Read about the regained looms of Chendamangalam


Kerala’s design community got together to bat for Chendamangalam handloom in 2019

Do you want the sari woven by the silver sun..the sari with the tamarind leaf border?

In August 2018, the tiny handloom village of Chendamangalam was left reeling from the deluge that devastated Kerala. Looms, yarns and finished goods had been destroyed and in one handloom society, stock worth more than forty lakhs rupees stood forlorn and damp with mildew creeping up the tall piles.

I stood amid the destruction with society’s secretary PA Sojan and decided to buy some of the stock to convert into a collection of garments. As I sifted through the mess, an eager Sojan dropped sari after sari and mundu after mundu onto an old, dry bed sheet.

Then, out of the blue, he asked me, “Have you seen the puliyilakara border?” and pointed to a narrow black border named after the tamarind leaf, running parallel to the sari’s selvedge. ‘Velliveyil neytha pudavaveno ... puliyilakara pudavaveno…’ The lines of the Yesudas song from the 1974 movie Nellu began to ring in the corridors of my memory.

“There are only two or three persons left in this village who can weave this border,” Sojan said wistfully, as he explained that the Puliyilakara and the forked, extra-weft Chuttikara were part of the traditional design repertoire of Chendamangalam handloom. These karas or borders demand a high degree of skill. Most of the weavers who knew these complex weaving techniques are either too old or no longer alive. The current generation of weavers are used to weaving only simpler styles because they have been co-opted into this craft without sufficient training or skill upgradation.

Read about the regained looms of Chendamangalam

It is widely believed that weaving in Chedamangalam was introduced by the Paliam family. Called the Paliath Achans, these hereditary prime ministers to the Maharaja of Kochi have been associated with Chendamangalam from the 16th century onwards. The Devanga Chettiars settled in this region at their behest to serve the family’s sartorial needs. The cotton muslin dhotis they wove were so fine that it was said they could pass through a ring.

Both men and women of noble families wore these gossamer-like, unbleached cotton dhotis hemmed by borders of pure gold threads. The elegant and simple off-white and gold theme has always been the sartorial leitmotif of Kerala’s aristocratic and royal households. Except for stripes and checks of different widths and a few extra-weft designs, very little has been added over the years to this craft’s design vocabulary.

The Co-operative Society Act of 1969 only just saved this craft from near extinction. Though debt-ridden and floundering in semi-obscurity before the floods, many of these societies have to be credited with upholding traditional weaving practices against the grinding wheels of change. The quality of the end product, therefore, remains more or less sacrosanct even today. Indeed, the sari with the puliyilakara border that I took home that day passed the ring test!

As time passed and Paliam patronage diminished, the handloom products of Chendamangalam suffered. From catering to the luxury market in the time of the Achans, their products now mostly served the masses, so they lost out to cheaper power loom products

Much water has flowed under the bridge since that evening in August last year. Quite literally, so. Kerala’s design community got together to bat for Chendamangalam handloom. In the juggernaut of world-wide interest that they generated, the entire Onam stock was sold out, the looms repaired, and showrooms renovated in record time.

However, for Chendamangalam to stand on its own feet, a lot more remains to be done. Markets have to be recaptured and more avenues for sales generated. Design development must be actively pursued. The government’s and societies’ efforts have so far been rather desultory. A three pronged design and marketing strategy is necessary to address the needs of the local, national and international markets. Societies must gear up their units with facilities for sampling, merchandising and quality control.

Added to these measures, government aided representation in relevant trade fairs and fashion weeks in India and abroad, will give Chendamangalam the much needed impetus to turn their accidental brush with fame into a more permanent legacy. If not, the likes of the tamarind leaf border will be consigned to the forgotten annals of history.

Read about the regained looms of Chendamangalam

(The writer is a fashion designer and founder of the design label Mantra)

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 12:38:03 AM |

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