Grass mats still hold their own here

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Grass mats on display at a shop in Chennai. Bijoy Ghosh
Grass mats on display at a shop in Chennai. Bijoy Ghosh

R. Balaji

Chennai, Nov. 3

MR Mohamed Ibrahim, Proprietor, Majestic Mat Centre, sits in acubicle-sized shop with rolls of grass mats (korai pai), cotton mattresses, and plastic mats lining the walls, as he recalls the history of the row of pai kadais (mat shops) in Parry's (an old business district in Chennai).

The shops specialise in selling grass mats, mattresses and pillows. This is one place in the city were a buyer can still see a wide range of grass mats, whether the standard 3 ft x 6 ft used as a bed or those running the length of an entire wedding hall.

Mohamed Ibrahim's ancestors migrated from the southern district of Tirunelveli nearly 140 years ago. His grandparents, then in their teens, set up shop in what was at that time a row of tin-roofed stables. The decision to sell mats was a natural choice, as Pattamadai, near Tirunelveli, is known for its mats. They also sold copper bells the kind used on cattle.

Mr Ibrahim, nearing 70, has been in the business for more than five decades. He joined the business after completing college, he says with pride. He recalls that the tin-roofed shops used to be just a platform about 8 ft by 10 ft and a small covered area to keep the stocks. One such shop still retains the tin roof, he points out. The shops were unchanged till about 50 years back. Now, the platforms are gone, the covered area has been extended and they no longer sell bells, but little else has changed.

Mr Ibrahim's shop is one of the 10-15 in Parry's that cater to those wanting traditional grass mats and cotton mattresses. He himself sends stocks to markets in Sikkim. The grass mats come from different areas in the State, and the product from each area has its own characteristic. The most famed is the fine `Pattamadai Pai,' grass mats from Pattamadai. The mats are unique in their flexibility and softness. A full-sized mat (3 ft x 6 ft) can be folded and fit into a shirt pocket. They have been gifted to the likes of Soviet leaders such as Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khruschev as well as visiting British royalty.

Tirunelveli also makes the more common varieties. Mats from Pattamadai can cost between Rs 50 and a few thousand rupees. Grass mats from Vandavasi and Sirkazhi are known for their durability.

The grass mats are made from `Korai' grass that is cultivated in swampy lands and riverbeds. The grass is then dried and woven earlier on hand-looms and now on machines. They come in a range of patterns and designs. For special occasions, grass mats are on the list of items given away to newly-weds and they are also meant for daily use.

The mats have their own charm and utility, as they are ideally suited for the hot, humid climate. Plastic is no match, says Mr Ibrahim.

Mr Haja Mohideen of Corner Mat Shop says the grass mats and cotton mattresses continue to be in use among the young and old despite the arrival of synthetic alternatives. The plastic mats come from Mumbai and the cotton mattresses are made locally. Business goes on throughout the year, though there are peaks such as the wedding season and the beginning of the academic year.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated November 4, 2005)
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