METRO PLUS

...Humble ‘THORTHU’ goes GLOBAL

Heart-warming taleKara Ventures' founder-members , B.Sreedevi, Chitra Gopalakrishnan , actor Revathi and Indu Menon, right. who is the driving force heading itPhotos: (Cover and right) Thulasi Kakkat

Heart-warming taleKara Ventures' founder-members , B.Sreedevi, Chitra Gopalakrishnan , actor Revathi and Indu Menon, right. who is the driving force heading itPhotos: (Cover and right) Thulasi Kakkat  

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Before she retired to her hometown, Indu an anthropologist, was a Research Associate at IIM Ahmedabad (1982). She had done a project on organisational structure of the handloom cooperatives and corporations, along with two others. They brought out a book, Women Weavers . “Being fluent in Malayalam, Telugu and Tamil I went to the looms and met the weavers in the Southern states. I gathered firsthand experience and knowledge of the work and the conditions of the weavers.” After her stint at IIM and with an NGO, Jan Vikas , Indu moved to Kuwait and finally back to Kerala.

Modernisation



It was at the end of her working career that she was debating on her next venture. She remembers conferring with her daughter, Chitra about modernising the thorthu fabric and marketing it. “Everybody going back from Kerala buys a couple of thorthus . It is almost a souvenir.” She believed that this Kerala specific product could be enhanced and marketed. Chitra, a graphic designer, came up with ideas to market and Indu made several trips to the looms and suggested areas of improvement. The weavers, she says seemed excited to bring in the changes. The first thing she did was to rid the bluish dye from the fabric and give it a rich white colour. She tightened the weave too.

Once ready with the product, Indu says that they were at a loss about marketing it. Initially she and her aunt, Sreedevi, a resident of Kanjiramattom, went around showcasing the samples to hotels in Fort Kochi. The CGH group showed interest and ordered small napkins for the common wash areas saying that the guests were still dependent on the Turkish towel. “That was one of our first orders and an ongoing one.” Another hotel group agreed to keep their products in their hotel shop, which brought in a trickle of enquiries. The going was slow and the women continued to experiment with colours, designs and quality at the Kanjiramattom looms.

“I remember when I had come down for my research project there were some 30 to 40 looms, but by 2007, when we started ‘Kara’, they had declined to six or seven. I thought I should try and revive them,” says Indu. She says that over the years the looms had fallen into disuse because of lack in demand and the children of the weavers had moved onto greener pastures. The weaving quality had come down and there was a general decline in morale.

The second step that Indu and Chitra took was a request to feature their product on an online design site called design*sponge. Grace Bonney, the proprietor, reputed to place only the world’s most exclusive designs on her trend-forecasting website, designsponge.com, reverted immediately with a query on their payment gateway. Indu says that e-commerce was so new to them that they had not even thought of a payment mode. “We quickly got our act together, the product went online and to our amazement we were flooded with orders. That was our biggest plug-in into the US market.”

Good response



She recalls that the response was unbelievable and gave them a shot in the arm. The women could not manage the orders from the Kanjiramattom looms and roped in the looms at Kannur, Chendamangalam and Koothampilly. The orders brought in a flurry of activity, of packaging, shipping, delivering etc.

Soon the products were featured in top American magazines. “Our turnover increased 10 to 15 times.” Encouraged by the response the women began to experiment further with designs. Some of their clients (mainly from abroad) were so curious about the weaving units and the thorthu that they wished to visit them when in Kerala. “Funnily it has become what we call thorthu tourism,” says Indu with a laugh. “They come and stay here with us and see our products and of course enjoy the beauty of Kerala.”

Though the women work as a group, it is Indu who leads the way. Sreedevi, manages the workers and looms. Lakshmi, Sreedevi’s daughter, helps with the design and Chitra, based in the US, works on the project from there.

‘Kara’ has diversified and introduced new products like bathrobe, the spa/parlour kit, cocktail napkins, picnic mats, trowels or travel towels and sports gear like wrist and matching head bands.

The hotel chain, Alila group, has placed a huge order for bathrobes. “It is a big order and we have the looms going again. I remember I told the weavers to get ready to weave in kilometres,” recalls a happy Indu who herself seems surprised by the success and that also, “mainly through e-commerce.”

Eco-friendly



Being a Malayali Indu always knew the goodness of the product. “Kanjiramattom is famous for the Eerezhayanthorthu , the twin-strand weave. The fabric is absorbent, takes little space, requires little water to wash, (one-fifth of a Turkish towel), dries quickly and is a Kerala souvenir.” she says matter-of-fact. “It lends itself to the energy conservation as it is hand woven so it is in all forms, eco-friendly.”

Indu is pleased at the way things have panned out. She feels satisfied that she has been able to keep the promise made to the weavers, of constant demand and prompt payment.

The Kanjiramattom handloom units, which were in bad shape, are on their way to revival. A marked improvement is seen in the lives of the weavers. The thorthu commonly seen tied on the heads of women here after a head bath is now being worn as ‘turby’ towel by foreign clients who are discovering the virtue of this handmade fabric. The unsung textile has come a long way, tying in its warp and weft the lives of rural weavers and chic westerns in a strange fascinating knot.



“Funnily it has become what we call thorthu tourism



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