At a time of intense national awareness, when people in India were seeking the neglected and forgotten treasures of the past, Rukmini Devi extended her interest in dance and music to the crafts which made each dance performance an aesthetic experience. Textiles were central to the costumes and backdrops of the dance drama she was creating. For this she sought the weavers and dyers and the designs of traditional textiles. In September 1937, just one year after the founding of Kalakshetra, assisted by a grant from the government, Rukmini Devi set up a Weaving Centre with one loom in a thatched shed. It was part of her holistic and ambitious vision to preserve and revive a tradition that had withered under British rule. Broadly, that tradition was the South Indian aesthetic, reflected as much in the neat simplicity of her choreography for Bharata Natyam as it was in the patterns of the saris produced at the Weaving Centre she now had.
In the 1930s, Indian markets were being flooded by British textiles made in the looms of Manchester. Many weavers lost their jobs, and many others abandoned older designs in favor of those catering to British tastes, with often confusing results. Rukmini Devi’s response to these trends was direct. On 19 September 1937, V. V. Giri, then Minister for Industies, inaugurated Kalakshetra’s weaving centre, which would produce the designs which were disappearing.
Rukmini Devi said in her speech that day that “our aim is not to set up a huge factory, but rather in a small way to produce fine materials of beauty and simplicity. We hope that what we produce here will reflect the most wonderful things that had been produced in our country in olden days.” Aware that artisans were losing their livelihoods because Indians turned to imported goods, Rukmini Devi made a very early attempt to rehabilitate weavers in the institute, offering them dignity of work and protection.
Patterns were collected from saris and garments owned by Rukmini Devi and her friends. Old designs were revived, and Rukmini Devi herself chose the color combinations and motifs. The saris from the weaving centre quickly became famous. With their generous borders, unusual motifs, and vibrant colors, a ‘Kalakshetra sari’ was a coveted possession. The Centre also produced the exquisite costumes for Rukmini Devi’s dance dramas.
In 1954, with aid from the Handicrafts Board, a new building was constructed (in the Kalakshetra campus in Thiruvanmiyur), with ceilings high enough to accommodate the looms, and plenty of light and air for the weavers. At this time a dye research laboratory was also set up for reviving the age-old craft of vegetable dyes, and extensive work was done on identifying the dye-yielding plants and application of such dyes to various fibres and materials. Though this lab was later handed over to the Handicrafts Board, due to paucity of funds, the validity and importance of reviving the use of vegetable dyes in Indian textiles was never given up, and the Kalamkari Unit was established in the year 1978 for reviving the ancient craft of hjand painting and printing of textiles with vegetable dyes. Again, the aim was both humanitarian and cultural, fo destitute woman form the weaker sections of the community were chosen toundergo training in the craft and thus provide them with a means of livelihood.
Later, training in the use of chemical dyes was also given to keep up with current market demands. The Kalakshetra tradition of purity and excellence in design is preserved by the use of exclusive patterns and colour combinations and custom-made printing blocks.
Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, a close friend of Rukmini Devi and a renowned advocate for craftwork in India, initiated the Centre’s experiments with natural dyes in the 1950s.
Due to a lack of funds, the dye research laboratory was given over to the Handicrafts Board. It was not till 1978 that the Kalamkari Unit was reestablished, in order to revive the craft of hand painting and printing of textiles with vegetable dyes.
Now called the Craft Education and Research Centre the CERC, from the outset, has trained women from low-income groups in the art of Kalamkari. They work at the Centre under the supervision of traditional craftsmen. Weavers are more flexible; they move between the CERC and their homes in Kanchipuram and elsewhere. The capacity of the centre to fulfill orders has been limited in the past both by the number of looms and the number of available weavers. Each sari, depending on its pattern, takes anywhere from a few days to several weeks to make, and, in the case of the silk saris, requires the work of more than one weaver. Demand has consistently been more than production capacity, but those placing orders have been willing to wait for these valuable creations.