The SavetheLoom project that revived Kerala’s handloom cotton and khadi, despite the devastating floods, is testament to how fashion as a system relies on a network; one that can be harnessed for social good and collective innovation. Edited excerpts from the article.
As part of the Kerala Khadi exposition, Kolkata-based Sanatanu Das, of Maku, made a symbolic piece that told the story of the floods – the names of every major town that was affected, along with the statistics ‘483 died and 14 missing’ were embroidered on to the garment.
The recent focus on crafts and artisans at India’s fashion events is an encouraging sign. Multiple designers have pledged allegiance to revive craft techniques through their labels and aligned themselves with craft clusters. The promotion of textile crafts as part of their design signature and the Make in India tag has also meant a greater understanding and appreciation amongst customers for these national treasures.
Indeed, some of these initiatives appear to be bearing fruit and, through shining a spotlight, they are also helping to make craft production more visible. However, in most cases, the designer remains a critical component to this process, holding the key to the craftsperson’s livelihood. Since designers are not always wedded to working with one single craft or tend to work with those that are most popular, some craft techniques just don’t make it to the centre stage. As a result, many still remain in disarray.
Master weaver T P Balakrishnan
Such is the plight of Kerala’s handloom cotton. A remarkably fine and sophisticated fabric – that is light and airy, subtle in its decoration, and humble in its overall impact. The kasavu (fine cotton) cloth woven in Chendamangalam’s handloom cluster is a response to the area’s unique climate, flora, fauna, soil, water, natural resources and culture. Aesthetically, this style of sari or mundu is a natural fit for the lush greenery that surrounds it and suitable for daily wear, but over time its wearing has become limited to special functions and traditional rituals. While it remains highly significant to people hailing from the region, it has for the most part been overlooked by the design fraternity in favour of more decorative textiles.
In Kerala alone, more than 200,000 weavers have given up their craft in the past two decades. Chendamangalam cotton’s GI (Geographical Indication) tag means that the government is committed to provide added benefits to weavers in order to preserve the craft. Some of these are in the form of monetary incentives, while others, like the school uniform project, are attempts at finding more avenues for handloom cloth. These stopgaps have done little to grow the craft and, in some cases, perpetuate the drop in quality and perceived value.
The Khadi unit lies in disarray post the floods. (All Images Courtesy of Dinesh Madhavan and SaveTheLoom.)
All of these issues had been irking Ramesh Menon for some time. Menon, through his years of experience working in the Indian fashion industry, had already witnessed many design models centred around craft in India, but few that really allowed the craft to be successful and independent of a designer at the helm. That was until he came across Rahul Mishra’s graduating project from the National Institute of Design (NID) that not only featured the Kerala mundu but also proposed a system for its sustained growth and evolution.
In February 2018, Menon put forward a proposal to the various government bodies concerned with Kerala’s handloom crafts to take forward a vision he had harboured for a while – to work on artisan upliftment with a sustainable approach. Menon visited his family in Kerala in the first week of August and was poised to launch this project on August 7, 2018, to coincide with national handloom day.
But then the flood waters came and changed everything.
Arti Sandhu is an Associate Professor of Fashion Design at Columbia College Chicago and the author of the book Indian Fashion: Tradition, Innovation, Style.