Thursday, August 10, 2006

Kerala's beauty

It takes centuries of peace in a region for art to blossom. The southern part of India has been fortunate in this respect. Except for the European traders in the last three centuries, there has not been much of international aggression here. Art and craft did thrive here.

Among the many crafts that evolved, textiles was an area that evolved considerably. There is something subtle and nice about the wonderful textiles from all over south India. The fact that they are mostly made from natural fibres and dyes makes them specially favourable for those who are environment conscious.

An interesting perspective lies in the textiles from Kerala. Traditionally the garment worn by the working women just covered their body below the waist. Called the mundu (which means lower), a similar garment was also worn by the men. The mundu seems the perfect textile for the hot and humid climate of this region.

An interesting point of contrast lies in comparison with the women of the north, who traditionally had to hide even their faces. The working women of Kerala could expose their full upper body till a few decades back without any fear of disrespect or lechery visible in the community. Raja Ravi Varma enamoured by their poise accurately captured this beauty on canvas.

Recently the neryathum (kind of duppatta) has been added to a blouse making it a three piece ensemble. The mundu is made of cotton and is traditionally woven by hand, peacock or simple temple designs embellish the pallu. The mundum neriyathum is also known as set mundu, kasavu mundu, mundu-sari, set-sari, or set veshti. The kasavu or the golden border is either pure golden layer, copper coated or now synthetic material is also used for the cheaper versions.

The karalakudi are white or unbleached textiles finely woven, light muslin with fine zaree border and pallu. The mundu veshti , normally worn on festive occasions has a Zari border whereas the ordinary textiles woven in Kerala have thread borders.

The kasragod sarees, which were once respected as masterpieces with the finest of yarn using traditional hand made methods. Unfortunately these have been relegated to a place of family heirlooms by the cheaper versions available. These cheap options are generally made with synthetic yarns and industrialisation. The original price of the kasragod sarees is anything between Rs 5,000 to Rs 9,000 depending on the silk yarn, gold zari and the colour patterns used. The cheap imitation is available for only Rs 300. These low cost solutions however do not have the same energy or feel.

An interesting point in the process of creating kasragod sarees is while weaving the cotton thread a special starch paste is applied on the yarn, which makes the yarn long lasting and the colours fast. It normally takes a week to weave the kasragod silk saree.

The Kerala handloom sector employees two lakh people directly or indirectly. With public favour, this figure could easily be in the millions, but without it, the end of this sector seems inevitable.

One of my favourite textiles for summer are the ones made in Kerala. These unbleached finely woven muslin with gold, red and green borders, are just wonderful to use for a kurti, kurta, skirt or a even a dress. Its simplicity with the right amount of gold zari gives it an urbane flavour with a gentle reminder of our fine heritage.



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