Crafts of Chennai — Madras Week SpecialThe Madras Week wheels are on a roll and events are being organised in full gusto such as heritage walks, discovering colonial Madras, food trails, visiting temples, going for documentaries and photo exhibits etc., you can keep a track on these events on the Chennai event pages and websites online. These events are aimed at bringing the people of Chennai together and making people more familiar with the history and culture of Chennai.

A little history

Madras was founded on 22nd August, 1639 when a sliver of land was bought by three men Francis Day, Andrew Cogan and Beri Thimmappa on behalf of the East India Company. The British headquarters was established at the historic Fort St. George. Within a few years the settlers came together to form the village Madarasapattinam which is now known as Chennai. Our city is famous for their interesting mix of architecture reflecting the various cultural experiences. We have architecture that are a legacy from the colonial period such as Fort St. George, St. Andrews Kirk, and buildings housing offices and shops. Then there is the indo-saracenic architecture with the larger than life images along the famous Marina Beach. The city is a major fishing center with Chetput, Adyar and Santhome as the main trading markets.

An interesting fact is about Kalakshetra, an arts center that was set up by the visionary Rukmini Arundale in the 1930’s. She revived the traditional designs for the dance costumes which were redesigned and woven at the Kalakshetra weaving center.

Chennai because of its geography, strategic location and economic importance is referred to as the “Gateway of South India”.

Crafts of Chennai

Tamil Nadu as a whole is rich with diverse crafts but we are going to narrow it down to the crafts that a special in Chennai in honour of the Madras Week. These are going to be four distinct crafts of the Chennai district them being — wood carving, palm leaf work, Thanjavur glass painting and doll making.

Wood Carvers of Chennai

Wood carving in Chennai is practiced by generations of the wood carving craftsmen. It is also practiced in Arumbavur which is another place in Tamil Nadu. The wood that is mostly used as raw materials are mango tree wood and teak wood.

The process consists of cutting the wood to size with sawing machines or hand saws depending on the size of the wood. The design is drawn with a chalk on the naturally seasoned wood and it is then carved in many stages. This starts with the rough carving to smooth chiseling and is finally sandpapered. Most often the finished carving is varnished and at other times they are painted black or given an antique finish. Sometimes they are painted with enamel paints, in which case, a coating of limestone (sunnambhu kallu), is applied before painting.

Palm Leaf Work

The crafts weaved by the palm leaf artisans are influenced by the baskets made for the Dutch settlers in Pulicat during the period of the East India Company. Palm leaf has been used extensively for making small containers, hand fans, toys and rattles for over a century. Men harvest the leaves and they are separated from the stalk and dried. The women remove the midrib and make splits used to weave baskets and containers.

Thanjavur Glass Painting

The Thanjavur or Tanjore glass paintings done in Chennai gets its distinctive style from the Thanjavur icon paintings in the gold leaf and the gesso technique done on wood. The painting originated during the 17th — 19th century during the Maratha period. The paintings are gilded with gold leaf and sparkling stones, they are used to highlight aspects like ornaments, dresses and architectural elements. The compositions consist of one main figure housed in an enclosure depicted by an arch or curtains. The paintings are done on deities, courtly and secular portraits.

Glass paintings are done on the reverse side of the glass. The bold outlines and facial details are painted first so that they appear uppermost, followed by the larger areas of colour applied over the outlines. Gold paint and aluminium pieces are used in place of precious and semiprecious stones to stimulate a jewelled effect. The painting is mounted with its unpainted side on the face so that it is viewed through the glass. The craftsmen in Chennai were originally from Andhra Pradesh and continue with their hereditary occupation.

Doll Making

Cloth has long been used as a material to make dolls. The cloth dolls made by the artisans have a metal framework made of the desired shape and then it is covered with either straw or plastic scrap. A cloth is stitched over it and the doll is clothed with a costume specially made for it. The face is either made of wood or papier mâché and then painted. The products mainly consist of kolu dolls. The kolu or golu is tradition of displaying dolls during the nine days of Navaratri festival. The dolls are preserved for future use or passed on from one generation to the next.

Where to get such products in Chennai?

Chennai houses four handicraft emporiums. You can visit the following places to get your hands on the cultural handicrafts of Chennai and the nation as a whole:

  • Central Cottage Industries Emporium, Nandanam
  • Poompuhar Handicrafts Emporium, Anna Salai
  • Srushti Handicrafts, Alwarpet
  • Khadi Gramodyag Bhavan, Anna Salai

Desihands, wishes all the Chennaiaites a spectacular Madras Week and new adventures through discovering the city you love and live in!


Ranjan, Aditi and Ranjan, M P (2007). Chennai. In Crafts of India Handmade in India. (pp S/TN 315 — S/TN 317). New Delhi, India: Council of Handicraft Development Corporation (COHANDS).

Originally published at on August 22, 2016.

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