SLATE BOARDS, WITH ‘Rs 100’ written in chalk, dance in the wind. Polyester poltergeists of traditional handloom saris flutter alongside on the shops that line the lean streets of Balaramapuram in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala. For centuries, this weaver’s village on the outskirts of the city is where Travancore came to shop for its clothes. I navigate through the thick traffic in search of Ayurvastra, clothes dyed in ayurvedic medicines.
The houses here used to share common walls, had kolam rice flour designs on their doorsteps and housed the seven Saliyar families who were made to migrate from Valliyoor in Tamil Nadu on orders from the Dewan of Travancore, Ummini Thampi. Their expertise helped Balaramapuram transform into a market for superior clothing. It takes me less than an hour to realise that Ayurvastra, unlike the newspaper interpretation, is not a brand. The concept of healing clothes has been taken up by several weaving societies and handloom tycoons, all of whom function in perfect disharmony, fighting over whose output is authentic and whose is fake.
As I hold a soft, dull, somewhat Gandhian-looking bra between my fingers, Satheesh Kumar, one of the three brothers who founded the NGO, Handloom Weavers Development Society, narrates the starting point of the concept which had for long been in practice in the Kuzhivila family—naatu vaidyans, ayurvedic practitioners in Balaramapuram. Priced at Rs 350, the brassiere has been through a concoction of 35 herbs before earning its peach shade.
A clinical study devised in 2006 helped understand the effect of Ayurveda on fabrics. It involved two identical rooms in the Government Ayurveda College. One with the customary white bedding and curtains. The other with a chrome yellow, turmeric-dyed bedspread, red sandalwood-dyed towels and dull green tulsi-dyed curtains fluttering in windows. It was proven then that herb-dyed fabrics favoured faster recovery, especially for skin disorders like eczema and psoriasis. Ever since, weavers have cashed in on the concept. The process being fairly simple: herbs collected from the closeby Agasthya hills are processed in earthen vats, fermented and boiled to dye the fabric.
Some of these plants crowd outside the Handloom Weavers Development Society’s exposed brick building. “We work on the basis of orders. Foreigners and NRIs approach us with clothes and designs. We take care of the colouring. Once dyed, these are shipped back and sold in foreign countries,” says Satheesh. He spreads out a thick yellow yoga mat that comes with Velcro sling straps (price: Rs 1,800). Its higher-end variants are hand-woven and contain over 85 medicinal ingredients.
Komalan, another brother, stands at the doorway of the darkroom where dyed fabrics are dried for 15 days. He has in his hand a bedsheet worth Rs 50,000. Satin dyed in sandalwood, the bedsheet has on all sides an enclosed pouch that contains 50 medicinal plants to ensure a good night’s sleep. “Our people would rather spend money on imported branded stuff than this,” he says as he folds back the double bedsheet and supresses a yawn.
Earlier this month, owing to rising demands from fashion designers in Italy, Japan and Germany, the Kerala Handloom Forum had resubmitted its proposal for a Rs 17-crore Ayurvedic Handloom village. The town vests its hope in its new BJP MLA, O Rajagopal, who people hope will nudge the Central Government to promote Balarampuram’s handloom heritage. Ever since its establishment in 1992, the society has received a total of Rs 8 crore of government funding, but its requirements are of a different financial order. It needs spinning mills, organic cotton fields, dyeing units, herb cultivators.
Kairali Exports is based in a deceptively small space of SN Building. Following a riff with the Kerala Weavers Development Society, Sujeev, the CEO of this 55-year-old firm, bought 3 acres of land in Tirupur, set up herbal farms and created his own dyeing unit. The shelf behind him has different brochures, all with the name ‘Ayurvastra’ and a green leaf for a logo. He reaches out for a file that records details of an ongoing case in the High Court. Ayur Herbals, the cosmetic company, has alleged patent violation and the case has been on for seven years now. “For us a brand name is still not as relevant because we are ourselves not entering the market. We just provide the dyed cloth which designers stitch and sell under their names,” says Sujeev, whose Ayurveda textile company has an annual turnover of Rs 5 crore. Soulmate Intimates, an ayurvedic lingerie brand by New South Wales-based Julie Lantry, is one of the customers for Kairali Exports Ayurvastra, which now goes by the name Ayurtex.
An adjoining room with straw mats and full-length mirrors doubles as a showroom for Ayurveda clothing. “People demand clothes that heal. I don’t guarantee any cure. These are organic in nature and just wellness products, soothing to wear and gentle on your skin,” he says.