sides, and both faces of the textile have been worked. Certain examples indicate that blocks may also have been used to apply the mordants.
The patterns and the format of the Karuppur textiles resemble features in classic Southeast Asian textiles, indicating that textiles for the Tanjore court were a refinement of existing South Indian traditions of textile design, which had profoundly influenced the East through trade to East Asia as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the patterns of Karuppur textiles seem to have been made in a modest mordant-painted and dyed version, without the wax-resist pattern and gold yarns. The Tanjore book wrappers who used this style of textile without gold, provide additional evidence of hand-painted textiles being made in the area, though the use of carved blocks (to stamp the design) began to displace the hand-painting technique in the early nineteenth century.
During the same period, in the contiguous areas of Kumbakonam and Pudukkotai, artisans appear to have employed the Karuppur technique with slight variations. The Kumbakonam cloth seems to have been prepared first with a red dye mordant, completely covering it and making it gray in color. The design was both hand painted and stamped, using copper perforated blocks dipped in a solution of oxalic acid and sometimes wax, which produced a pattern of white forms on the gray mordant ground. Then the cloth was dyed red.
The intrinsic beauty of the Karuppur textiles is difficult to reproduce today. The existing photographs of these textiles only raise intriguing questions about the techniques used, and their origin continues to be shrouded in the mists of time. Answers may perhaps be found by further study of ancient records in and around Tanjore.
Gittinger, Mattiebelle. Master Dyers to the World. Washington, D.C.: Textile Museum, 1982.
Hadaway. William S. Cotton Painting and Printing in the Madras Presidency. Chennai: Government Press, 1971.
Holder, Edwin. "Dyes and Dyeing in the Madras Presidency." Monographs from School of Arts (Chennai), 28 February 1896: 1–9.
Irwin, John, and Margaret Hall. Indian Painted and Printed Fabrics. Ahmedabad: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1971.