fine fine off white cotton with a layer of shimmery soft gold on edges, on ends, six whole yards of it. i absolutely love the kerala kasavu. i never knew what it was called, asking in my inelegant way for “you know one of those white and gold kerala sarees,” when my friend said her mother was going to her home town in the southern state. aunty bought me my very first kasavu, and as i stared feeling pretty tongue tied at its beauty, she gently recounted how it was getting harder to get the real kasavu. kasavu means gold zaree thread.
the tale of the kasavu saree takes you back all the way to the first references to sarees or “sattika” in ancient buddhist and jain literature, and even to the graeco-roman “palla,” an unstitched piece of cloth draped across the shoulders by women. my mind is leaping at this reference. so, does “pallu” (some call it “palla”) which is the free end of the saree that goes over the shoulder and swishes away at the back or front depending on how you drape it, come from a greek word? the addition of a thin border to a base of plain cotton may have come from the greek garments, wiki says.
kasavu, it’s believed, is the remnant of the ancient form of saree and initially covered only the lower part of the body, much like a sarong. over time, evolved the mundum neriyatham, the two-piece set, or the mundu set as it’s called. the full length saree came much later. while looking up the weaving traditions of kerala, i came across the channar revolt. was completely disturbing to read that till the nineteenth century, lower caste women were not allowed to wear “upper-body clothes” as part of caste restrictions sanctioned by the travancore kingdom. well, the nadar climber women fought relentlessly for this right and finally won it, however they had to make sure they adopted a style different from the upper caste women. strange sense of “upperness” that, how do people even think up such ways of feeling superior.
things have changed, kerala is one of the most progressive states in the country today and the status of women is far better i think than in many other places. on our recent four-day trip to cochin and kottayam, i again noticed how intensely colourful the place was. there were large urlis brimming with red hibiscus, pink lotus, pure blue bengal clock vine flowers; there were old richly green trees… plantations of rubber, pepper on lush vines, cardamom bushes, nutmeg trees, a huge variety of crotons and, of course, flowers of many shades. coconut palms swayed in the breeze, “kera” means coconut. the october skies were clear and blue, the backwaters and the sea shone.
the people here are many-hued too. for centuries, christians, muslims, hindus, and jews have lived together peacefully along the malabar coast. the syrian christians are amongst the oldest christian communities in the world. jewish traders have come to these shores from king solomon’s time and after the destruction of the second temple, many came seeking refuge. then arrived others. the malabari jews have a long history, settling first in cranganore, then moving down to cochin, or kochi, after the portuguese landed. the community has dwindled, a handful still lives around cochin. only six jews remain in mattancherry jew town. The well-known paradesi synagogue was built in this part of town by a sephardic community that came to kerala after the expulsion of jews from the iberian peninsula, in 1492. paradesi means foreigner. vasco da gama was buried in a church not far from the synagogue; the oldest european church and the oldest synagogue in the country.
the paradesi synagogue was built in 1567, and has a fabulous floor made of blue and white chinese hand painted tiles, sadly we weren’t allowed to take photographs, i had to resort to taking snaps of postcards. replicas of the original copper plates announcing the granting of land and many privileges to the jews by king ravi varman were on sale, made to mark the quarter centenary in 1968.
the shades, imagine, the many communities bring to the customs, food, music, even jewellery of kerala. and yet her saree is a simple plain off white with an understated real kasavu border. bengal is the only other state i know that loves its off white cottons.
as gold prices go up and younger women seek new fashions, the classic handloom pure kasavu is getting more and more difficult to find, exactly as aunty had said. a couple of years ago a friend picked up a pretty one for me with little motifs all across. she said it was done to wear it with a blouse in a deep colour, green or dark blue or red maybe.
on this trip, i bought one for myself from one of the two shops said to have the real thing still. for my daughter, i had to get a mundu set of course. as i was leaving the shop, my eyes fell on a silver bordered saree. what’s that? i asked. oh, a variation on the theme, this one in silver zaree. bought it instantly. i believe there’s a way of checking if this kasavu is authentic. i am not going to try it. just want to thank my friend’s mother for getting me my fist saree from kerala. it still gleams and falls softly, gossamer like.
a nice one on the sarees: http://gulfnews.com/gn-focus/special-reports/onam/the-magical-kasavu-1.858571
about those copper plates: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_copper_plate
sarees tell stories | two kerala kasavu, one from cochin, ramachandran handloom, 2015; the other, trichur/thrissur, around 2007.