Madras is more treasured the world over as a checked cotton fabric than the erstwhile name of Chennai. The use of the Madras check cloth has been part of the tradition of the tribes of southern Nigeria—the Kalabari tribe! The southern Nigerian tribes wore it as their head dress or wrapped it around their torso. It held a significant place in the culture and tradition of the place—they believed that owning a piece of Madras is the greatest treasure a man can possess.
Madras, here we are talking exclusively about the cloth, became synonymous with the “injiri” or the “real India”. To quote the cloth historian Eicher, “injiri ( Madras) holds a special place in Kalabari life as a symbol of a person’s journey into the embrace of the world beyond this life……the opening scene in the drama of life includes a piece of injiri that is ceremoniously delivered to the mother by the father for carrying the child. This personal emblem of entry into society for that child also becomes the cloth marking his departure the moment he arrives at the house as a corpse…….”
Madras was produced and exported from Madras the place for more than four hundred years. Some say, that the weavers copied the patterns of the Scottish kilts because there was a Scottish regiment in Madras in the early 18th century. Maybe, the Scots copied the Madras check patterns. No one really knows. But historians say the trade of Madras has been going on for many, many years even more than four hundred years maybe a thousand years. But there is not much evidence for this, because the cloth disintegrates, yes it is bio-degradable and cannot last a thousand years to stand testament for this dramatic statement!
The cloth is woven in and around Chennai and in the Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh. The most prominent quality of Madras is that it bleeds profusely in the first few washes so it began to be marketed as Bleeding Cotton. Touting the fault of using fast colours as a fashion statement the exporters made a killing when it hit the market in the 60s and 70s! It is said the Portuguese were the earliest to get involved in the trade, then the others like the Dutch, French and the English too jumped into this lucrative trade of exporting Madras. Soon, East India Company controlled the scene and took it all over the world and along the slave route of Africa, France, USA.
And, it was in the sixties, that Madras caught the attention of the fashion designers and became the rage. The bleeding cotton became quite the fashion statement! And it was used to brighten everything from home furnishings to shoes, bags, dresses and shirts. Cowboyish or crumpled—they were everywhere. It was perfect, comfortable and stylish! And it never goes out of fashion.