Think of Goa and the mind instantly conjures up images of sinuous streets cutting through emerald-shaded forests, azure beaches and postcard-perfect houses that hearken back to the Indo-Portuguese era.
However, what we oftentimes overlook is that the "sunshine state" harbors myriad other cultural wonders, one of which is the humble Kunbi sari.
Touted to be the oldest weave of the state, the sari is said to have been the staple garment of women of the Kunbi tribe. The name itself is a portmanteau of words kun, which translates to family, and bi, which means seed. Figuratively, this forms the underlying essence of the textile — in that it is a representation of familial ties and a skill that has lived through generations.
If records are anything to go by, the sari served more purposes than one. It was the chosen cloth of functionality and comfort for the Kunbi women who toiled endlessly in sprawling paddy fields.
What distinguishes the Kunbi weave from its regional counterparts is that it is traditionally worn sans a pallu or a blouse, draped lightly across the waist and fastened only with a front knot on (usually) the right shoulder. The sari is said to have been predominantly dyed in red and its variants, which were believed to have been derived from a wild fruit — known as jafflinchi fala — that grows in the rumbling hills encircling Goa.
Formerly woven by indigenous peoples themselves, this six-yard sari consisted of a sturdy jute-like fiber (also called kapad), which was woven using pit looms, where the yarn underwent processes such as carding (careful selection of the fiber) and reeding (checking of discrepancies in the yarn using a reed, a comb-like part of a loom), among many others. The size of the check varies from community to community, proving how the sari was the driving force behind the socio-cultural mores of the state. The fabric is usually kept coarse (i.e. a yarn count of 20S) but it can be made finer (up to a count of 40S to 60S) depending on the demand, requirement and occasion.
The Kunbi sari may be best-known for its frill-free aesthetic, which features a checked motif throughout (made more endearing by the addition of a relatively shiny border at the bottom) but upon inquiring further, a lesser-known philosophy seems to be governing the design. For one, the color red denotes the buoyancy and vitality that permeates Goa, while the check draws heavily from the creative forces of nature, where both the horizontal and vertical lines embrace each other to form a sacred block of space.* The textile is also believed to be auspicious, and is hence worn to ceremonies as well as cultural and religious events.
Over the years, much of the sari’s original glory has been sliding down a steep descent, thanks to unsustainable materials such as artificial silk and synthetic fibers inundating the market. In the 1970s, in the wake of the government’s decision to install power looms, much of the Kunbi weaving began being outsourced to its immediate neighbour, Maharashtra. Due to this, the number of native weavers practicing this art has reduced at a staggering rate.
Some solace, however, can be found today, as torchbearers (Dr. Rohit Phalgaonkar, Vinayak Khedekar, among others) across the realms of research, history and design, are increasingly trying to, quite literally, reinvent the wheel.
Present-day renditions of the Kunbi often stray from the traditional reds to a diversified palette of blues, greys and ivory hues.
For instance, in 2001, at the Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, Goan designer Wendell Rodricks took the saris from farm to ramp, where the checks were wider, the colors were muted and the border inset was non-existent, lending the sari a contemporary spin.
Similarly, Goa Adivasi Parampara, an initiative fronted by Phalgaonkar, which is dedicated to the cause of resuscitating the handloom, produce an authentic array of Kunbi weaves, including the Navdurga, Lairaai and Santeri saris.
Handloom trading portal Kai Thari also joined the ranks of the revival efforts when a few years ago it allied itself to a local weaver of the Kunbi sari, in order to breathe life into the gradually waning textile.
This only goes to show one thing – as much undermined as it is celebrated, the Kunbi sari may have been slightly lost in the spirals of time, but its spirit lingers on.
*As noted by eminent textile historian Jasleen Dhamji.