Wearing your culture – the Nivi drape and the Mundum Neriyathum

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

My daughter’s school is festive with pookolams today as the school gets together to celebrate Onam. A traditional Onam Sadya is going to be served at school, and all the children are wearing traditional clothes today.

2. pookolam

Onam is a multi religious festival in Kerala which celebrates the Vamana Avatara of Vishnu and the homecoming of their King, Mahabali.

3. mahabali and vamana jpeg

After being sent in the underworld by the Vamana Avatar of Vishnu, King Mahabali is said to visit his subjects and his kingdom once a year on Onam, from the netherworld , and it is this visit along with the coming of the Vamana Avatar itself that is celebrated at Onam. The festival also celebrates the bounty of nature’s harvest and homes are decorated with beautiful flower kolams or pookolams and a grand 26 dish repast, called the Onam Sadya is served across homes in Kerala.

7. Onam Sadya

As with all festivals in India, the attire you wear tells everyone that you are celebrating something. The Saree, which for a lot of us today is worn only during a festive occasion, has been traced back to the Indus Valley civilisation. The word saree itself originated from the Prakrit word, “Sattika” which meant a strip of (unstitched) cloth.

In the Indian tradition, the navel of the Supreme Being is considered the seat of life and creativity, which is why the traditional saree wearing style leaves the midriff bare. The sari finds mentions in Silaapadikaram and Banabhata’s “Kadambari” which describe the sensuous grace of women in sarees.

When Draupadi was dragged into the Kaurava court after being gambled away, the Mahabharata mentions that she was wearing an “Ekavastra” – or a single piece of unstitched cloth. This definition continues to hold true until today, and the sari is a 4 – 9 metre long piece of unstitched cloth.

Some historians believe that the men’s dhoti is the forerunner to the saree. Gandhara and Mathura sculptures from 1 AD to 6 AD,  depicts dancers and goddesses wearing a dhoti as a wrap, draped loosely around the legs and flowing into a decorative piece in front of the legs like a fish tail. No upper garments are shown.

3.12th century apsara

In the ancient world, whether it was India, Greece, Mesopotamia, draping an unstitched cloth was considered the most elegant way to dress. It was the art of the elite to arrange the folds of a toga or the pleats of a sari to give them a garment that was both aesthetically pleasing and also enabled their easy movement.

300px-Marcus_Aurelius_at_the_British_Museum

Marcus Aurelius depicted in a Roman Toga

The toga, for instance was a 6 metre unstitched woollen cloth worn over a linen tunic, adapted from the native dress of the Etruscans. It was believed to have been established at the time of Numa Popilia, the second king of Rome, and was considered the only decent attire that a Roman could wear outdoors. Free citizens of Rome wore Togas to distinguish themselves from the slaves who only wore tunics. From 2BC, the toga began to be seen as the symbol of Roman citizenship, so much so that when Emperor Augustus saw a meeting of citizens without the toga, he is said to have quoted the poet Virgil’s lines and referred to Romans as “rerum dominos, gentemque togatam” (Lords of the World and the Toga wearing race) and then instructed people not to appear at the Forum or Circus Maximus without their Togas.

Draped unstitched garments are now lost and are no longer worn in most of the Western World. They still continue to exist in Scotland through the Scottish Kilt. However, Asia continues to maintain its tradition of wearing draped, unstitched garments through the Sub Continent’s Sari and Dhoti and the South East Asian sarong.

The sari drape we wear across India is called the Nivi drape. Apart from this more than 100 different drapes exist across India, favoured by different regions and communities.

5. Raja Ravi Varma - Instruments

 

The Nivi drape, gained nation wide acceptance around Independence for a variety of reasons.

The paintings of Ravi Varma were as important factor: while he depicted women in different saree drapes, including the Mundum Neriyathum which we are going to explore, he metaphorically depicted the Indian subcontinent as a Mother wearing a flowing Nivi drape.

Cinema also had an important role to play in the adoption of the Nivi drape. Many actresses in the early decades of Indian cinema were usually featured in the Nivi drape unless they portrayed women from different regions which were symbolised by different saree drapes.

8. Nargis - Hindi Movie actress

 

The freedom movement in India which was symbolised by Khadi was another factor in the universal adoption of the Nivi drape. The Indian women freedom fighters wore their Khadi sari using either a Nivi drape or a Gujarati drape.

