Helping Flood-hit Weavers Stand on Their Feet

Shalini, with her friends from the designer community, formed an online group, Friends of Chendamangalam, to revive the flood-hit handloom sector

Kochi: Celebration of any festival in Kerala would rather be ‘incomplete’ without the presence of women wearing traditional ‘set mundu’, an attire that gives the Malayali women a distinct identity and look. When one thinks of buying these hand-woven and pure cotton clothing, the main four places that come to one’s mind are Balaramapuram, Kuthampully, Chendamangalam and Kasargod.

Among these, the craftsmen of the weaving cluster of Chendamangalam at Paravur, a village situated 36 km from Ernakulam, hogged the headlines recently by bringing out Geographical Indication (GI)-tagged textiles in the wake of the catastrophic floods that hit Kerala leaving many people stranded, particularly in the interiors, without help following the collapse of the traditional communication channels.

Out of the 113 looms (units) functioning under Chendamangalam Handloom Co-operative Weavers Society Ltd., 108 were badly affected by the floods that hit the State in August. However, the general public was not really aware of the sad plight of these units and the 600 weavers attached to those until Shalini James, Founder, Mantra, came out with a Facebook post highlighting their predicament in early September. Raw materials and stocks worth Rs. 20 crore were destroyed in the floods.

“I had read about the plight of Chendamangalam weavers in the newspaper. Sojan P A, Secretary, Chendamangalam Handloom Co-operative Weavers Society, had given a public appeal calling for assistance to revive their looms. When I visited the place to get a first hand feel of the situation, I was really shocked. The godown remained half drowned in flood waters leaving the stocks in the lower racks completely drenched,” said Shalini.

“Though the stocks in the upper racks were affected by fungus, we had somehow managed to retrieve those. I had then purchased materials worth Rs. 40 lakh and with the help of Allure Dry Cleaners, I dry cleaned those materials, giving them a fresh and new look,” she added.

Realising that her initiative won’t help solve the problem completely, she took to Facebook in her attempt to reach out to a wider community seeking help. To her surprise, her Facebook post received tremendous response in no time and many people started approaching her, offering more help.

Later, Shalini, along with her friends from the designer community – Sreejith Jeevan (Rouka), Indu Menon (Kara Ventures) and Tracy Thomas (The Wardrobe) – formed an online group, Friends of Chendamangalam, to streamline the activities to revive the flood-hit handloom sector there and help the weavers get back to work. These designers also spread the word through social media and approached corporate entities. Overnight, Chendamangalam became everyone’s focus. Shalini had also posted pictures of a range of Chendamangalam products on Mantra’s e-commerce platform, offering to ship the dry cleaned Chendamangalam products to anywhere in India.

“It was an unusual response to an unusual situation. I took more products to the dry clean plants and Chendamangalam weavers also began to trust us as they found that our initiative to support them was genuine,” she said.
Shalini had received more than thousand queries and people were coming forward to buy Chendamangalam products. Interested people in Kochi were asked to purchase from the weavers directly.

Meanwhile, Mumbai-based Aza Fashions purchased products like mundu, sarees and thorthu worth Rs. 5 lakh to give as corporate gifts to their clients. Kuwait Airways too bought 400 double mundu to be used as gifts. Small boutiques in Kochi also came forward to help the crestfallen weavers. Actor Aishwarya Lekshmi opted for a sari created by weavers in Chendamangalam to wear to the South India International Movie Awards.

Out of the several mails Shalini received, there were enquiries from corporate houses and individuals asking whether they could help the Chendamangalam weavers in any other possible way, say as a CSR initiative, other than buying their products.

In the meanwhile, the Mantra team had come up with a project called ‘Looms to Life’ and sent a proposal to the corporates, as the looms had to be revived as the second phase of the project. In response, the CSR team of Bajaj Electricals came forward offering help to revive the affected 108 looms, with the support of the State Government.
Phase three of the project intends to ‘build the brand’ by breathing fresh life into the existing brand and giving it an elevated positioning.

“We will look at ways in which the existing products could be re-branded and introduced in the market and how appealing the products can be made to contemporary customers, with minor changes,” said designer Sreejith Jeevan. “The weavers of Chendamangalam are not very young. They belong to the thirty-plus age group. So, it will be hard for them to accept any changes. We need to convince them about how these developments can bring about positive changes. But implementing it is a challenge,” he added.

“All the raw materials have been destroyed in the floods. The first step is to bring the weavers back to work. Through the efforts of Mantra and other brands, Chendamangalam received the much-needed attention. We had representatives from the UN and Lakme Fashion Week visiting our looms,” said Sojan P A.

The cause of Chendamangalam weavers has been taken up by many other communities and help is still pouring in from around the world. “This was an emotional rather than a practical response. That is why I believe that we (my staff and other well-wishers), could do more than our individual ability through collective effort,” summed up Shalini.