At Kuthampully, a village on the banks of the Bharathappuzha river in Kerala, the ears grow accustomed to the unceasing, rhythmic voice of throw-shuttle pit looms which run inside every home. The traditional Kerala sari, settu mundu and dhoti are instantly identified by their unique drape and borders (the sari usually measures five metres, has a cream body decorated with golden motifs and golden or colourful borders), and come from the Kuthampully weaver’s village.
In September 2011, the Kuthampully sari received exclusive intellectual property rights through the Geographical Indication Act. But even before this, weaving was an integral part of the village – it is impossible to find a single house without its own traditional loom here, despite the big handloom production units that have sprouted across Kerala in the past few years.
According to Kuthampully’s residents, weaving is a community activity – there is no room for lone stars here. Entire families must pitch in, each playing their part in the process, with the head of the family (usually a woman) manning the actual loom.
Most of Kuthampully’s weavers actually have their roots in Mysore, Karnataka. The 500-year-old story that explains this transition to Kerala from Mysore, says that the rulers of Kollengode and Cochin invited Mysore’s famous weavers of the Devanga community, to become the official weavers of the royal family. Along with being handsomely paid, the weavers were given homes in Kuthampully, on the banks of the Nila river.
The weavers and their families adapted in curious ways. Their customs and festivals closely resemble Tamil culture and they are devotees of goddess Chamundeswari, whose main temple is 13 kilometres away from Mysore city, on Chamundi hill. In Kuthampully, Chamundi’s devotees have built two temples for the goddess, and the 1,000 families in Kuthampully celebrate a day dedicated to the goddess in February – the weavers believe that their craftsmanship is a direct result of Chamundeshwari’s benevolence.
Each home in the village is partly a showroom, filled with display units. The courtyards and drawing rooms are filled with Kerala saris and dhotis of every hue and design. Housewives function as saleswomen, an appropriate designation given their deep familiarity with the gold and cotton thread-count of each garment on display. Every home has a separate area designated as the “business office”, where cash is stored and transactions registered.
Since the streets function as production centres and markets, they are filled with visitors, everyone from big handloom sari suppliers to wedding parties searching for the perfect weave. To avoid confusion, each house displays the name of its residents, their phone number and brand name prominently at their gates.
Although the old-school throw-shuttle pit loom are being replaced by powerlooms everywhere, Kuthampully’s weavers prefer the traditional method and are resistant to change. The secret of the Kuthampully weave is its fine cotton (pavu) and pure gold thread (kasavu). Any alleged improvements in technology will only destroy the quality of craftsmanship and worse, it might anger Chamundeshwari.
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