4. Mahatma Gandhi & Sarojini Naidu Dandi March

Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar popularised both the Chiffon sari and the Nivi drape. The chiffon sari would later be worn with equal grace, beauty and aplomb by her second daughter Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur. Maharani Indira Devi was a trendsetter in many other ways apart from her sari draping style. At 18, she famously broke her engagement to the Raja of Cooch Behar as she had fallen in love with his younger brother, and wrote to the Maharaja herself calling off her wedding. After being widowed early, she followed the convention of wearing whites, but transformed her mourning clothes into clothes of fashion by having silk chiffon saris woven in France to her specifications. This new chiffon sari along with the other factors we discussed homogenised sari fashion across India.

1. Maharani inidra devi of cooch behar

However, despite the popularity of the Nivi drape, certain traditional drapes of sari continue to be associated with our festivals.

For Onam, which is being celebrated across Kerala and in many Malayalee homes outside of the home state today, Onam is teh occasion to wear the the Mundum Neriyathum.

Our guest writer today, Gitanjali Menon, a friend of mine from college, a proud Malayalee and a person who celebrates her cultural roots with great joy has graciously agreed to write this mini piece today for us. A banker by profession, Gitanjali has taken time off to nurture her two young girls. She is passionate about classical dance and is currently returned to her passion and is training in Bharathanatyam at Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi. She blogs in her free time and is also training in classical piano.

Here is Gitanjali speaking about the Mundum Neriyathum.

A traditional garment in Kerala, Mundum Neriyathum, is made up of starched undyed hand woven cotton cloth worn by women. The material is comfortable and suitable for the hot and humid climate of Kerala and can be washed regularly requiring very little maintenance.

The attire comprises of two pieces of cloth, the Mundu and the Neriyathum.  They are normally white or cream in colour and have a plain or designed border called ‘Kara’ in Malayalam. The ‘Mundu’ or ‘Thuni’ meaning cloth in Malayalam is worn around the waist and extends to the ankles in length and the ‘Neriyathu’ is either draped diagonally like a saree over the left shoulder (modern style of draping) or wrapped around the torso and tucked into the blouse (traditional style of draping). The blouse is normally worn matching the Kara of the Neriyathu. The Mundum Neriyathum is also known as the Set-Saree or Set-Mundu as it is a set of two mundus. This garment is believed to have inspired the ‘Nivi’ or national style of draping Sarees, which is popular amongst most Indian women.

There are many different theories about the origin of this attire. In Buddhist and Jain Literature there is mention of  ‘Sattika’ which was the surviving form of the ancient Saree.  The Mundu is the extant form of an ancient clothing referred to as ‘Antariya’ or lower garment and Neriyathu is the modern adaptation of a thin scarf worn from right to left shoulders referred to as ‘Uttariya’ in ancient Buddhist and Jain texts.

The narrow borders along the Mundu Neriyathum are also believed to be an adaptation of the Greco Roman costume ‘Palmyrene,’ which comprised of two pieces of cloth; one worn over the body and the second, called ‘Palla,’ long piece of unstitched cloth, worn over the left shoulder. It is believed that traders from the Mediterranean visiting the Malabar Coast must have introduced it and the attire has evolved over time to its present look

9. Raja_Ravi_Varma,_There_Comes_Papa_(1893)

During festivals such as Onam and Vishu, most women wear another variant of the Mundum Neriyathum called the ‘Kasavu Mundu.’ The Kasavu Mundu is different because of its golden/copper or Zari border, which gives the attire a richer look. During the festival of Onam all women across age groups wear a Kasavu Mundu and perform a folk dance called ‘Kaikottikali’ in a circle around a ‘Nilavilakku’ or large lit lamp. Traditionally, young unmarried girls wear green coloured blouses and married women wear red blouses with their Mundum Neriyathum.

A part of our sustainable fabric series is about celebrating our cultural roots and our traditional Indian attire. We have more posts on the subject coming up. In the meantime a very happy Onam to you.

We hope that our series on sustainable fabric is inspiring you to take a closer look at your wardrobe. Our series on sustainable fabric has the following posts: 

  1. Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
  2. On the One Person Satyagraha and why you should start one
  3. On the environmental and human health hazards of chemical dyes
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
  6. The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
  7. Our post interviewing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.
  8. Our post on the warped state of Handlooms in India and what ails the sector is here.
  9. Our post on the dangers and all pervasiveness of Bt Cotton is here .

