KARA Weaves Leverages Contemporary Design and International Markets to Preserve Culture, Art, and Livelihoods in Kerala, India

KARA Weaves Leverages Contemporary Design and International Markets to Preserve Culture, Art, and Livelihoods in Kerala, India

Can a Towel Matter?

Multimedia from this Release

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 - 9:15am

CAMPAIGN: The New Global Citizen

CONTENT: Article

For a long time, I have focused my studies and work on the topic of sustainable business initiatives as a catalyst for social and economic development. But it wasn’t until I arrived in Kanjiramattom as an MBAs Without BordersAdvisor that I ever thought to consider the economic and social implications of an object so seemingly simple as a towel. Kanjiramattom is a tiny village in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Situated between the sweeping Malabar Coast and the intensely lush tropical backwaters, it’s where I had my first opportunity to visit a handloom cooperative. Here I came to appreciate, for the first time, the extensive skill, effort, and time required to hand weave a piece of thorthu: the traditional Kerala fabric woven of pure cotton and known for the superb qualities—soft, light-weight, quick-drying, and highly-absorbent—that have made it historically indispensable in Kerala households.  Kanjiramattom is also where I met Mani-chettan—a master thorthu handloom weaver, and one of the last of his kind.

Mani-chettan has been spinning cotton and weaving thorthu for much longer than I have been alive. His more than 40 years of experience are expressed, with remarkable elegance, by each thread woven into his stunning fabrics and, less subtly so, by the numerous awards he has received for his fine craftsmanship. But over the years, Mani-chettan has watched his local weaving cooperative shrink as dwindling demand and an influx of cheap power loom products have deteriorated the financial sustainability and aspirational value of hand weaving as a profession.

Even as India’s hand woven fabrics are being celebrated on runways and in exclusive shops around the world, compensation among weavers typically remains unreasonably low when compared to other skilled laborers and generally inconsistent with the time and effort dedicated to each piece. For example, an experienced and diligent weaver spends an entire day to finish roughly seven traditional thorthu pieces (54” by 27”) which are then sold for about ₹40 (US$0.70) per piece in the local market, where the commonplace-ness of thorthu and a history of government subsidization have left the fabric unappreciated and poorly valued. The time quoted here does not include the labor-intensive pre-looming process, nor does the price quoted fully illustrate the pittance ultimately received by the weaver after materials costs are deducted. Worse still, the only remaining source of this revenue for the Kanjiramattom cooperative is a government supported order—one which is characterized by largely mismanaged contracts with the weavers hardly ever being paid on time and often payment is made in the form of raw materials, rather than cash.

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