The Kasavu weave prides itself on being Kerala’s first-ever handloom entity to have achieved the GI (Geographical Indication) protected tag.
Birthed in Balaramapuram in the Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala, this weave is highly regarded for its ivory- or cream-colored backdrop, accentuated by a golden dobby (known as kasavu), which renders it an overall elegant, understated and pristine appeal – so much so that it has become synonymous with the state.
The Kasavu is steeped in history; dating back nearly 200 years. The fabric rose to fame during the heyday of the Travancore dynasty kings who deeply admired – and were ardent customers of – this weave.
Balaramapuram saris are traditionally produced from un-dyed, unbleached natural cotton, known as “kora” cloth, which acts as a bodily respite from Kerala’s searing summer temperatures. According to historical records, Maharaja Balarama Varma brought some weaving families (which belonged to the Saliya community) from Valliyur in Tamil Nadu to Balarampur so that they could weave the wispy cloth for the then royal family. He demarcated separate streets for them, and even provided them with financial aid. Ever since, Balarampuram’s handloom industry has flourished – today, the village employs thousands of weaver families, surpassing class, caste and standing in society. As a result, the finely made fabric is exported not only to other states in India but also to the Middle East.
The village houses a total of 22,000 looms and about 26,000 weaver families – figures that are enough to validate the domineering role that handloom still plays in Balaramapuram. Although utilized to craft saris, the fabric is also extensively used to produce mundus, pudava kavani (bridal attire worn in Southern Kerala) and dress materials.
The raw materials required to weave the fabric are cotton and zari (a thread coated with a thin silver wire, containing a small percentage of pure gold). The yarn is first cured (washed with water to rid it of impurities) before it undergoes the process of winding, wherein, with the help of a hand-operated charkha, weft yarn hanks are separated and wound around bobbins. Both the warp and weft yarns follow a different procedure for winding. This is followed by warping, a process of preparing warp sheets. “Vertical sectional warping” is a method which is especially prevalent in Balaramapuram, wherein the warp is created on a wooden drum and then combed thoroughly. After this, the warp sheets are slathered with a preparation of rice starch and coconut oil to prevent breakage of yarn during weaving. This, in turn, paves the way for the preparation of the loom. The warp sheet is manually placed on the loom, and equipment such as shuttle and reed, is held in place too.
The fabric is adorned with many unique, intricate features such as lace weaving, wherein both the front and back sides of the cloth carry a concurrent motif of the warp and weft yarns woven together. Another technique is the rib or “cross bar” effect, which has a continuous series of vertical zari ribs running through the border. In some cases, the temple border, or “puliyila kara”, and animal and geometric motifs, too, are used.
The most widely used handloom in Balaramapuram is the pit loom, and the yarn count ranges anywhere from 80S to as high as 120S. The weaver clusters and the process of weaving in itself are not yet commercialized as the weavers do not give in to consumer demands, stick to age-old customs of weaving, and do not follow any modus operandi other than their own.
Today, however, the signature ivory white of the sari is being replaced with many shades, due to which it is now being woven in varicolored versions. In some places, the zari, too, is no longer authentic, but merely a synthetic prototype. The blouses paired with these saris have also undergone a metamorphosis as simpler, traditional designs are being exchanged for more modern ones, in terms of coloring and pattern, and in some cases, even fabric.
The sari has transitioned significantly over the years but the true legacy of kasavu lives on in Balaramapuram, a place which is a breathing canvas of the region’s socio-economic and sartorial mores.