On a lace trail in a spice state

all in the details

On a lace trail in a spice state
An elderly lady sat by a well-lit window. Draped in a simple, printed white sari, wearing thick-rimmed glasses, head bent, with white net fabric in one hand and a threaded needle in the other, she stitched. Leonie Tankha was bemused by my interest in work she’d done for over five decades, working at St. Francis Convent in Kaloor for the last 46 years. She lowered the half-finished petit point embroidered net dupatta and looked up with a half-smile that didn’t light up her eyes. The women around her revealed she was probably 63 years old and the oldest embroiderer there. At 41, Shilista had worked at this convent for 14 years and Ginni’s tenure was 27 years. They are part of a handful of women I met on a recent visit to Kerala, who excel in the craft of exquisitely delicate petit point embroidery.

Across the seas
Rich in history and natural vistas that include expansive backwaters, coconut palms and tall, overarching rain trees, Fort Kochi is a delight to amble through. Amidst thought-provoking artworks, the simple Kerala mundu, spice markets with heady fragrances of cinnamon, cardamom and flower oils, alongside Syrian, British, Portuguese and Dutch influences in cuisine, architecture and lifestyle, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find delicate thread work imitative of the excellence of Belgian lace or petit point embroidery that was a once favoured pastime of French aristocracy. However, no one could give me a word for embroidery in Malayalam, implying that these embellishments may well be a collective impact of Arab, Syrian and other spice traders as well as colonialism — of the Dutch who succeeded the Portuguese, and the British who defeated the Dutch.

At Little Queen Embroidery, a small shop run by Thomas in Mattancherry, in the Jewish quarter of Kochi, I found some superfine lace-work as well as delicate embroideries. I bought a petit point organdie runner and a small lace doily. Hard pressed to make a choice as the pieces were pricey, I was happy to note value being accorded for such extraordinary hand-work. However, all the women I met in the convents at Thoppumpady and Kaloor and embroiderers working at the Vimalayam Welfare Centre in Ernakulum, earned no more than Rs 5,000 a month. There wasn’t much transparency or willingness to share details, with one nun shooing me away for asking too many questions. And the girls I met were unable to tell me who their clientele were beyond alluding to women who came from the North. Petit point sari borders fetch up to a lakh, and I paid Rs 5,000 for a small table runner and a two-inch-radius lace doily.

The art of lace-making is time-consuming and requires great dexterity, where nimble fingers use up to 72 bobbins to make the intricate lace patterns. No one really knows where this craft came from, but now produced in Kerala, it is being sold in Belgium as ‘Bruges Lace’. The art could have travelled to India with the Syrians who visited Kerala around first century BCE. However, Egyptians, who were well-known for producing a netting of lace with bobbins, also came to trade in spices, so they too could have introduced it. The origins of both petit point and lace-work in Kerala are hazy. But, it is widely recognised that missionaries and Christian nuns from Europe reintroduced these arts in the 19th century, establishing the practice and quality seen today.

Replicating success
Thomas, who works closely with the wives of fishermen and the widows from the fisher-colonies in Edakochi, reveals that these women produce exactly the same designs once popular in Italy and Spain, which were taught by nuns in the 19th century. The petit point embroidery done at the convents in Thoppumpady and Kaloor also seem to carry forth patterns that were handed down to them by Franciscan nuns who set up the convents, teaching these soft skills to underprivileged women who didn’t come under the ambit of matriliny prevalent among the Nair community in Kerala. Thus, empowered to earn, these women crocheted and embroidered articles inside these convents that were then shipped to Europe. The nuns would also take the articles to ships anchored in the harbour, selling to sailors on-board. Later, they took to visiting five-star hotels marketing their ware to travellers resident there.

Beginning with ancient spice trade routes, Kerala has always been an important passageway to India. A tactical naval base and successful commercial port today, Kochi, however, only came into focus after 1498, because Vasco da Gama and his crew didn’t hit it off with the Zamorin of Calicut, seeking an alternative dock which they found in Cochin. Over successive battles with the Portuguese-befriended Rajah of Cochin, the Zamorin finally conquered Cochin with some help from the Dutch, to be undermined by their interferences and eventually ceding the port to them.

But, Calicut or modern day Kozhikode itself, only began dominating in trade when the Periyar river flooded in the 14th century and the once fabled port of Muziris, gateway to India in the millennium before Christ, was ruined. The sustained success of Kochi, however, owes its accomplishment to a strategic four-party, 20th century alliance, which included the government of Madras and Travancore, for funding the development of the ‘finest harbour in the East’.

For thousands of years, travellers have sailed to Kerala for spices. A hundred years ago, missionaries docked into the harbour of Cochin with an intent to empower women and spread Christianity, and Kerala became one of the main centres that produced fine lace and embroidery. This once-flourishing trade has diminished for many reasons, not least the increase in other job opportunities open to women today. However, many still opt for this because the flexible hours enable them to earn and also take care of their families. Along with the women sitting over long frames doing extraordinarily fine petit point for sari borders at St. Francis Xavier’s Convent in Kaloor, I also met nine-year-old Amna and seven-year-old Vyshna, who showed off their amateur skills. Flexible working hours enable women to work according to school schedules, and these girls learned petit point watching their mothers finish work and waiting to be taken home.

Everyone complained that things were different now with greater education and job opportunities opening, and with less and less women doing embroidery and not enough work to go around, how would these practices continue. While their anxiety has validity, I was heartened to see these two young girls so proud of their endeavour and eager to show me how to do it too.

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