 

 

 

 

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The Sutra of thread – part 1

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Reading Time: 8 minutes

Ignorance, in the case of Indian textile crafts is certainly not bliss. As I put together this series on textile crafts and the sustainable fabric tradition of India, I am continually amazed at how rich, varied and wonderful our textile traditions are.

I am also angry at the myopic school system that I studied in: none of this made its way into our curriculum, and was only offered at an advanced level in college or as a part of a Masters Programme. This compounded ignorance led me, in my early working days to mass produced clothing which I found in Malls. This clothing was not really cheap, but it was easily available, and seemed to be the norm around me.

Today, when I see power loom fabric being passed off as handloom, and synthetic dyes and screen printed fabric ruling the roost, I remember my time as a young working adult, making financial choices, and realise my choices have created the word I see today.

As I reached out to textile enthusiasts and people passionate about handlooms and crafts, I found a world of information, environmental sustainability and beauty just around the corner. And I’m happy to see the Krya blog hosting this information.

We are happy to share this guest post written by Richa Dubey on the textile traditions of India and how different types of weaves and fabrics exist for the different seasons in India.

Richa wears many many interesting hats. She conceptualised and runs a gender activism campaign ( see www.bitly.com/GurgaonGirlcott ); leads public affairs for a prospective national innovation university; built an advocacy strategy for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative’s India office; anchors a breakfast show on national television and manages an international world music festival.She also leads the marketing practice at niiti consulting a for-profit social enterprise consulting firm. She is a passionate believer in environmental, social, cultural and economic sustainability (which is why she works at niiti). Her life is currently ruled by her children (one each, canine and human) her work and her passions (and all of them intersect, so it’s fine)

We are especially proud that Richa is a passionate Krya consumer, and that is how we came to meet her and know of her work.

 Here is Richa Dubey’s lyrical, eloquent piece on how Indian textile crafts offer different fabrics for the different seasons of India.

How often have we heard of the diversity in India? Its climate, food, culture, philosophy (in the 6th century BC there were at least 200 different schools of philosophy that co-existed). One example of this rich diversity is textile. Marvellous in its variety, texture, fibre… not forgetting the textile techniques that embellish a fabric, there is possibly a traditional textile that exists for every single occasion in your life, though we shall limit ourselves to the seasons in this piece.

However, before embarking on this journey through the warp and weft of India, where a common thread of understanding runs through the land, it is important to touch upon, at least briefly, the reasons why it holds such an important place in our lives.

Right from the philosophical to the everyday, the understanding of fabric has been intrinsic to the understanding of India. The Rig Veda pictured the universe as a cloth woven by the Gods – the cosmos an infinite length of fabric with its warp and weft constructing a pattern upon which all life is painted.

Much later, Kabir, the 14th Sufi poet-saint (who was also a weaver) likened the Absolute to the divine weaver and our souls to a pristine scarf which is sullied by a life of ignorance and sin in “Jheeni jheeni beeni chadariya” (incidentally, this piece by the late Pandit Kumar Gandharv is my favourite rendition)

2. kabir

As with other facets of daily life in India, philosophy and common wisdom spills over into textiles as well. Just as Ayurveda advises the eating of fruits and vegetables in season, it makes sense to pick traditional textiles according to the season as well.

Beyond being weather-friendly, these natural weaves and techniques also reflect the changing moods of the year and incorporate festivals into their lexicon.

The essence of Spring

Beginning with the season of Spring which takes the first place in the time-honoured Indian cycle of seasons, we see it blooming in textiles as an expression of eternal rejuvenation. Vasant is the season of rejuvenation of cosmic energy. It stands for new beginnings represented by fresh blossoms. It is also the time when Kamadev releases his flower-tipped arrows of love.

The essence of Spring has been captured in the repertoire of Indian motifs known as butis, butas and bels. Different regions of India have interpreted these motifs according to their own aesthetic sensibilities. While the Bagru tradition from Bagru in Rajasthan  is famous for floral designs in dark vegetable colours, the Kalamkari tradition from Macchlipatnam interprets them differently. In North India where Mughal influence still lingers, they take on a stylized air in gracefully drooping flower-pots. From whichever region, whether painted, embroidered, hand-block printed, or more recently, screen printed, they form an integral part of the Indian design lexicon.

