Yes, say designers and entrepreneurs from Kerala who are trying to take the Kasavu beyond just a festival. Ramesh Menon of Save The Loom that works with weavers in Kerala and designers all over India is a man on a mission to bring about change. His idea is to retain the traditional forms but make clothing that has a larger appeal and market, besides just the Malayalis in Kerala. He says, “Today, consumers want to buy something they can wear year round and not just splurge on ‘traditional wear’ limited to wearing only for festivals, temple visits or weddings. We want to move handloom to a luxury space beyond the festival and occasion season that increasingly is prone to disruptions.” To that end, Save The Loom’s inhouse design lab has worked with artisans and partners across Kerala – Balarampuram, Chendamangala, Kuthampully and Palakkad . Their Olam collection worn by actresses Parvathy Thiruvothu and Samyuktha Menon among others has turned out to be a path breaking exercise. “The singular idea is to bring in design elements that makes the textile far luxurious by multiple traditional processes – from pre-loom to post loom, and reduce the kasavu (zari) to minimum, yet prominent enough to give a signature,” he adds.
(Save The Loom Kasavu)
Small changes, big difference
The conventional market commercially pushed from Kuthumpally still goes with screen-printed motifs and designs. And the classics are still consumed in its traditional forms and simplicity. But there is a new trend emerging, and organisations like Menon’s, designers like Bindu Nair of Ela and Sreejith Jeevan’s of Rouka are making the Kerala Kasavu more versatile.
Nair, based out of Palakkad in Kerala, works with only basic Kerala Kasavu in silver and gold, and still roots for the classics. She offers variations in the plain Kasavu and yet is almost sold out for this Onam season. Nair has noticed the heartening trend that people – and not just Malayalis – are now buying the Kerala Kasavu and the sales are going beyond Vishu (Malayali New Year) and Onam. She adds, “Now Kasavu sales are mostly year around which is great with many non-Mallus discovering the sari.”
Making the Kasavu non-seasonal has been something that Jeevan of Rouka has been focussing on since he launched the first sarees in 2019. This Onam, he says that it has become more relevant since people are buying more consciously and looking for products that are more wearable. Jeevan says, “Addition of colour has been a change we have seen and have made. While we love the traditional and promote it, we also feel it is important to make Kasavu more universal by adapting it to our present day lives. And more importantly to the lives of more people across the country than just Kerala. A slight tweak can make a huge perception change to the saree that is then more versatile and contemporary.”
Agrees Menon who will be working with designer Rahul Mishra. In his debut line at Lakme Fashion Week in 2006 and later in 2013, Mishra has worked with handlooms from Kerala. Menon says, “Today the market is far wider than just Malayalis. There are brands and designers outside Kerala bringing out collections that plays on the idea of off-white and zari. Some even dedicated their lines for Onam like Anavila Misra last year. The cotton woven in Kerala is in very fine count and has huge potential to command a global market,” he says.
(Ela Silver Kasavu)
Legacy of Kasavu
Menon feels that the legacy of Kasavu or the form of textiles consumed in Kerala has far greater relevance and significance besides being part of the culture. Agrees Nair who says that a handloom Kasavu is a dream to drape and even though she counts everyday separates as her strength she wants to work on a saree edit that updates the saree by collaborating with block print experts outside of Kerala. Many brands may be taking out a cream and golden border sarees around Onam but they are not the original Kerala handloom fabric, says Nair. “For a lay consumer, it’s not an easy task to make our handloom vs power loom. There are very small differences that are evident only to an expert eye,” she cautions.
Interestingly, along with the saree, the Kerala mundu is also something that is being rethought by designers. Menon tells us that mundu sales are more than any other handwoven textiles and is ‘bread and butter’ for most weavers across Kerala but as for design intervention, very little or practically nothing has been done so far. Save the Loom introduced (and continues to make) the range of colour mundu without kasavu or the conventional kara during the Kochi Muziris Biennale. “It’s still a long way to make it a daily wear or occupy evening wear space, as many consider that anything non offwhite goes into the ‘lungi’/ home wear space,” he says. Jeevan has found that the men are a lot more experimental and love to dress up. “We launched our first mundu with embroidered birds back in 2020. It was quite popular last Onam. This year we brought out the Elephant mundu,” he says.
While reimagining the Kasavu is an interesting thought, Nair says it’s not as easy. “There’s a push back from the weavers too but now few are opening to the possibility,” she says. But the demand for something different by the consumers is changing the saree. Jeevan says, “Many traditionalists believe that we must not contemporarise it but I feel its important to have both worlds. It helps the weavers to have as many people wear their craft and for that design is essential.”
Menon says that in the age of social media we have to strive to make products that not only retains the identity of the region and craft but also work intrinsically to make the textile rich in its form. He adds, “We receive maximum response (67%) from the 18-34 age group. And another 21% in the age 35-44 group. This reflects the transition we managed to achieve in less than three years of focussed work.” The Kerala Kasavu might just be coming of age.