There are various types of ancient folk art in India. Applique art is one of them. The term applique means ‘to apply’. In this art, one piece of fabric is sewn over another fabric for decorative purposes. The word ‘applique’ is a French verb, “applique,” meaning “to put on.” One cannot trace back the history of this art. It is an age-old technique in which craftsmen used to sew the patches of different materials over the ripped area of the cloth. This is also known as patchwork. It has importance in many ritual ceremonies. Apart from decorating royalty clothing, applique was used to decorate a temple’s ceremonial umbrellas and tents.
Applique art is practiced all over India. Andhra Pradesh, Gujrat, Orissa, Rajasthan, and Madurai are the main centers for this craft. Each state developed its style of applique. It is a sight to behold whenever a temple car rolls down the streets of the city with the `thumbnail' or cloth pillar swaying in a gentle breeze. They add colour to the festive occasion. Thombai is a cylindrical shaped hanging decoration filled with applique work mostly used in South India. In every temple, the festival chariot is mostly used which is incomplete without Thombai.
Essentially, decorative art requires sewing small and separate pieces of cloth into one big frame. The bright colours selected for the purpose are eye-catching, and the design created is appealing. Along with the temple related items, one can see designs like an elephant, flowers, and swan on the Thombai hanging. Thombai is used as a decorative item in home decoration as well as in temples and chariots. In the process of making Thombai, the pieces of fabric are sewed or stuck onto a larger piece to form a picture or pattern. The applique can also be made in silk and velvet, besides traditional cotton.
Applique art is centuries old in Temple City. In those days, there were no sewing machines, and the entire applique was done with hands. Therefore, it took more than a year to complete any single piece of work. The artisans stayed in temples for years together to finish a job on hand. Not only the craftsman has to be a good tailor, but he should also be an artist with the ability to visualize his art. He has to create applique motifs in contrasting colours in the shape of animals, birds, flowers, minor deities, and other geometric shapes. He must have a fair sense of symmetry, which is usually practiced on dazzling red, purple, yellow, green, and white fabric. It is estimated that thousands of families were involved in the business in Tamil Nadu. But now, the community is almost extinct, with only a handful of families carrying on this work of art and trying to make both ends meet.
In the olden days, the craftsmen used to make canopies, banners, and umbrellas in applique for all major festivals held in Madurai's famous temple. As the craft's popularity spread far and wide through the mouth of pilgrims visiting the city, the craftsmen started making other decorative and utility items as well. Various products of applique work such as `Thombai', `Vasamalai' (arch work), Thoranam (ornamental artwork hung on door frames), etc., are used in the temple to enhance the aesthetic look. Thombai is available in various lengths and diameters. Sendrai Perumal, for more than a decade, is into making temple applique artwork and decoration items in Madurai district, Tamil Nadu. Now let’s see how a Thombai is made.