A basket is a mundane item that I use to carry things when I go grocery shopping or for a picnic or take my lunch to work. Is it? How does something as common as a basket become more than just a basket? To explore these questions further consider the continuities and changes in the production and consumption of the Nagarathar basket (kottan or kadagam).
The Nagarathars, also called as Nattukottai Nagarathars or Nattukottai Chettiars, are a merchant-banking community native to the villages of Chettinad, a region in Tamilnadu, South India. They belong to the Vaishya caste under the Hindu Varna system (comprising of the four caste divisions namely, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra.) Thurston’s (1987) volume on castes and tribes identifies 108 community names all over India ending with the suffix Chettiar. Therefore, in order to avoid confusion with other communities that share the same suffix as Chettiar, in my work I refer to them as Nagarathars and not as Chettiars as in some works such as Hardgrove (2002).
The kottan was used by the Nagarathars during the gift-giving rituals of life cycle ceremonies. The Nagarathar basket, which was originally made by weaving palmyra leaves, is believed to have seen its transformation into silver baskets (photo 1) during the increasing affluence among the Nagarathars between 1860 and 1930 (Rudner: 1994, Hardgrove: 2002). The economic prosperity among the Nagarathars can be seen in various aspects of their lifestyle. The Nagarathar built large mansions that were decorated with expensive teak from Burma and elaborate tiles. Several Nagarathar artefacts and ceremonial objects such as the maravai  and kazhuthuru were made in silver or diamond-studded respectively.
A 50 year old Nagarathar during an interview with me in Karaikudi in 2011 said “When we started becoming economically prosperous we made many things in silver. For example, in my family my grandmother possessed these silver kottans and she gifted them to my mother during her wedding. My grandmother must have made them during the 1920’s…. but actually tradition demands that we use palmyra leaf baskets for rituals; however we use the silver ones instead.”
The Nagarathar women placed customized orders with the silversmiths of Chennai city to reproduce the baskets in silver. Thus the baskets were crafted with their woven patterns effectively reproduced in the shiny metal. Given the prestige associated with pure silverware, these silver baskets became a status symbol and reflection of wealth.
As these baskets were made by mainstream silverware retailers who would subsequently reproduce the designs and display them alongside their other products, the non-Nagarathar customers were attracted by this novel item. In an interview with me in 2010, the store manager of a Chennai-based retailer said that the aesthetic attributes of the basket that attracted the non-Nagarathars were the intricate workmanship on the basket, the lustre of the pure polished silver and the durability of the material. Soon these baskets were produced in various sizes (photo 2). Depending on the affordability and the purchase capacity of the consumers, this basket entered many non-Nagarathar homes.
As many of the Nagarathar ritual objects are imbued with deep-rooted aspects and characteristics of Nagarathar history and pantheon, these objects do not find a place in the religious and ritualistic spaces of other communities, be it public places of worship or domestic altars. However, the Nagarathar baskets have today received a display space in the curio area in the living rooms of some Hindu families. An avid collector of ethnic objects says,
“In my living room, I have a Nubian bow and arrow, a Nagarathar kottan, a musical instrument used during festivals in Kerala.….. These objects become conversation pieces during parties, where my family and friends share our knowledge about the cultures that these objects belong to and how these objects are used in those cultures….. I sometimes use the kottan as a flower vase……”
The Nagarathar basket therefore becomes one of the many collectibles belonging to many different cultures that are displayed in the living rooms and sometimes recontextualized and has a different function.
While among the Nagarathars they are used predominantly during the gift-giving ritual in their rites of passage such as marriage and pre-puberty ceremony, among the non-Nagarathars they were appropriated as flower baskets that were kept on the welcoming table of weddings.
The silver baskets also saw more transformations, when they were made into turmeric and vermillion holders (photo 3) commonly used by married Hindu women. This item became a collectible, gift article and a souvenir among Nagarathars and non-Nagarathars. Interestingly when these objects are gifted to people outside India it sometimes finds itself a different use. A Nagarathar woman in Canada told me, “I gifted one such holder to my colleague at work. She has found a new use for it. She puts paper clips in one holder and board pins in another.”
The appropriation of the baskets by the non-Nagarathars and its circulation can be understood in two ways: firstly, by its usage among the Nagarathars and secondly, by its utilization and projection in the wider society. Among the Nagarathars this basket had dual usage. The basket (made in palmyra leaves and silver) while on the one hand was used during gift-giving rituals, on the other hand it was used by the Nagarathars for mundane purposes also like storing food, grains etc. Therefore these baskets were not attributed the kind of sacredness that other ritual objects such as the kazhuthuru are believed to bear and were therefore easily appropriated by the non-Nagarathars.
In contemporary times, the palmyra leaf baskets have also become the focus of attention of heritage and crafts activism. Organizations such as Madras Craft Foundation which set up an ethnographic museum called Dakshinachitra that displays several south Indian crafts including that of the Nagarathars and M.Rm.Rm. Foundation which works to promote the Chettinad crafts have played a role in positioning the kottan not only as part of the Nagarathar heritage but also as part of Tamilnadu’s heritage. Key cultural activists and members of the aforementioned organizations have consciously tried to commoditize the production of these baskets, improve its marketability and expand the consumer base. The proprietor of M.Rm.Rm Foundation, a Nagarathar herself, has produced these baskets using natural dyes in order to use the “eco-friendly” quotient as a strategy to appeal to the socially responsible and eco-sensitive consumers which include foreign tourists. These eco-friendly baskets were sold by boutiques and multinational retailers in Chennai. Thus these baskets reached a wider circulation orbit and were appropriated by non-Nagarathars as gift boxes (photo 4) during festivals like Deepavali and during marriages.
Thus the transformations in the Nagarathar basket were influenced by varied factors such as economic prosperity, globalisation, tourism and heritage and crafts activism in its passage from colonial India to the post-colonial India.
Hardgrove, Anne 2002. ‘Merchant houses as spectacles of modernity in Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 36, 1&2.
Rudner, David. 1994. Caste and Capitalism in Colonial India: The Nattukottai Chettiars, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, Pvt Ltd.
Thurston, Edgar. 1987. Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Vol. II & V, New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.
 The Hindu Varna system is the caste system comprising the four castes of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras. Each of these castes further comprises several communities.