Kerala handloom Fashion

A 150-year-old ‘kavani’ is revived to weave a sari for a collection

Archivist KG Pramod Kumar and fashion designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal revived these Kerala saris from a 150-year-old photograph of Nagercoil Ammachi for cultural impresario Malvika Singh. The sari was woven by master weaver Chandran   | Photo Credit: Anjali Gopan

A sari curator, an archivist, a designer and a master weaver recreated an elegant Kerala sari from a 150-year-old photograph of a kavani (upper garment) worn by Nagercoil Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Lakshmi Pillai Kalyanikutty Pillai Ammachi, consort of Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma, king of erstwhile Travancore (1860-1880).

Archivist KG Pramod Kumar and fashion designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal revived a Kerala sari from this 150-year-old photograph of Nagercoil Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Lakshmi Pillai Kalyanikutty Pillai Ammachi, consort of Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma, king of erstwhile Travancore (1860-1880).

Archivist KG Pramod Kumar and fashion designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal revived a Kerala sari from this 150-year-old photograph of Nagercoil Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Lakshmi Pillai Kalyanikutty Pillai Ammachi, consort of Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma, king of erstwhile Travancore (1860-1880).   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The project to revive the sari began when sari connoisseur Malvika Singh wanted a Kerala sari to add to her collection of 21 curated saris that revived heritage textile traditions of India. She turned to archivist Pramod Kumar KG, managing director of Eka Cultural Resources & Research, to help her source a sari from Balaramapuram, 20 kilometre from Thiruvananthapuram.

Pramod agreed as he already had fashion designer Alan Alexander Kaleekkal to execute the project. “While so many versions of the Kerala sari were done in the podava format and then converted into the sari in the modern era, Alan wanted to know what I was referencing for this project,” says Pramod.

Archivist KG Pramod Kumar and fashion designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal revived this Kerala sari from a 150-year-old photograph of Nagercoil Ammachi for cultural impresario Malvika Singh

Archivist KG Pramod Kumar and fashion designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal revived this Kerala sari from a 150-year-old photograph of Nagercoil Ammachi for cultural impresario Malvika Singh   | Photo Credit: Anjali Gopan

In Pramod’s office library, he had a book with a photograph of Ayilyam Thirunal with Nagercoil Ammachi. “She was wearing something very fine and elegant. I shared the picture with Alan. We knew this was authentic as it was worn by a significant member of the royal family. Moreover, this garment was of that era, of the region and local. It was not an imported pattern. Its real beauty was its simplicity,” says Pramod. He shared it with Malvika and she gave them the green signal.

Pramod approached Alan with the project in June 2020. Alan got down to the technicalities and design requirements of the sari such as colour permutations, size of the zari, how to get the pattern repeated, count of the threads and so on.

Designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal revived a Kerala sari from a 150-year-old photograph of Nagercoil Ammachi

Designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal revived a Kerala sari from a 150-year-old photograph of Nagercoil Ammachi   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Post the designing, Pramod shared it with Malvika. “I also told her that only one sari could not be woven, at least three or four would have to be woven,” says Pramod. Finally four saris were made. Malvika and another collector bought two saris each. The trial sari, which is woven first, is with Alan. The designer of KALEEKAL talks about the research, significance and challenges of reviving a sari from a 150-year-old photograph. Excerpts from an interview with Alan, who runs RAHÉL, a designer space in Thiruvananthapuram.

When did this project start? What were the requirements?

Initially meant to be a commission for Malvika Singh, it developed into a full-fledged revival and re-creation project, requiring thorough research and documentation. We expanded the scope of the project to include a limited number of pieces for clients who wanted them for their personal collection and also for archival purposes.

