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Fashion
September 25, 2018

How Kerala’s Looms Are Finding A New Lease Of Life

Text by Shubham Ladha

In the wake of the recent floods in Kerala, it’s handloom industry has struggled. As help pours in — fronted by fashion insider Ramesh Menon — we learn of the fight to let the craft thrive.

In mid-August, 2018, the floods that ravaged Kerala not only caused death and destruction, but also washed away the livelihoods that the state’s people had cultivated over decades of hard work. An integral part of their culture — that’s been damaged — is the Geographic Indication (GI) tagged handloom industry.

The district of Chendamangalam — situated in Ernakulam district — is one of the hardest hit. The flood waters have destroyed products, weaving equipment, dyes, furniture and thread — losses have been pegged at approximately ₹15 crores.

As an event consultant and talent mentor who’s been associated with the fashion industry for over two decades, Ramesh Menon saw a need to understand the situation in the area and help rehabilitate it. In a bid towards making the ‘handmade in India’ tag part of luxury lexicon globally, Menon was already working on a proposal on Kerala handlooms involving government and designers nationally, so he set up savetheloom.org. Excerpts from the interview:

How did this initiative come about? Who did you reach out to and how did they respond?

Savetheloom.org is a grass-root agency working on craft revival and exploring ideas to bring newer interventions.

On August 22nd, 2018, I reached out to the Chendamangalam weaving centres to find unbelievable destruction and mayhem. The deluge had taken away not just homes but also tools of their craft, with the water level being close to 2 metres and above at many places. The immediate reaction was to record and document what I was to see and speak to those affected.

Along with a friend of mine who’s a photographer, I set about documenting what we were seeing and inspecting. We wanted to figure out the impact of the calamity even before we planned a way ahead. 5 days into the field, we had collated real-time data, and went up to Trivandrum to meet government officials and brief them about the ground reality.

Given the situation, we had to spread awareness about the correct data, thus we moved quickly to set up savetheloom.org and began a social media campaign.We reached out to the fashion and lifestyle industry — designers, models, friends, corporate executives and the film industry in Kerala and elsewhere such as Janhvi Kapoor, Harshvardhan Kapoor, Sreejith Jeevan of Rouka, Gaurav Jai Gupta of Akaaro and many more — as we wanted to pave the way forward to bring long-term revival plan and bring in as much exposure as possible.

Currently we’re working as a support agency to all weaver cooperative societies liaising with government, and other agencies who are coming forward to support the revival at various levels.

How does the Geographic Indication (GI) tag help the handloom revive itself?

The Geographic Indication (GI) tag is a good tool to bind the craft to its place of origin and bring about authentication, but somewhere, it fails to instil pride or serve a larger interest since the products do not have a wider reach to market. The GI tag should also help talk about the USP of a certain craft with its ecosystem and why its protection is necessary to a mass consumer. That hasn’t translated yet.

How do you think the lives of the weavers will be rebuilt?

After coming to Chendamangalam, we have done a loom to loom survey and analysed the data to see the larger picture. 274 looms have been destroyed partially and completely across 7 weaving cooperative societies. The reparation costs are not just associated with repairing the looms, but also the infrastructure.

No weaver in this cluster makes more than ₹4,000 a month. The current generation has weaned away from this craft because of it. So that remains a cause of worry. 82% of the weavers are above 50 years of age, 90% are women, and it is still largely a cottage industry. There can’t be a GI tag and protection, but no one to make those products!

In the first phase, we are aiming to bring 50 looms to life, against all odds, and reduce the overall time period to revive all looms from 6 months to less than 3 months. We are aiming to bring in mechanisms at all levels, it’s certainly not an easy path. Unless we fix problems with great urgency in the entire supply chain, survival is tough. The handloom is a luxury and privilege, and that must be remembered.

What does the long-term plan — to rehabilitate the weavers and propagate the handloom industry — entail?

What we’re also trying to arrange is for the designers — who’ve worked closely with the looms — to bring in innovative design processes and techniques that’ll help it grow at a faster capacity, regular work and increased wages. We’ve understood that just as how there are design schools to promote design education, it’s also imperative to start educational facilities for weavers, which will boost their knowledge and skills.

The apathy towards handloom has continued through various messed up schemes and policies. Kerala had 200,000 weavers in 2001, and today 17 years later, the numbers have dwindled to less than 14,000. It’s been 10 years since the last government report came out and decade hence, there’s been no holistic, all-rounding solution that’s being brought to the craft. If we do not intervene now with solutions, the craft might be at a sorry state ahead.

How can one contribute to the cause?

One must simply ensure that the handloom is treasured. We should pay the right price and support weaving cooperatives. We should pride ourselves in wearing it as it is the ultimate form of luxury.

We need to aid the weavers with the right solution. At the organisation, we engage them on ‘5 E’ principle: Educate, Empower, Employ, Ecology and Ethicality. That chain can ensure we place pride on what the weavers painstakingly produce with passion and love for the only trade they inherited and know.

With regards to Chendamangalam, one can log on to savetheloom.org and send us your intent. Upon scanning how one wishes to contribute —whether it be buying products or helping in reviving the craft — one can contribute online, once we forward further details such as weaver profiles, loom costs et al.

What memories do the traditional handloom kasavu saris and mundus bring back for you?

We are adorned with it since birth, so I have many cherished memories with it. No auspicious occasion passes without wearing them. It’s timeless and pure in its origin. The simple textile needs no surface ornamentation besides the gold or silver zari for its richness, but to take the craft forward, experimentations are being done now.

The Kasavu mundu represents that purity and zen-like approach to a textile that’s made with relevance to Kerala’s climatic conditions. When hundreds of women in temples, at weddings, festivals and occasions wear similar off-white kasavu mundu saris with variating borders, it is a sight to behold. It symbolises the equality of society in many ways. The kasavu mundu, saris and dhotis are reminders and connect me to my Mother’s Kerala.

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