This Onam, Kerala handloom weavers experiment with design to beat the pandemic blues

Saris woven at Chendamangalam   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Usually, Onam is the busiest time on the calendar for handloom weavers in Kerala. Preparations start four months in advance across handloom weaving clusters at Kuthampully, Chendamangalam, Balaramapuram and Palakkad. While 2020 was a disappointment due to the pandemic, things are slightly better this year, says Rajmohan Radhakrishnan a wholesaler from Kuthampully in Thrissur district, who hails from a family of weavers.

“Orders and enquiries have been coming in over the last couple of days, I wish this happened before. It is too soon to quantify how much business this will translate into,” he says. Kuthampully, about 50 km from Thrissur, has 300-odd families involved in the handloom sector. Houses have looms, with the entire family weaving. Each family is affiliated to the handloom co-operative society formed in 1972. Shops selling Kerala saris, set-mundu, dhoti — both handwoven and made on power loom — dot the village.

Buoyed by the slight increase in enquiries this year, weavers and manufacturers are experimenting with designs. Apart from the traditional white and gold, they are including screen-printed and embroidered designs. “Every year people want something different. The screen-printed variety is popular be it the peacock feather motif, mural painting of Lord Krishna, paisleys...they are among our bestsellers. People want variety!”

Parvathy R, runs an online platform where she sources fabric, saris and garments from manufacturing and weaving centres retails, including Kerala handloom directly from Kuthampully and Balaramapuram. She then connects with customers via social media. She agrees that this time, Onam season has been marginally better than last year, stating that the season has been slow to start, but is gaining momentum. Her best sellers are printed kara (border), embroidery and off-beat designs.

A set-mundu woven at Kuthampully

A set-mundu woven at Kuthampully   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Cheaper powerloom Kerala saris, made in Salem and other places in Tamil Nadu, have always posed challenges to handloom. “The demand for powerloom-made material is higher, due to the cost factor. This year the weavers and stockists have been cautious about stocking up, after their experience last year,” Parvathy adds. Rajmohan agrees: “The cheapest handwoven Kasavu sari costs between ₹1700-1800... why spend that much when you can get one for under ₹1000?” Retail prices are higher.

Meena K. from Kochi echoes the thought. She recently bought a set-mundu from a Kerala handloom retailer as part of her annual Onam ritual. She does not want to spend too much on “something that I’ll be wearing only one day. The family take ‘Onam photographs’, after that it ends up in the cupboard.” She adds however that, “Variety and different designs make it fun and breaks the monotony of wearing it again.”

Weavers, manufacturers and designers are pulling out all stops to sell their craftsmanship. Entrepreneur Dileep Raj from Thrissur who runs an online fashion portal, Styloop, is promoting Kuthampully handlooms via social media, running a month-long virtual Onam exhibition of Kerala saris through August. As part of this, he posts images of handloom merchandise and the store that item is available at. “The intention is to support the weavers through this, the hope is that the enquiries translate into sales. We have to preserve these crafts, otherwise, they will die out,” says Dileep. So far, most of the orders are from those living outside Kerala who want to gift locally.

Not just for occasions

Despite design interventions over the years, wearing a Kerala sari or set mundu is confined to special occasions - weddings and other celebrations. Sales are not a year-round affair, a reason why hopes are pinned on Onam sales. Designers such as Sreejith Jeevan are trying to give it an every-occasion appeal.

A sari by Mundhani

A sari by Mundhani   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Nikita Lal, a fourth-year Law student of Jindal Global Law School, Delhi, found inspiration in Jeevan’s work [among other designers] with the Kerala sari and is working with a few handloom weavers in clusters around Kochi to reimagine the Kerala sari. She wants to show the world, “Kasavu can be super cool, comfortable and sassy.” The saris are simple and wearable.

Omana, a weaver with whom Nikita works

Omana, a weaver with whom Nikita works   | Photo Credit: Aditya Narayan

Rather than gold zari, she uses silver zari. Her palette for the Onam collection is mostly pastel. She works with weavers associated with clusters in Cherai and Chendmangalam. Nikita retails her label Mundhani, which she launched in November 2020, via Instagram.

Transitioning online

Kasavukada, which retails set-mundu, Kerala sari, mundu and other Kerala handlooms, is already online; Karalkada has a WhatApp option.

Handloom clusters and co-operatives, however, have not been able to keep up with e-commerce due to unfamiliarity and the lack of infrastructure required for an online operation. However, some like Paravur Handloom Weaver’s Co-operative Society in Chendamangalam is trying to change things. Among the worst-hit during the floods of 2018, the Society is gradually making its way back.

At its store in Chendamangalam, social distancing norms and COVID protocols are followed. It prepared for the season by sending the raw material, cotton yarn, to the weavers at home in advance of the season. “The wages are settled and finished products are collected from their homes. This way, we ensure they are not exposed to the pandemic. This year is better thanks to some steps we have taken,” says PA Sojan, advisor and former Secretary of the Co-operative. Handloom fabric woven in Chendamangalam is GI-tagged.

Tie-ups with local organisations, incentivising purchase of handlooms with discounts, encouraging gifting of handloom dhothies and Kerala saris are among steps this co-operative has taken. Plans are afoot to launch an online portal so that they have an alternative marketplace that is not dependent on exhibitions or stalls. “We want to implement it as soon as possible. Until then, I am using socials like Facebook and WhatsApp to share product images and get orders,” Sojan adds. The showroom attached to the society is finally seeing a revival of footfall and sales.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 2:17:50 AM |

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