I first read about it in an article about the Parangi women of Fort Kochi.
The Kavaya is derived from the Malaysian word Kebaya. It was the traditional dress of the Malaccan women that the Portugese brought over as wives – a sarong of sorts worn under a long flowery shirt. When the Portugese married local women they adopted the practice of wearing the Kebaya – which became the Kavaya thuni in Malayalam. To date the Parangi women wear it on auspicious days, the article said. But finding the cloth was proving to be another story. Most shopkeepers in Kochi had not heard of the word let alone stock the textile.
As Paulo Coelho would have it, the universe does conspire to give you your hearts desire if you wish for it most fervently. My friend to whose house I retired dejectedly after searching for the Kavaya Thuni remarked most casually – Rosily who comes to sweep the house is a choochi (colloquial for Parangi) – why don’t you ask her?
A tiny little shop off of Fort Kochi beside a picturesque church was the only shop in all of Kochi that stocked the Kavaya. I discovered that the textile was woven in far away Kannur.
And so to Kannur I went with the phone number of the secretary of a weaving co-operative in hand. What a welcome it was – the entire co-operative (5 old men & 3 women) stood on the road almost blocking traffic just so I wouldn’t miss them.
A lovely old building housed the society in which all but a handful of looms were in a dilapidated condition. From a robust 300 in their heyday they were down to less than ten weavers today. The profession not lucrative, the textiles not in demand – a craft lay dying.
But they made up for everything with their excitement, I was taken on a tour of the entire premises. They told me their stories in a red oxide floored room with loom reeds hanging overhead, with the warm smell of wood, sunlight and washed threads.
The beauty of the Kavaya was in the geometric complexity of its weave – a square chequered block within which there were four tiny chequered blocks – each of which was different from the other!
This last year we have worked with my Kannur friends on the Kavaya. We’ve been true to the original – design intervention we call it and not a design rehaul.
We decided to make a simple dress out of it, making a play on the checks, but only just so – nothing to take away from the textile, rich in woven history.