One of the most popular motifs which are symbolic of eternal Spring, is the Tree of Life. Although not native to India, it has been a symbol of life, fertility, livelihood, food and protection for centuries.

4. tree of life sweden

Thus, when Indian crafts persons or women at home sought to embellish textiles it was natural that the tree motif was often embroidered, woven, printed and painted on fabrics.

3. tree of life in kantha

 

Its symbolism has been shared in ancient cultures across the world and the tree motif has found expression, both in natural and stylized representations, in varied art forms. At another level the tree is a representation of the Great Mother Goddess. The physical and metaphysical source of life was considered to be manifested in the life-giving powers of the earth and the feminine body, which the Tree is said to symbolize. And there is perhaps no better a time to celebrate this form of fertility than the season of spring, when there is an abundance of blossoming life forms.

 

The summer begins

The fragrant breeze of Spring gives way to the scorching wind of the summer – the loo. People venture out only when absolutely necessary and then, clad themselves in the lightest fabrics possible. The thread of seasons weaves into fabrics like mulmul, jamdaani and kota…

The quality of the fine muslins of India was probably best described by the Sufi-poet Khusrao in the 14th century. “One would compare it with a drop of water if that drop fell against nature, from the fount of the sun. A hundred yards of it can pass through the eye of a needle, so fine is the texture…” So sheer was this fabric (woven in counts of 2000) that the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is said to have berated his daughter for her indecency in appearing unclothed before him. The daughter responded that she was wearing seven layers of cotton mul!

According to Laila Tyabji of Dastkar, What is unique about India is that it transformed cotton from being a kind of a village fabric in to something that kings and emperors and queens… not just in India but all over the world used.

The most prized muslins were woven in Dhaka and were so coveted since ancient times that Roman texts blamed the vanity of Roman women for emptying Roman coffers of gold for Indian cottons. Some of these were especially reserved for the use of royalty. In fact it was these same muslins that drew the British to Bengal . The picture below is a depiction of a Bengali girl clothed in layers of fine Dhaka Muslin.

1.Muslin girl by renaldi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bengal was also home to a special muslin weave – this was the jaamdani – the ethereal weave which uses an extra weft and gives the motifs the appearance of floating on the ground. Jaamdaani lives even today as the fabric of choice for the humid summers of Bengal. UNESCO has declared the art of Jaamdani weaving as an Intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

5. richa in jaamdani

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But despite the historic and near cult status of the Jamdaani weave, the Jamdaani weaver has no financial motivation to continue creating this textile art. A senior taanti or “ostad” earns about Tk 2,500 to Tk 3,000 per month. Junior weavers get much less, around Tk 1,600. As a result many weavers do not want their children to come to this profession. For many, the Bangladeshi garments industry, despite its several dubious practices and poor working conditions, is a better alternative to this craft.

 

Summer in West India

Beyond the East, the western part of the country also devised its own textile strategies to cope with the heat. A charming, but probably apocryphal story tells of the development of Kota. Kota which is now known for its coaching centres devoted to getting students into IIT also has a special place in India’s fabric tradition.

 

The story goes that a hill princess married into the royal family of Kota. But much as she tried to bear up under the fierce heat of the Thar Desert, she wilted under the heavy, coarse fabrics that formed the traditional garb of the region. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, she commissioned the local weavers to create a light fabric for her. The weavers wove the lightest, airiest fabric that they could – the princess was still not satisfied. Then they pulled out the threads from the warp and the woof at regular intervals to create a lacy chequered fabric. This grid-like ethereal fabric took the eponymous name of Kota.

5.richa in kota

Initially these were woven only in the seven shades of white prescribed in the Vishnu Purana: – light white, tooth white, pure sandal white, autumn cloud white, autumn or sharad moon white, conch shell white and motia or pearl white.The texturing of the fabric was done by the simple expedient of varying the number of threads and the shades of white in the warp and weft of the grid giving it a subtle sophistication.

Today, however, Kotas are available in various colours (and regretfully, synthetic yarn too) and remain a popular summer option.

This post continues tomorrow with Richa describing the fabrics that were woven for Monsoon and winter.

If you want to get a more local, and environmentally sustainable wardrobe, start reading here:

  1. Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
  2. On the One Person Satyagraha and why you should start one
  3. On the environmental and human health hazards of chemical dyes
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here

And do tell us what you think of this new series here or on our Facebook page.