Portrait of Nagercoil Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Lakshmi Pillai Kalyanikutty Pillai Ammachi, consort of Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma, king of erstwhile Travancore (1860-1880), painted by Raja Ravi Varma

Portrait of Nagercoil Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Lakshmi Pillai Kalyanikutty Pillai Ammachi, consort of Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma, king of erstwhile Travancore (1860-1880), painted by Raja Ravi Varma   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The brief was to be as historically accurate as possible while reinterpreting the mundu/neriyathu (kavani) into a sari and include traditional weaving details that might not be common now or techniques that might have been lost over time due to mass production and modernisation.

What kind of research was required?

The primary research was to study the given photograph in detail and decode the designs and patterns. We compared it with other photographs and paintings around the same time period to figure out the details that might have been lost due to age, lack of clarity or lighting issues in the photo. We consulted different sets of weavers in Balaramapuram to learn more about their take on the fabric and its weave and compared notes with their knowledge of the traditional weaves and obscure design details that might not be prevalent now.

A portrait of Nagercoil Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Lakshmi Pillai Kalyanikutty Pillai Ammachi, consort of Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma, king of erstwhile Travancore (1860-1880)

A portrait of Nagercoil Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Lakshmi Pillai Kalyanikutty Pillai Ammachi, consort of Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma, king of erstwhile Travancore (1860-1880)   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

What was special about this particular sari and its design?

What is special about the sari is its history and understanding the provenance of the traditional Kerala sari. With the arrival of the Dutch and Portuguese explorers, large amounts of gold were bartered for spices and aromatics along the shores of Kerala. This was utilised by the upper class to be made into jewellery and also to be woven into fabrics, popularly known as kasavu today. The off-white of the unbleached cotton yarn in stark contrast to the gold of the metal zari yarn is what makes the Kerala fabric so special.

How did you execute it?

After the research process was completed, we compiled the data to make sense of all the local lore and artisanal know-how and made a unified, linear narrative. We referred to books and written accounts and resources available online to make sure we were as accurate as possible. The final step before production was to map out a technical schematic detailing of the design elements.

Archivist KG Pramod Kumar and fashion designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal revived this Kerala sari from a 150-year-old photograph of Nagercoil Ammachi. The sari, woven by master weaver Chandran, was commissioned by Malvika Singh

Archivist KG Pramod Kumar and fashion designer Alan Alexander Kaleekal revived this Kerala sari from a 150-year-old photograph of Nagercoil Ammachi. The sari, woven by master weaver Chandran, was commissioned by Malvika Singh   | Photo Credit: Anjali Gopan

We used the best raw materials, fine handspun cotton yarn that would give us a 100s count weave and certified pure gold zari yarn. The final step involved doing a trial piece, which was done to rectify any errors and make sure all the details matched our schematic drawings. We also extensively documented the process.

If one were to buy this now, what would be its price in current prices?

The project was done primarily as a commission that involved limited pieces, so it’s not yet open to the public for purchase. However, we can always re-create this against order or as commissioned pieces.

What were the challenges involved?

When trying to recreate a fabric from a 150-year- old photograph, the main challenge is missing out on details that might have been lost due to ageing of the photograph before it’s digitisation, loss of techniques and artisanal know-how over times.

While consulting with artisans to decode the details that went into the designs, at times there were opposing accounts on what constituted the traditionally correct design, which in turn required further research.

Master weaver Chandran at work on reviving a Kerala sari from a 150-year-old photograph of Nagercoil Ammachi

Master weaver Chandran at work on reviving a Kerala sari from a 150-year-old photograph of Nagercoil Ammachi   | Photo Credit: Anjali Gopan

Even though the idea for this project was first pitched in 2020, we could only start production in 2021 due to the pandemic.

Another challenge was the general reluctance of our weavers to follow technically specific designs. When you specify details there is very little room for error and the weaving has be done with extreme precision, by only the most skilled weavers. These saris were woven by our master weaver Chandran who has a weaving experience of over 40 years.


Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 8:09:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/fashion/150-year-old-kavani-revived-malvika-singh-curated-collection-travancore/article36093455.ece

Next Story