Picking Up The Threads – A Story of Hope & Survival

When we thought the Kerala Handloom story was over, a new chapter had just begun!

Kerala has been in the news over the last month for braving the worst natural calamity it has tackled in a century! But it is a matter of great pride that in the face of adversity, God’s own country stood united and chose to fight back. Even as the waters receded and people started to get back to their lives, one of the worst affected were the handloom weavers of Chendamangalam! Their condition was disastrous, but was it a fatal blow to the already dying traditional craft? It would have been, if it were not for a group of like-minded designers like Shalini James, Sreejith Jeevan, Tracy Thomas, Indu Menon and Lakshmi Menon, who decided that they were not giving up just yet! They lent a helping hand to the handloom societies and gave a shout out to designers, handloom enthusiasts and every soul who wanted to help! And the result was just beyond remarkable! This is a beautiful story of survival, woven with compassion, generosity, unity and integrity!

Text: Riya Sonny Datson

Photography: Anoop Ajay

Venue: Le Meridien, Kochi

Chendamangalam, a small town in Ernakulam, has a vibrant history and tradition of handloom weaving that dates back centuries. The handloom cluster here recently acquired the GI certification (which means that the certified products have distinct qualities and are made using fine traditional techniques, for which the rights are reserved to a particular geographical area). But of late, the advent of power looms and global brands have led to a dangerous dip in handloom sales; to a point where sales had become festival centric. To add to their woes, the floods arrived just before the annual Onam sale, destroying precious stock and more importantly, the looms – their only source of livelihood!

“I read about Chendamangalam in the paper when Sojan, the secretary of one of the handloom societies, appealed to the public to come and buy their stock. So I decided to visit and see if I could help. But what I saw there was shocking. When Sojan opened the door to the go-down, I noticed that the flood water had damaged all the clothes that were kept till the mid room level! But nothing had been moved and the wet clothes were still in place. The remaining stock was dry but I realised that it had to be removed fast as there was the threat of fungus because of the dampness. That day, I bought a lot more stock than I had intended to buy but on my way back, I realised that it was not enough. Something more needed to be done and it had to be done quickly! That’s when I put up a post on facebook and appealed for help. Three more designers – Sreejith Jeevan, Tracy Thomas and Indu Menon came forward and decided to help by buying stock and reaching out to more people to help these societies. Gradually, people from across the world responded and we successfully sold close to 50 lakhs worth of stock in a matter of few days. It was just wonderful to witness such amazing mass generosity, which is a rare phenomenon,” recalls Shalini James, founder and lead designer of apparel brand, Mantra.

“After we managed to sell the stock, the second phase was ‘loom to life’! Apart from say, 40 looms that needed minor repairs, the rest had to be rebuilt completely which required Rs.40-45000/loom. We managed to rope in corporates to fund more than 114 looms as part of their CSR initiative, of which some of them have already received Government approvals to proceed. Most of the societies have received sponsorships and things are looking up but a lot more needs to be done,” says Sreejith Jeevan of Rouka. “The Government has given them an order for school uniforms which is an initiative that ensures fixed compensation but the weavers need orders that are design oriented to enhance their skills. More market oriented orders need to come in to sustain the craft in the long run. Considering the high cost of production, there is a need to upscale their product in terms of design so that it would cater to a high end market, who would value the skill and the craft. We have a long way to go and we have just begun,” he adds.

Kara weaves handles export of value added products made from these fabrics for more than a decade now. “When Kara started out, our first association was with Chendamangalam for their handloom fabric. Our inhouse design team led by my daughter, Chitra Gopalakrishnan, does value addition to these fabrics and converts them into table linen, bath linen and kaftans. During the crisis, even as the other designers took up the garment stock, Kara took up their towel stocks and managed to sell almost 90 percent of it. As the looms are being repaired, in the third and final phase, we plan to assist them with design and marketing intervention to prepare them for long term associations with design houses,” says Indu Menon, co-founder of Kara Weaves.

After loom to life, the third or final phase of the program aims at making these weavers independent and setting up a merchandising system to equip them to take up orders from across the country and abroad. “I think this is an opportunity for us to do more for our handlooms. With each generation, the use of these ethnic fabrics are reducing and with it, the craft is also vanishing, which is alarming.  It is very important that we innovate and find more ways to make it an integral part of our wardrobe. It is our aim to promote the handloom and make it accessible to people across India and abroad,” says Tracy Thomas, fashion retailer and founder of The Wardrobe.

It was indeed a great relief for the weavers to have their stocks sold and with the looms being repaired, they could finally see a ray of hope after the nightmare. “We still have stocks that need to be sold but we are hopeful about clearing them as we are closely working with designers. It is heartening to see the kind of support given to us by the Government, the designers, the media and all the other kind hearted people from across the world. We are grateful to the government and each one of them who gave us a helping hand and didn’t give up on us during our time of need. We have received yarn and accessories from the Government and with the looms being repaired using sponsorships, we are hopeful about the future,” says Sojan P A, Secretary of Chendamangalam Kaithiri Neythu Vyavasaya Production cum sale Cooperative Society.

With collective effort, the stocks that were not damaged were sold but the soiled stocks still remained a challenge. “Even if you don’t do great things, my motto is to do small things in a great way,” says Lakshmi Menon, a designer, an ecopreneur and a social entrepreneur. “I was actively involved in flood relief activities when my friend Gopinath Parayil of Blue Yonder, told me about the Karimpadam society in Chendamangalam. When I saw the whole pile of soiled handloom that was about to be burnt, it disturbed me deeply! I felt the strong urge to save it and I bought a soiled saree to see if I could use it in anyway. To my disappointment, even after washing it, the stains and damage remained and there was very little I could do. As I toyed with ideas, I thought of a mascot – a simple doll with its imperfections that would reflect our story, of our pain and scars, our hope, unity, strength and resilience – and thus Chekutty (Chendamangalam kutty) was born! This doll was made from the fabric and the yarn bought from the weavers. Even a child could make Chekutty, all one needed was a pair of scissors. From one soiled saree costing Rs.1300, we could make 360 dolls, each costing Rs.25, thus raising Rs.9000! Gopinath and I launched the concept and it was accepted by the masses – so much that we were literally running out of soiled sarees. The Government has asked other handloom clusters to follow the model as it is such a huge success. Chekutty was like a closure to the calamity we faced,” she says. Lakshmi had to travel to the US soon after it was launched and she took Chekutty with her. With the help of some friends and the Malayali association, she conducted a workshop in San Francisco and Chekutty was accepted with great enthusiasm by the community there. With the help of Google Evangelist, Gopi Kallayil, a Chekutty app is also in the making and will be up and running soon! Orders for Chekutty have been pouring in from across India and abroad. All the proceeds from the sale would go to the handloom society. You can buy your own Chekutty from www.chekutty.in!

So was the flood a boon or a curse for the Kerala handloom sector? “I think it was a landmark moment for Chendamangalam. The crisis has made them realise how much their product is valued across the world and it has given them pride in their product and craft. Once things sets rolling, it will be a new beginning for Chendamangalam handlooms. We can do our bit by just wearing our Kerala handloom more often!” signs off Shalini.