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From Arikamedu to Abercrombie – the sustainable fabric series

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

I’m not sure if my fascination with fabric is more or less than my fascination for washing fabric. But I have always loved Indian fabric and traditional textile crafts.

In school, I learned about the spice trade of India and how it helped many regions within India grow rich as they traded flavourful and hard to find nutmeg, pepper and cardamom which then found their way to kitchens across the world. Romila Thapar’s book on Early India, details this fascinating trade. Muziri located near Kodanganallur Village near Kochi was linked to the pepper, spices and beryl trade. A second century Ad Greek papyrus documents a contract between an Alexandrian merchant importer and a cargo financier of pepper and spices from Muziri, giving us an idea of the large volume of this trade.

6. Arikamedu

Excavations at Arikamedu tell us about a large settlement that used to be in trade contact with ships and merchants from the eastern Mediterranean. Apart from shipping locally available goods, Arikamedu has also been a place where certain kinds of textiles were manufactured locally to roman specifications and then shipped there.

5. Shakuntala

The Roman historian Pliny complained that trade with the East caused a serious drain on Roman income of which atleast 110 million sesterces went to India’s luxury goods. Roman records indicate that the Roman Senate actually banned the import of Indian Muslin for some time to stop the roman gold drain.

Apart from Rome, Indian textiles found their way to Egypt – scraps of Indigo dyed cotton Ikat textiles were found in a Pharaoh’s tomb. Excavations at Mohenjo-Daro unearthed scraps of Rose madder cloth along with spindles.Herodotus, the ancient greek historian, described India’s cotton as “a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep”

Nothing symbolises the freedom and Swadeshi movement as much as the charkha does, and as does Khadi, the quintessentially Indian fabric.Khadi is not just a piece of fabric – it represents an ideology and the beginning of a movement that was founded on self reliance. This said that India could spin her own fabric and clothe herself, thus helping her own economy grow forward.

2. Gandhi spinning the Charkha

Khadi was promoted by Mahatma Gandhi as a fabric that would help promote rural self employment and self reliance, and made it an integral part of the freedom movement. But the Swadeshi movement then did not come cheap. Khadi was much more expensive compared to British made fabric. So when people started to complain to Gandhi about the cost of Khadi, he stopped wearing an upper garment and started wearing only a Khadi dhoti as a subtle, or perhaps not so subtle message: that it was better to wear as much or as little Khadi as possible instead of clothing yourself with something that was not made in India by an Indian.

 

Our choices today are multifold. We are a much more global economy, and we have free movement of products, and fabrics from different parts of the world into our country. Globalisation comes with its own unique sets of opportunities. And perhaps we have come back full circle to our days of yore, when enterprising merchants and financiers helped ensure the spread of Indian textiles.

 

With one key difference. The merchants of Arikamedu in ancient times, continued to grow, spin and wear their own cloth, and continued to hold onto their cultural and craft traditions. In fact they grew better and better at it until they had so much to offer, that they could not just make products for themselves but for everyone else as well. The textile crafts and traditions of India are fast disappearing today. They have morphed fast, have taken on several unwholesome aspects and are no longer bountiful or available in plenty.

3.sambalpuri ikat weaving loom
There are many reasons for this. And many hidden reasons when you start examining this. There are also several unhealthy consequences to this.

 

In this month when we celebrate the 67th year of our Independence, won by an extremely unique civil disobedience and non violent movement, we will focus on the equally unique Fabrics of India. This month, on the Krya blog, We will examine in great depth the history of Indian textiles while focussing on certain textile crafts. We will examine their environmental sustainability, explore how well they work for us in our tropical weather & speak to practitioners of the craft and designers who work with traditional fabrics.

1. Girl in pochampally

We will also explore Khadi in depth and study in detail the current issues we grapple with in textiles namely the spread of Bt cotton, the cotton farmer suicides, the environmental issues presented by the textile dyeing industry and the nascent but growing organic cotton industry. All along we will interview and present to you the works of young entrepreneurs and designers who have firmly waded into the fabric tradition of India and are working hard to provide us access again to our famed textile past rooted in the principle of being indigenous, local and environmentally sustainable.

 

Our previous series on reusable menstrual products was an eye opener to us and provided us with a lot of perspective and inspiration. We have no doubt this series on the fabrics of India will be even better. We look forward to bringing you lots of depth, fresh perspective and inspiring reasons to choose a more sustainable and earth friendly wardrobe. Keep reading this blog.

 

 

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