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Updated: April 7, 2013 16:52 IST

Ciao to the chatta?

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The chattayum mundum, a traditional costume that once dressed up the Christian women of Kerala, now has very few takers, especially among the modern young girls

“How do you say it Saramma? Is it kaachamuri or kachaamuri or kachamoori?,” asked Miss Brooksmith not long after she arrived as a resident teacher at the Balikamadhom Girls’s High School at Thirumoolapuram near Thiruvalla in 1930. Brooksmith, from the United Kingdom, was fascinated with the queer outfitchattem mundumworn by the girls in Thiruvalla. A white top (chatta) and a wrap-around like cloth for the waist (mundu). The kachamuri that Brooksmith wanted to learn more about is a more elaborate version of the mundu.

No longer a favourite

Chattayum mundum has been the traditional costume of generations of Christian women. Many foreigners like Brooksmith in those days even learnt to wear it. However, as years went by and “convenient”, fashionable clothes became the order of the day, the chattayum mundum slowly disappeared from people’s wardrobes. Today, only a few old timers wear it.

The top part of the costume, always white in colour, called chatta, is a loose version of a ladies’ blouse. It is more like a loose jacket, with fairly loose half sleeves. It has no opening either in the front or at the back, except for the very strange opening cut out from the centre of the white fabric. This opening is a semi-circle at the back which continues in the shape of a ‘V’ down the upper part of the front. The edges of this opening, the edges of the sleeves, and the main body of the chatta are neatly hemmed in.

The mundu is an ordinary cloth that forms the lower part of the costume. The kachamuri is the more festive version of it. The most interesting part of the costume is the queer-looking fan worn half-spread out at the back. It was no surprising matter that most foreigners first thought that the fan at the back was made from another small piece of white cloth and tucked in there. It is the upper part of one end of the mundu that is gathered into a fan of about a dozen folds and pulled out to cover the back.

The chatta and mundu ordinarily have no decorations on them. What gives them a special look is the kavani or the half-sari worn over them. It is pleated in the middle and is pinned to the left shoulder of the chatta using a brooch, often made of gold or some metal with a golden finish, decorated with white or coloured stones. The half of the kavani that falls to the back of the body is usually left in the pleated way, the last outermost pleat being a fairly broad one (about three inches).

The other half of the kavani, which falls to the front of the body, is left spread out. The kavani is often decorated with embroidery, usually done in white itself or soft colours. The really decorated kavanis, always off-white in colour, with jerry borders and exquisitely designed, mostly came from Balaramapuram.

Usually there is a narrow jerry border on the inner edge and a much broader showy jerry border on the outer edge and at both the ends. Brides of olden days were made to wear chatta specially decorated with gold around the necks and kachamuri with gold lines on the outer edge. A lot of traditional golden jewellery was also worn along with it, and specially designed shoes often added grandeur to the bride’s outfit.

Mariamma Abraham Eralil, about 90 years of age, started wearing chatta and mundu when she was just 12. Mariamma says that she has no memory of having worn any other costume in all her life; therefore she has never used any colour other than white for an outfit. They went to school wearing this outfit, with no slippers. These girls did not wear kavani to school; they only had a short hand –woven towel on their shoulders.

But Mariamma says that the kachamuri that they wore on special occasions or when they went out, used to be difficult to maintain; starching it with a touch of blue was not easy. This little unmanageability could very well be the main reason why it got easily replaced by the other more easy-to-manage outfits of today. “It was hard to wash a white outfit maintaining its original whiteness. There were dhobis who did that for us. But, we girls often went to the nearby stream or river for a bath in the evening. We would spread the mundu and chatta on the sandy banks and go down to bathe. By the time we finished wallowing in water and came up, the clothes would also be dry.”

She adds: “In my childhood itself, I learnt how to stitch. Embroidery was a passion. In those days, there were no professionals doing embroidery for us; we were our own fashion designers. I used to try out my embroidery skills on my own kavanis and adorn them the way my fancy led me. These days, there are only very few women wearing chattayum mundum coming to church.”

She adds that there was a time when on Sundays and on festival days, women wearing this costume came in good numbers to attend even midnight services in the church, walking long distances across streams and marshes. She remembers that in the olden times, after a wedding, there was the custom for the bridegroom giving ‘new’ kacha to his mother-in-law. Nowadays, it is a new sari that the bridegroom gives. The kacha was one big roll of white fabric out of which one could get as many as four kachamuris. Or a part of it could be used for making chattas and mundus.

It is only natural that a few like Mariamma today experience a kind of nostalgia, because those times are gone forever. Will some museum somewhere have a model wearing a chattayum mundum for our children to look at?

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