Threads of gold
How Travancore Design Co, a collective of Kerala designers, is helping Balaramapuram’s traditional Kasavu weavers this Onam season
Ahead of Onam, a collective of Kerala designers help Balaramapuram’s kasavu weavers
Gold caught in the warp and weft of pure white cotton has been the trademark of Kerala handlooms. Woven by the nimble fingers of Balaramapuram’s traditional weavers, the GItagged fine mundum-neriyathum — with gold Kasavu or coloured kara borders — has a special place during festivals.
During Onam, which also happens to be the wedding season, the weaving hub of Balaramapuram (about 20 km from Thiruvananthapuram) is usually bustling with buyers from across the world. Weaving in this region goes back to the era of Balarama Varma (1798 to 1810), ruler of erstwhile Travancore. His Dewan Ummini Thampi settled seven weaving families (from Tirunelveli district) who were specifically brought to Thiruvananthapuram to weave clothes for the royal family. Eventually, in the memory of the ruler, the place came to be called Balaramapuram.
However, this Onam, the town’s 200-year-old weaving tradition is hanging by a thread as a result of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. “We haven’t sold a single set in the last few months. Onam is when we have our biggest sale of mundum-neriyathum
sets, dhotis and saris, and we usually make enough to sustain ourselves for the rest of the year,” says Suresh Sudhakaran, a traditional weaver employing eight women who work on pit looms.
Designers come forward
Taking note of their difficulties, Thiruvananthapuram-based designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal is launching an initiative, Travancore Design Co. to help them sell their products at his store, RAHÉL (facebook.com/rahel.travancore/), along with his label, KALEEKAL.
Usha Balakrishnan of ANKA (ankafabric.in) and Kochi-based Shalini James (shalinijamesmantra.com) and Sreejith Jeevan of Rouka (shoprouka.com) will join him in the next phase where design interventions will be used to reimagine the traditional weaves.
Jeevan, who reinterpreted the Kasavu weave in Chendamangalam last year, is also among a small group of designers behind the Friends of Chendamangalam initiative (set up after the 2018 Kerala floods). This time around, the new collective has been formed to assist the weavers from Balaramapuram. The designers plan to procure the finished products and sell them via online sales or by appointment at their stores (along with their own labels).
Kaleekal, whose curated collection has vibrant Balaramapuram saris and a set mundu with Kasavu and kara, says, “These weavers produce some of the finest Kasavu fabrics. Their motifs and designs have an identical appearance on both sides of the fabric — it is too precious a legacy to be lost. We’d like each Malayali household to buy at least one sari or mundum-neriyathum to bring the Onam spirit into the homes of the weavers.
Balakrishnan, who has been tweaking the weaves with fresh designs and a touch of colour, has revived her brand’s classic line of ivorygold and ivory-silver for the festive season. “We have a new range with a mix of gold and silver Kasavu. Our wedding range has Kasavu with fabric woven with counts of 120 and 100,” she says.
Also bringing out a colourful collection of set mundu and saris this season is Shobha Viswanath of Weavers Village. “Karas in bright shades like yellow, with lines and borders, will appeal to a clientèle looking for traditional wear that is trendy. We are also giving out matching masks.”
It’s not just independent designers pitching in, but older brands and chain stores too. Karalkada, perhaps Kerala’s oldest brand selling Balaramapuram weaves, has a collection for both weddings and the festival season. These are adorned with pulielakara
(motif of tamarind leaf ) and other specialities of the weave. At Kasavukada (with branches all over the State), the bespoke weave finds place in their bridal range. Hailing from a weaving family himself, managing partner Nandu VS says that although many of their outlets were closed due to the lockdown, the weaving never stopped. Their USP, he says, is a ‘Thali’ collection for the wedding season. “It is pure zari and costs between ₹30,000 and ₹60,000.”
As the countdown to Thiruvonam begins, designers, weavers’ collectives and retailers assert that unless the weaving industry adapts to changes and receives help, the proud legacy of Balaramapuram might fade away. However, James — who also worked with Jeevan on the Chendamangalam initiative — says that if weavers are willing to work with designers, it would not be difficult to find new customers. “Without any skill or loom upgradation, they can bring in these design changes to usher in a new product profile. All we request is the willingness to adapt,” she says.
Instead of projecting them as people who need help, we need to ensure that they see their work as ‘cool’ . What we see now are pictures of them looking tired and helpless. Why can’t we see them as custodians of a legacy that only they know?Make them come up with policies that highlight their craft.” SUNIL V, co-founder, Motherland and creator, Make In India campaign