India’s textile tradition is an elegant legacy perfectly preserved over thousands of years. Of all the arts and crafts of India, traditional handloom textiles are probably the oldest. Stretched across the country, each region in India has its own distinctive fabric and, a wide range of design and weaves particular to that region.
Mention Indian fabrics and the first image that comes to mind is that of textiles in a spectacular range of beautiful colors - Magnificent bright colored silks of Kancheepuram and Mysore, gadwals, ikkarts, patolas, jamdanis - the list goes on. In sharp contrast to this multihued collection, Kerala’s soft gossamer thin off white cottons laced with golden boarders and elegant designs stands apart as a symbol of graceful sophistication.
With demure unbleached off white fine cotton yarn Kerala weavers create fabrics of exquisite design and alluring beauty. The aesthetic sense of Kerala weavers lies in their mastery over the creation of designs. For the weavers of Kerala nature is an unending source of inspiration. The intricate designs on these fabrics reflect the designs found in nature – parrots, peacocks, lotus, leaves, and creepers as well as geometric designs. Depending on the intricacy of the designs, it often takes several days to finish weaving just one exquisite piece. And each piece is a unique expression of the artist’s talent. The weaver weaves with not just yarn but with sentiment and emotion. Some of the best quality fabrics use finely spun cotton of 200 counts for the warp and the weft. Today these fabrics are woven as saris, two-piece Kerala mundu, as material for popular salwar kammez and dresses, bedspreads, table cloths and napkins.
The intricate tapestry borders and gorgeous pallus (tail end of the fabric that goes over the shoulder) of saris are woven in golden thread and cotton. The body of the textile is embellished with golden designs. These intricate designs woven with golden threads enhance the opulence and value of the fabric. In the olden days the fine golden threads were made from pure gold. Later it was replaced by silver threads plated with gold. These fine metallic threads enhance the beauty and the value of the fabric.
Cotton breathes even as it drapes the wearer in cool comfort. In Kerala’s tropical climate cotton remains the ideal fabric. Colorful clothing never fascinated our ancestors in Kerala; they were quite content wearing just plain hand woven cotton fabric, with a touch of color added with a colored border. On festive occasions the same cotton embellished with golden threads is preferred. Kerala’s conventional attire mundu, a two piece cotton fabric – one wrapped around the waist and the other draped over the left shoulder – is traditionally woven with plain colored or golden borders. Today mundu also comes with intricate borders and colored threads woven into the fabric. A Kerala bride dressed in a simple traditional two-piece kasavu mundu is an epitome of subdued elegance.
The handloom weaver is an artist and all his senses of touch and sight come into play in the process of weaving. He is well aware of every nuance of the weave and energizes the rhythm of the loom to coax it into producing the finest of textiles. He throws the shuttle through the tightly stretched warp threads, back and forth, over and over again. He beats the warp rhythmically while the wooden pedal is depressed to synchronize the throwing of the shuttles.
The old south Indian weavers belonged to a separate caste, married and lived within their community, and the trade was passed down from father to son. Every home in their village would have one or more loom in the front of the house. The members of these communities are involved at every level of production and distribution of the handloom fabrics.
There is one such community, Devangapuram, near my home town. The person selling their handloom fabrics to the villagers is known as chettiar. He would bundle his wares and visit homes in the neighborhood. He would throw a large sheet on the floor and spread the clothes on it. Often the ladies of the house would bargain for a fair price. This is a practice that continues to this day. But instead of walking the streets with a bundle on head, these days the chettiar arrives on his motor bike.
On a recent trip home I asked the chettiar if I could come to see the looms at Devangapuram. He was very happy to show us around. Narrow streets were lined with small homes, and giant looms occupied the front rooms of the houses. He took us from house to house (his uncle's, his cousin's, his brother's and so on) in the neighborhood to show the weavers in action. It was fascinating to watch the weaver at work. One of them explained how the designs were created on the fabric - the yarn is passed through the holes on a deck of thick cards. The holes on these cards are punched in a specific way to create the desirted motif. Such simple technology, but the results were magnificent. They showed us their latest creations but were baffled why we wanted to take pitures of their looms.
I asked one of them if he would be interested in weaving fabrics to market abroad. His instant response was – “but I don’t have enough hours in a day to weave fabrics to meet local demand. Then how can I weave for a foreign market”. The idea of marketing abroad for profit was not a concept he understood.
Our textiles were proverbial in parts of the ancient world as early as 200 B.C. Roman ships docked at ports on the Southwestern India to pick Indian fabrics. And they paid dearly for the prized fine cotton fabric which was known as mul mul khas. Trade in cotton with the west continued to flourish and our delicate woven fabrics were exported to the Arab states, to Africa and the prospering nations of Europe. Greek traveler Megasthenes wrote about the quality fine muslins of India. Centuries later British colonial rule drained India of its precious textile heritage. With the Industrial Revolution in Europe, India was reduced to becoming a supplier to textile mills in Manchester, Birmingham and Lancashire. The handloom weavers were nearly destroyed, with the import of cheap printed fabrics from England. Mahatma Gandhi's zeal inspired nationalists to reject foreign fabrics and hand spun cotton known as khadi became a statement which decried foreign exploitation of the Indian economy. Indian fabrics have come a long way since then.
During the 1960’s handloom industry faced another threat from within the country – that of the power looms. The cloth these machines produced were finer and cheaper and buyers looking for value turned to milled cloth. Despite this very tangible threat, because of its tradition of design and texture, the handloom industry continued to survive with the dramatic rise in exports. Indian handloom fabrics are a prized commodity abroad. Besides mass produced fabrics were never a match to the beauty of hand woven fabrics. Today the handloom industry is the largest economic activity in the informal sector after agriculture. It is an integral part of rural life and thousand depend on these looms for their livelihood.
Peoples’ tastes have of course changed and today colorful fabrics are very popular in Kerala. However, the charm of the off white cotton with delicate gold work still remains a favorite of Malayalis. And just as the multicolored fabrics have spread to Kerala, the elegance Kerala cotton is popular in other parts of India and abroad.