Tuesday 11 January 2022

Manjappai and its Tamil roots: How the yellow bag has long been part of TN households

In the wake of the ‘Meendum Manjapai’ campaign launched by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin, we revisit how the vibrant yellow-coloured bags have been an essential part of Tamil households.

Thirty-eight-year-old Panchavarnam, a tailor based in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai, recalls nostalgically, “I have seen my father carry medicines and groceries in the manjappai. I too use it for similar purposes. Since it is associated with our heritage, it’d be great if we continue using it in our day-to-day lives.”

Manjappai, meaning yellow bag in Tamil, is the ubiquitous yellow-coloured bag seen at weddings with the names of the bride and groom printed or at shops with the brand name in block red or green letters, and diligently hung within the house for everyone to use. After Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin launched the ‘Meendum Manjapai Vizhipunarvu Iyakkam’ campaign in December to encourage people to quit using plastic bags and revive the usage of the traditional yellow bags, many have come out in support of the idea as it promotes sustainability.

The manjappai, however, is strongly rooted in Tamil culture as it has been part of our households for generations and reminds one of bygone times. From medicines to documents; ration to money; groceries to jewellery; the vibrant manjapai has been used in innumerable ways by people across generations. People believe that when dipped in turmeric (which is known for its antibacterial properties) water, dried and used, the manjappai turns into a medicinal bag that can fight infections. At the same time, it is also used as a thamboolam pai (customary gift bag) by many. 

Many families dearly hold on to the gift bags they received during festivals and weddings.

A group of women tailors holding Manjappai designed by Yellow Bag Foundation in support of
the 'Meendum Manjapai' initiative. Source: TNM

Eco-friendly and sustainable

The multipurpose manjappai was an integral part of many Tamil households but in recent times, people have been consciously shifting to cloth bags as they are more eco-friendly. For Krishnan Subramanian, the co-founder of the Yellow Bag Foundation, the manjappai was the starting point that inspired him to start a business promoting eco-friendly cloth-based products.

“I grew up in Madurai where the manjappai was commonly used. I saw many women involved in sewing these bags to make a living. Although we produce different kinds of cloth-based products including bags, the foundation got its name from manjappai since we support locally sourced labour, creating employment opportunities for women tailors, and also because of its cultural significance,” Krishnan tells TNM.

Started by Krishnan and his wife Gouri in 2014, Yellow Bag Foundation produces sustainable and practical alternatives to cloth bags and sells a range of products such as bags, files, pouches, etc. With minimalism finely ingrained in its making, the manjapai is accessible to many, Krishnan points out. “The manjappai is sturdy, the handles don’t tear off easily, it has a minimalistic design, and is easy to stitch at home.”

Panchavarnam, who works with the Yellow Bag Foundation, adds that although she has seen many products come and go, the manjapai is etched in her memories and is here to stay.

Be it the Meendum Manjapai initiative or programmes like ‘carry your own bag’ that support sustainable products, Krishnan observes that it is a welcome departure from the top-down approach that’s generally employed. “Whenever we talk about eco-friendliness, the onus is on business owners or manufacturers. But we cannot achieve it without customers making conscious choices too. In that context, the idea of going back to the manjappai is appreciated,” he notes.

Ganesh, who runs The Legend Bags, a company that has been manufacturing manjappai in Madurai for occasions like weddings, festivals, pujas, and providing customised bags to jewellery shops for over 20 years, agrees with Krishnan. “Sometimes customers prefer polyester cotton or nylon bags that are cheaper and readily available. Unlike cloth bags, these products don’t have to be rewashed but people hardly reuse them, which is again harmful to the environment,” Ganesh quips. He also wonders that if jewellery shops in towns across Tamil Nadu have continued using the manjappai, what is stopping the rest of us from using it?

Reinventing the manjappai

It is ironic that although the manjappai is used across age, gender, religion or socio-economic status, it is often looked down upon and used to take a jibe at one’s identity, especially if they hail from a village. A 2014 Tamil film based on the life of a villager adjusting to life in a big city, starring Vimal, Rajkiran and Lakshmi Menon, was titled Manjapai to challenge such links between manjappai and rural identity.

Many, like visual designer Raajadharshini, have taken to social media to question these preconceived notions. The 23-year-old’s ‘The Manja Pai Project’ features cloth bags printed with intricate and complex pulli kolams (designs made using rice flour in front of homes), while the layout of Aadu puli aattam, a traditional board game, forms another design.

Speaking to TNM, the National Institute of Fashion Technology graduate who works on multiple projects like photography, graphic design, lifestyle products and arts explains that the Manja Pai Project was conceptualised with the aim to bring back the yellow bag as a fashion statement. “Having born and brought up in Tamil Nadu, I have seen the manjappai being used in various ways. It has been an accessory in our culture that has no religious ties. People from every generation use it in a different way,” she says.

Raajadharshini’s project – which is currently in the works and likely to be merchandised by this year – presents an interesting take on the traditional manjappai. By printing on the bags the layout of traditional board games, mardhani (henna) art, pulli kollam designs, and illustrations of mallipoo (jasmine flowers) along with instructions on how to string them, the visual designer straddles the thin line separating art and fashion, and uses the bag to represent stories or practices that are unique to Tamil Nadu.

“I want to screen-print eco-friendly dyes on industry waste fabric that will be dyed yellow. This is basically an initiative to upcycle. I’m currently waiting for the right manufacturer and a platform to come on board,” she says.

Speaking about the concept behind her project, Raajadharshini says, “Totes are loved around the world because of how easy it is to make them artistic. So I thought why not blend them with my cultural concept. I want them to be ethical, durable, look cool, and a way to express oneself.”

Like Krishnan and Ganesh, Raajadharshini also hopes that the manjapai continues to stand the test of time and remains the eco-friendly, multipurpose and accessible product it always has been.

(Source: TNM)

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