God’s Own Sari

God’s Own Sari

It has taken me thirteen days to write a piece on the Kerala sari. From that one distracted moment when it first struck me while at Lakmé Fashion Week till today, I “wasn’t feeling it enough” in my nerves. The reporter’s toil is coded into my work cells and I would usually do five or more stories in as much time. But the Kerala sari having coursed through me as “a good idea”, urging me to send a few excited texts to Kochi-based designer Sreejith Jeevan for his help in acquiring the right photographs—got coiled in the stomach of my mind.

Some Stream of Consciousness Excerpts, Unedited…
Not a single fashion designer thought of presenting anything, not even a momentary homage to Kerala handlooms at fashion week. Nor did the fashion week organisers. Though, Radhika Kaul Batra, chief of staff to the United Nations Resident Coordinator in India arrived in a cream and gold Kerala sari for the Sustainability Day. She called it the sari of the moment. Respect.

We can write this piece anytime, why do it during fashion week with so much else going on. Its Onam, oh, oh, shouldn’t the story have gone up today. What a loss of a news peg.

The news peg? What’s the peg? The real news peg are the Kerala floods. Weavers would be among the large numbers of people whose lives have been decimated and destroyed by the floods. The Indian Express even reported that the Chendamangalam weaver’s society in North Paravur has been severely hit. Stocks especially created for Onam had been destroyed.

An homage piece, really? That’s a wannabe approach. Especially as I may dress my words with plantain leaves, the fragrance of mogra flowers that lives long after love stories have wilted, the countryside in 365 shades of green, backwater homestays, chignon soft appams… some fancy lines on God’s own country. No, no, wait, think more…

The WeTransfer link with photographs that Sreejith Jeevan sent has expired, says an email from a colleague.


Traditional handmade white silk sari with golden details

The Personal Before the Political
And yet, the Kerala sari or the Kasavu by its birth name didn’t leave my thoughts.
The one way you can pay homage to a weave or a particular garment or anything really is by telling an honest personal story. It must of course bring enough information to become relevant for a larger readership. This is that kind of attempt.

After my mother passed away in 2012, when I was filing away her memories in a wooden trunk that I call a shrine to my dead parents, one of her possessions that I kept back was her Kerala sari. My own closet, is spiked with white and gold drapes. Some are Kasavu saris. The last time I went to Kerala, I stumbled into a cream sari with a silver border. Very sophisticated. This silver border however oxidized in a year or so. With thrift (not sustainability, because we learnt this word only some years back) built into my consumer behavior by parents who observed a conservative lifestyle, I took the oxidized silver sari to task by trying to polish it with my silver polishing cloth. It smiled again in a few places, but remained black-ish elsewhere. Yet, I haven’t let it go. I will find a way to do “something” with it. Or as Rakesh Thakore of Abraham & Thakore told me once when we were shopping together in Kolkata, “cream-white saris with thin borders make lovely summer curtains.”

Cream is the gold of this article because in its purist, pristine beauty lies the promise of simplicity, the hardest to achieve in dressing and style. It works beautifully on the entire range of Indian skins. Some will look fabulous in a multi-coloured Rajasthani leheriya, others will not. Others dazzle in ornate Kanjeevarams but some look like jewellery models. But find an Indian woman who looks inelegant in a cream and gold sari, or cream and red, or cream and maroon, or cream and green (for gold is not the only traditional offset) Kerala sari and I will find you a Kasavu made in Surat.

Kasavu and Cultural Loss
My friend and ex-colleague Elizabeth Kuruvilla, currently a senior editor with The Hindu, a Keralite by origin, who was raised in Kolkata and Delhi would wear her Kerala saris to work in the Mint newsroom. I would keep stealing glances at the charming, effortless way in which she combined Kalamkari prints, Ikats and other handloom blouses with her Kasavu. A striking emerald green worn with gold and white would declare Onam for the sari devotee in me.

So yesterday, I asked Eli, (Kuruvilla) what the Kasavu meant to her. She chose “simplicity” as one of her first words. “I am compelled by its off-white simplicity especially those with thin, neutral coloured borders. No garishness. I feel beautiful in it every time I wear it,” she said. Kuruvilla buys one or more every year and has a small Kerala sari collection.

She also admitted that while it may not be a part of some well thought out existentialist plan, she felt a sense of cultural loss and the sari was part of her harking for Kerala culture. “I am increasingly reaching out to everything to do with Kerala and feel a sense of pride about the sari as well.”


Photo: Image Courtesy Gurpreet Sidhu

Elizabeth Kuruvilla, senior editor at The Hindu with her kids

Not Every Piece Is Wondrous Nor Is Every Piece of Handloom a Sari
Not all the versions of the Kasavu are aesthetically great, as some productions come with bright, shiny gold borders, broad enough to skate on them. But the matte-gold, superior ones are Work, War and Love saris. Good to wear for all these karmic outings of life. Am hoping a male reader will respond to this letter and argue the same for the mundu (lower white drape worn by men), that is also woven in off off-white and gold. Not incidentally, the Nair or Nambiar homes in Kerala are matriarchal set ups. The bride inherits the home and the most beautiful off-white drapes too.

Jeevan is among other designers from Kerala, who through his label Rouka (derived from Roka, the stitched blouse buttoned at the top and tied at the bottom that is worn by women) want to give the state’s handlooms a fashion narrative and utility oriented style. His January 2015 collection called “Coming Home” was created to coincide with the Kochi Biennale. It had numerous wearable separates, tops and bottoms and dresses. It was for visitors who wanted to explore and understand Kerala beyond the touristy tag lines. He used the motif of a roadside tea shop instead of a plantain tree to cite one instance. There are other designers too.


Fashion Designer Sreejith Jeevan’s Rouka collection God’s Own made using Kerala fabrics

Kasavu sari advertisement by Jeevan

You want to live a bit of Kerala? As now is a really good time to do so and there are many ways to do it. But I would strongly advocate visiting the Kasavu sari as an idea and a wearable. The mundu too—white and gold.

“The royal family of Travancore played a key role in the settling of weavers in Kerala—the Devangas from the Mysore region and the Chalias from Tamil Nadu, namely the Kanchi area, more than a thousand years ago,” writes textile expert Rta Kapur Chishti in Saris: Tradition and Beyond. “It is because of the patronage they received that we find among them the finest weavers of the sett mundu (two-piece drape) …and more recently the one-piece sari which has become increasingly popular.” In the Kerala chapter of this seminal book, Chishti writes about how Kerala white reflects the harmony between climate and comfort before the advent of chemical dyes. “The unbleached white drape was considered pure and auspicious and was often dip-dyed in turmeric or saffron-tinted water to mark an auspicious occasion.”

For a weaving enthusiast, the Kerala sari that has a GI (Geographical Indication) status is woven in high fabric quality with limited patterned elements in the weaving templates. More reasons to tick simplicity and sustainability. These two would then be my litigating terms as I argue for God’s own sari.