Kerala’s own attire set- mundu, saree and dhoti are now getting ‘modernized’ with different brands coming into the scene. But it is a fact that the perfect handlooms of the place are still close to the heart of people. Such a village in Thiruvilwamala of Thrissur district is Kuthampully. Around 50 km from Thrissur town, we can still hear the rhythmic musical sound of the working of the throw- shuttle pit looms. Though most of these people have adapted to the changes of time, there are around 300 families still following the old- school technique of handloom.
It is believed that the Cochin Royal Family brought these people from modern-day Karnataka to weave clothes for the family. Most of them are from the Devanga Community. Though they reside in Kerala now, they still follow their own traditions and festivals as a part of their culture; and so Onam for them is their peak season of business than a well-celebrated festival. Some of them work even on the day of Thiruvonam.
As they receive bulk orders and other orders from shops and people, they start the preparation 3-4 months before Onam. The textiles contact them for Onam special clothes well in advance and individuals and organizations start approaching them at least before a month. According to S. Surjith, the proprietor of ‘Saravana Neythukada’, the 95% orders which they receive are for those which are produced by machine.
According to those who still use the traditional handloom machine, power looms considerably reduce the quality of the product. The perfect thread and golden design being the distinguishing factors of Kuthampully’s traditionally weaved products changes when the handloom turn to power looms. The perfection in design and alignment of the woven figures and patterns in a handloom woven saree or dhoti cannot be achieved by a power loom.
Also, the thread they use for handloom is so soft that it may break during the process and there should be a man helping the weaver in fixing the problem. This fine thread cannot be used in a power loom which works multiple times faster than handloom. Also, before being fed into a machine, the thread is starched if it is for the handloom. This is not possible if it is in the power loom. In short, the genuine unique pattern of each handloom saree or dhoti or any other product is not achievable in a power loom.
According to the older generation, the durability of the product also changes when it is power loom. When a handloom product can be used for more than 6 years, the maximum lifespan of a power loom product is 3 years. But as the price of a product from the power loom is lower than that from handloom, this is conveniently forgotten by customers.
The designs of Kuthampully products are also changing considerably. They are trying to adapt to the changing fashion and trend. They also accept bulk orders from outside. The extra pieces woven during these bulk orders are kept for sale as they cannot afford to leave a single piece unused as this is not a longer run business.
For a Kuthampully loom to work, the whole family should dedicate their entire time for this; it affects the education of children there. This may earn them somewhere around Rs 30,000 a month, according to Surjith. Hence the advantage of this being a family business employing the whole family was that the family would have enough money to lead a happy and comfortable life. But as youngsters there opt to study and prefer other jobs, this being a family business is negatively affected. Now what is happening in Kuthampully is that there are shops which employ the skilled older generation, pay them a salary and sell products through the shop. This will only leave the weaver with a salary just enough for meeting his bare minimum needs. This happens because the money which is given as salary gets split to feed different families and not members of the same family.
In 2019, though Onam is around the corner, they were affected by the heavy rains which lashed the whole Kerala this year. Things are getting better and they are now moving swiftly towards the peak of their dealings.
Now, the Kuthampully also have their cooperative society through which the member families sell their products. But the fact that this traditional art of the place is failing to attract youngsters into the field still stays strong. There were almost 2000 families working in handlooms in the village, but a decade has brought this down to somewhere around 300. The support from the government is also not able to work as a pull factor for the increased interest of the younger generation to turn into this profession transferred from one generation to another.
But these people still know the attraction of the whole world towards their products and so are continuing the weaving of Kuthampully saree, set-mundu and dhoti. Though the traditional attire is still their forte, they are now adding items to their product list to include other commonly used items like doormat, towels and even dhotis and shirts for infants and children. This willingness to adapt to changing time is what lets the culture to overcome the test of time. Many houses in Kuthampully still spend their entire day working on looms- be it handloom or power loom. There are visitors every day to buy their genuine traditional clothes.