If you want to identify a person of Malayalam origin or connection, this is one of the easiest giveaways. No traditional occasion in Kerala is complete without people wearing their special Kasavu costume. If you are an art lover, you can’t miss these in the scores of paintings Kerala's most celebrated painter Raja Ravi Varma created. From costumes for Mohiniyattam dancers to Malayalam screen stars sporting them, the Kasavu is a permanent flavour of the land. Perfect for the tropical climate Kerala has most of the year, the Kasavu is one of the most comfortable pieces of fabric woven ever.
My curiosity got the better of me when I decided to find out more about the Kasavu. Traveling eighty miles an hour speeding into Balaramapuram, a remote village near Kovalam that has been the heartland of the thriving textile industry in Kerala for centuries now, one is filled with awe seeing the Kerala country side offers. A good three-hour drive from the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram and we land up amidst the lush greenery, the signature statement of Kerala. You reach the little muddy lanes inside the village all you can hear is the chirping of birds on trees and the rhythmic tick-tock of the wooden clatter the handloom weavers make in little huts.
I was directed to the little cottage industry of Rukmini, a fourth generation family weaver who has been in the business ever since she realized. A large hall under a straw roof filled with pit looms wasn't a pleasant sight to expect in the mid-summer heat. A group of giggly senior women stood in waist-deep pits with huge looms in front of them and chuckled over local gossip even as their hands worked, almost like an involuntary movement. Not a warp or a weft goes out of place. ‘Most of the people here working are housewives of local farmers who come here in their free time to weave’, said Rukmini.
The whole site is spotted with several halls from where this music the looms make emanates. Each loom machine, separated by wooden shafts and an end-wheel is connected by hundreds of little soft and fragile threads that are waiting to be woven into a fabric. A little bowl of what looked like mini Laddoos made of gold sat glistening on one side of the weaver. “That is the gold Zari that we add on the borders. It has to be kept soaked in water to soften the thread and also not blacken or get dirty in the process of weaving”, added Rukmini. A regular Kasavu takes anywhere between five to seven days of work with at least fifteen hours of non-stop weaving invested into it. In a week, the women of Balaramapuram pit-looms produce a hundred sets, which are bought by the local shops before they reach the rest of the world. Just going through these mind-boggling statistics involved into the making of each piece, one realizes how insensitive it is to mindlessly bargain while purchasing. Each of them is a handcrafted piece of art worth treasuring.
Rukmini displays her collection of Kasavus
Like stories from any other part of India, the Balaramapuram weaves have many of their own tales to tell. “No one can date when these weaves started. Lore goes that during the reign of demon king Bali the locals encouraged this form of weaving gold and cotton to make it a trademark of the people of his kingdom. So every family in Kerala owned and wore only clothes that were made here and one could easily differentiate outsiders and invaders into our lands. More over the king would always bless the family that would weave cloth not only for members of the royal family but also for the gods in our local temples that they patronized. Even to this day, when we celebrate Onam, our biggest festival, we all have to wear this traditional costume because our great emperor Bali returns to bless the people of his land and everyone seen in this dress invites auspiciousness and good luck into their lives”, narrated Rukmini.
While its mythological past can never be traced amidst a spate of tales both from fantasy and fiction, the historical evidences are well documented. The Mundum-Neriyethum (also called set-Mundu) pair has probably been one of the oldest such documented references of any Indian weaving traditions. Referred to as ‘Sattika’ in ancient Buddhist and Jain literary texts, the Kasavu changed over a period of time and came to be called ‘Antariya’ for the lower garment and ‘Uttariya’ for the upper stole. The Malabar Coast that conducted a flourishing trade with several Mediterranean cultures also adapted the Graeco-Roman versions of a ‘Palmyrene’ which was a long unstitched cloth with a thin coloured border draped as a scarf around the upper body and added the thin gold border later.
Legend has it that Balaramavarma, the king who lived from 1798 to 1810 and his chief minister Ummini Thampi were responsible to kick-start a flourishing handloom industry. The rich green belt of agricultural land was known for its paddy, coconut and cotton farms. The chief minister decided to import a community of weavers called the ‘Shaaliyars’ from the Nagarcoil region in Tamil Nadu and gave them a place of pride in a street called ‘Shaliyar street’ exclusively created for them. The Shaliyars made an industry out of the local cotton market and hand-wove exquisite garments for the members of the royal family of Travancore. In addition to that they also exchanged trade with many migrants who came via the sea route to Kerala and before anyone knew, the Dutch and Portuguese were soon buying handwoven sarees and Mundus by shiploads. Weavers from Balaramapuram spread far and wide into the state of Kerala and established centers for a rich handloom industry in places like Chendamangalam in Ernakulam district and Koothampalli in Thrissur district. Today there is no part of Kerala and probably a south Indian cloth store anywhere in the world that doesn’t sell these pieces.
Rukmini with her handloomed products
When the famous Vasco Da Gama bartered gold for spices he would never have imagined that the yellow metal would set trends for a drape a few centuries later. For the amount of gold he and the other colonists dumped on the shores of Kerala, saw the then upper class weaving gold into the Mundu and the Neriyethu, giving birth to what we know today as Kasavu.
Identified with celebrations and festivity, Kasavu has now transcended borders along with the global Malayali. Now we have a whole spate of designers queuing up to try their hands and expertise on the Kerala Kasavu. This is an encouraging trend as it might not just help the handloom weavers with brand building and design development but also promote a sustainable growth and diversification in the industry. They get no sort of aid from the State and handlooms are fast dying. Next time you find yourself trying to bargain the prices of ahand-loomed Balaramapuram Kasavu, a quick thought on how much hard work and love went into it's making will help you decide better. Remember you are buying a piece of art. Think of this way: in this remote corner of the world where you might or might not ever visit, you are supporting artistes and their art to prosper. If you do get a chance, make your next holiday a trip to Balaramapuram and witness the magic unfold amidst the tick tock music of the looms.
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Images by Veejay Sai