Traditional threads get a trendy makeover as handloom weavers in Balaramapuram and surrounding villages talk about how they’re upping the ante for the festive season

Onam has sent life into a tailspin in Balaramapuram and its outlying villages such as Peringammala, Kalliyoor, Parakuzhi, and Payattuvila. After all, this is ‘Balaramapuram handloom’ country, home of Kerala’s favourite weaves. As such business is booming on Saliyar street, for centuries the nerve-centre of handloom sales in town, and almost everywhere you go elsewhere, you can hear the non-stop tack-tack of the thari (loom) as weavers rush to complete Onam orders for traditional Kerala cotton kasavu saris, set-mundu (a.k.a. mundu-neriyathu), veshti, pudava and kavanis, and the like.

Onam, and, to a lesser extent Vishu, are the busiest times of the year, say the weavers. “Preparations for the festive season begin at least two months in advance. Depending on the design, a sari/set-mundu takes one to two days to weave,” says Kuzhivila Sasi, secretary, Pulluvila Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society that runs around 230 looms in and around Uchakkada village. He says the society has targeted Rs. 10 lakh in sales this season.

S. Reghunathan, president of Pattikakala Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society in Kanjiramkulam and district president of the weaver’s union, adds: “Every weaver, without any initiative from the society, goes that extra mile to step up production during the season. For example, if a loom usually produces one-and-a-half mundu (dhoti) a day, during the festive season they make the effort to produce at least two-and-a-half mundus. And because there is very little mechanisation in the process of weaving these handlooms, it means they’ve got to toil day and night to achieve targets.”

Plain kasavu saris and set-mundu with different-sized karas (borders) are, as usual, the most in-demand, say the weavers. G. Varadarajan, proprietor of The Kerala Handlooms on Saliyar street, says: “We’ve stocked a lot of pieces with one inch and two inch karas; there’s not much demand for smaller but more intricate weaves like the Puliyilakara. This season, the newest items are mundu and veshtis with embossed prints on kasavu karas. Over the past couple of years silver karas have also become very popular.”

Across the board, weavers say that they’ve also stepped up production of plain cotton saris. “These hand-dyed saris sans kasavu are increasingly becoming popular among customers, especially because of the hot climate. Hand-woven cotton shirting material and dress material are also quite popular,” says S. Viswambaran, a member of Sree Bhagavathy Handloom Weavers Society, a collective of 275 looms at Kalliyoor, near Vedivechankovil.

“Kasavu pieces with coloured karas, the more fluorescent shades the better, continue to be trendy,” he adds.

Onam is also wedding season in Kerala and because of that production of pudava saris/ set-mundu too is up. “High quality pudavas worn by brides are made using pure gold/silver jari and involve a great deal of labour and craftsmanship. Not many weavers these days have the skill or the patience to make them. Prices for these run into the tens of thousands, depending on the price of gold and the intricacy of the design,” says Reghunathan. Varadarajan adds: “Perhaps that is why more and more customers these days are opting for weaves with half-fine jari (artificial threads) that cost less than one fourth of what a pure jari one would cost.”

Most of the weavers’ societies sell their products to Hantex (Kerala State Weaver’s Cooperative Society) or on wholesale to various stores and boutiques across the State. Some like Sree Bhagavathy, also operate their own stores - mainly in Balaramapuram. “We ship a lot of pieces across the country during Onam. We’ve just finished dispatching 20 or so bundles of our products to Kochi and Kannur and some other districts where the Handloom directorate and Jilla Vyavasaya Kendrams are holding Onam special handloom expos,” says Viswambaran.

Weaving history

Handloom weaving at Balaramapuram has a history that spans 300 years. At the behest of Balaramavarma, Maharaja of erstwhile Travancore, as part of an agro-industrial development plan for the state, the dalawa (chief minister) Ummini Thampi, brought seven saliyar (weaver) families from Valliyoor in Thirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu, to Balaramapuram (circa 1798 to 1810). The location where they settled is known as Saliyar street. The weavers used to produce fine mundu-neriyathu for the royal family. The tradition spread from them to the local weavers. Many of the weavers still use throw-shuttle pit looms to make cotton saris with pure jari (an even thread traditionally made of fine gold or silver). What’s unique about Balaramapuram’s weaves is the identical appearance of the design on both sides of the fabric.

Sources: Kerala State Handloom Development Corporation; G. Varadarajan