Entrepreneurs S. Susheelan and Vanaja of handloom enterprise Kasavukada talk about the warp and weft of success
S. Susheelan and his wife, S. Vanaja, have together woven a success story, the likes of which is a rare tapestry in Kerala’s rather embattled handloom sector. The duo runs Kasavukada, arguably one of Kerala’s biggest privately-owned traditional handloom enterprises. From rather humble beginnings two decades ago, weave by weave, the enterprising couple have built up a business that now employs some 4,000 weavers in and around Peringammala village near Balaramapuram in Thiruvananthapuram district and retails its traditional weaves through showrooms in Kochi, Kozhikode, Thrissur, Thalassery, and Kottayam, besides Thiruvananthapuram. The unassuming, thoroughly rustic Susheelans are Balaramapuram handlooms’ power couple.
In the run-up to Onam, Susheelan and Vanaja are at their busiest best at Kasavukada’s procurement centre, a few yards down an alley from their home in Peringammala, where stacks and stacks of kasavu saris, pudavas, dhotis, mundu-neriyathu, veshtis, kavanis, thorthu, and the likes are being readied to be shipped to its outlets across Kerala. Or rather, Susheelan is. Vanaja has made herself scarce. “She’s rather shy; she likes to work behind the scenes. Until very recently, until her allergy to cotton dust started playing up, she used to supervise the 300 or so looms attached to our house. We’ve now given the looms to weavers in the vicinity,” says Susheelan, coaxing her to join in the conversation.
Both Vanaja and Susheelan hail from traditional weaving families in Peringammala. Vanaja’s father, Sukumaran, used to own a handloom shop in the village and she grew up helping out at the shop. Meanwhile, Susheelan’s father, incidentally, also named Sukumaran, was a master weaver. Says Susheelan: “I grew up hearing the constant tack-tack of the looms. I can still picture my father working on his loom in our home even as my mother sat beside him spinning yarn on the aradu (spinning chakra). I myself began working the looms as a child as did the rest of my five siblings and my cousins and my extended family too. I like to think that my heritage in weaving coupled with my wife’s heritage in handloom sales makes for a match made in retail heaven!” adds Susheelan, with a guffaw.
Indeed, that their camaraderie is one of the key factors behind their success is evident in the teasing smiles and affectionate glances that roly-poly Susheelan gives his reed-thin wife and in the playful chucks on the chin and shy smiles Vanaja offers in return. “We grew up barely 100 yards from each other. But ours was very much an arranged marriage. In fact, my first memory of Vanaja when the proposal was in the works is her face popping out of the rose bushes in her front yard trying to sneak a peek at me as I passed by!” says 54-year-old Susheelan. While Vanaja, 52, stopped studying after class 10, her husband has a junior diploma in co-operation.
Before turning entrepreneur, Susheelan was the secretary of the Sree Vellayani Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society, a post he held for 18 years. “We were living through the problems that weavers were facing with regards to financial difficulties, dependence on middlemen, Government apathy towards the handloom sector, petty politics, and the like. In fact, many of these issues still plague the sector. We figured that direct selling was the only way forward and that meant setting up a shop on our own,” say the duo.
The couple opened up their first outlet in Kochi in May, 1993, at Church Landing Road, near Pallimukku. “We wanted to stay clear of Balaramapuram where we would just be one among many handloom stores. Kochi was the best bet to take Balaramapuram handlooms, with their unique double-sided weaves, beyond its regional limitations. In those days, Pallimukku was the back of beyond as far as retail shops were concerned. I chose that location instead of something more centrally located because I had just started driving then and that was the only place where I could confidently drive to and park my car!” says Susheelan.
“We started off with just 500 sq. feet of space – the front room of a house, really. That first year we virtually had no sales, save for a few walk-in customers. During that time we even thought about closing down,” recalls Vanaja. But, as it often happens, perseverance pays. Kasavukada’s trendy designs and quality weaves became increasingly popular and the couple were soon able to expand their flagship store and open up two more in Kochi itself. Within three years they’d also opened shops in Kottayam, Kozhikode and Thalassery, in quick succession. The Thiruvananthapuram store was opened in 2009.
“Our mantra is to evolve with the times. Realising the trend for matching dhotis with shirts, we were the first handloom enterprise to open an exclusive men store [in Kochi]. We were among the first to branch out into salwar sets and shirting material. We were also the first private handloom outlet to go for professional ads to introduce customers to new age designs. Incidentally, our first brand ambassador was actor Amala Paul – that’s before she got her break in films,” says Susheelan.
While the couple do take the help of designers – professionals and graduate students – and study industry trends to keep abreast with the changes, Susheelan says that as far as they are concerned “ultimately the customer is the designer.”
Passing on the heritage
The couple has two sons. Nandu, a management graduate, manages the Kochi stores and is responsible for the company’s expansion and development, while Chandu is a college student, and like his father, is a keen badminton player. Chandu and his father also share a love for antique Bullet motorcycles, two of which (a 300 cc and a 500 cc) the duo keep in mint condition and by far the only trapping of success visible, save for their newly-remodelled house. Says Susheelan: “My wife and I have done our best; it’s now up to our sons to take the brand forward.”