The Old Man of Wayanad

serendipity (noun); finding something good without looking for it


My big plan this year is to visit handloom societies in each district of Kerala. It was exciting while planning and daunting while booking tickets. At Kasargod and Trivandrum I meet with some societies doing very interesting work and after a couple of visits I manage to convince them to work with us. The reluctance was mainly on account of a lack of weavers. One society was left with just two old men who knew to weave a complex weave traditional to those parts.

So Wayanad was next on the list, a quick check reveals that there are only a few functioning societies and one of them is an adivasi unit up in the hills. The road to Thirunelli is winding and lush, I spot a Giant Malabar squirrel and jump out and click excitedly. But they are a plenty on the way up, some of them sleeping plump and peacefully on the branches with their furry long tails hanging.

The teashop owner tells me that Krishnettan, who runs the unit, has just left after waiting for an hour and points me in a general direction. I walk and walk and reach a beautiful river but no sign of any loom. I trudge back and a few metres from where I started I see a tiny board tucked away in the bushes. Angane puzhayum kandu (That way you saw the river) he’s a wise man, Krishnettan, with a wicked dry wit. This unit like most other units I have visited has only a handful of weavers. When the spinner comes, the weaver doesn’t. We discuss what work we could possibly do, but Krishnettan is skeptical – we wont be able to work to your timelines, I have no timelines, I say. You will need it sometime , wont you the old man quips. I sigh. The clever old man with a quiver in his voice says lets have lunch, you look hungry. I see the red herring but play along . On the way to lunch he tells me stories of the people who live there – a famous vaidyar (physician) whom people come to see from far far away pointing to a thick throng of people near a shop. On another visit we had to eat dry aval with milk for lunch as all the hotels were shut because the vaidyar was on holiday. After a nice and simple lunch from the Brahmins mess next to the temple we walk back. Back in the unit, I begin clicking pictures of the ladies making small talk all the while. I ask Krishnettan how old he was when he first started weaving,. About 10, he says, my father would ask me to tie threads through the reed while he took a break or went for a smoke. When he saw I was a quick learner, he started teaching me in earnest. Why are you so keen to work with kaithari he says, so much else you could do. You cant choose your passion, it chooses you I tell him. Why didn’t you do anything else I ask him, in turn. He’s lost in thought for a while, comes to suddenly and tells me I have made a whole garment on the loom. I can feel blood rushing to my head, in the initial days of travel around Kannur I have heard stories about someone who can weave whole garments on the loom, but all very vague so I dismissed it as an old tale. What do you mean whole garment, I say, the whole garment, he says – sleeves, neck, front, back all on the loom. No needle and thread at all. I am dry throated and speechless and the old man grins at me. We make plans to go to his house in Thalassery the next morning where the garments are. Krishnettan feeds the driver and me oranges and talks non stop all the way. Any attempt to ask him anything about the garments he brushes away cleverly. When did you first make the garment? How old are your kids? How did you get the idea? What does your husband do? What loom is it made on? You are an MBA and you want to work with handloom,? Haha. We went on in this vein till we reached his home.

He gives us tea and bananas and pokuvada and achhappam. After much searching, he brings a box with papers and some old clothes in it. I pull out a tired looking garment and turn it inside out – no seams anywhere, sleeves, neck even pockets. Those days Kannur crepe was very famous all over the world, he says. In this village, every house had a loom. Then suddenly it crashed and there were no jobs. I stayed at home those days as I didn’t know to do anything else. It was then that it came to me – I made a vatta thuni first (tube cloth) and took it to the tailor, he cut out sleeves and a neck and told me laying his hand on the cloth that it would never be a garment unless he touched it. ‘Njangal kai vakkathe ithu kuppayam avilla’ Then it became something I couldn’t let go, I couldn’t sleep at night. First the sleeves came, then the neck. I made it to my size, wore it, made corrections in the sketches and wove again. It took me many years and many iterations before I could make anything really wearable. Then people started coming, wanting to see, the paper folks came, the handloom institute people came, promising me awards and money. During this time, I had figured out how to do the finishing seam and the nada (string) also on the loom and I gave it a name. Nothing came of it, and after many years one fine day they asked me to leave the society. Just like that.

We eat lunch in silence, no I’m silent and he chatters non-stop. Why do you travel so much, give her some more fish, she looks hungry, you like the fish? How do you make it in your house, you are a terrible cook I’m sure. I manage to smile weakly.

After lunch I take pictures of the garments, hanging it on a thotti (long stick to pluck mangoes and jackfruit) and wedge it between a pillar and the wooden rafter of the house. He poses in one of them with his grandchild.

I go through the papers and see that someone has tried to file a patent. He is unable to explain. We have tea and more bananas. I tell him, I want to make a movie about you. He grins, like Mohanlal? Yes like Mohanlal I say.




This entry was published on February 3, 2016 at 1:02 pm and is filed under The Kaithari Project. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “The Old Man of Wayanad

  1. Vineeth Viswambharan on said:

    Rasmi, you are a reader and a dreamer and a writer.

  2. U can’t choose passion ; it chooses you.
    It makes u cross paths and tread through lands ..leading to such beautiful discoveries…
    I don’t think this is serendipity..I think this was meant to be…
    Ur eye for discovery I applaud

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