Vinod Nambiar
Director, Vayali Folklore Group

A History of Mat Weaving

The Kurava community migrated from Tamil Nadu and settled along the banks of the Nila River where they followed mat weaving traditions for many generations. Unfortunately, because of low financial returns and scarce raw materials, the community to lost interest in traditional weaving, leaving only one practitioner, Mr. U. Chami, who took the tradition forward for many years through the Killimangalam Weaving Cooperative Society. However, due to ill health at the age of 72, Chami left weaving behind. But before retiring, he taught traditional weaving skills to a non-native Kurava—Mrs. P. Prabhavathi. Today, Prabhavathi still holds Chami in high regard for his initiatives to train interested people, even those from outside the community. This willingness to train others laid foundation for the craft’s survival. For his efforts, Chami was recognized with the Master Craftsman Award by the Textile Ministry of India in 1992.

Killimangalam Weaving Cooperative Society

Mrs. P. Prabhavathi at work © Vayali Folklore Group

The Killimangalam Weaving Cooperative Society started in late 1950s, finding its glory days in the mid-1980s when it had many full-time and part-time workers and a few others working from home and supplying the finished goods. The cooperative had a fairly well connected local market and a good network to sell the products outside. However, with the introduction of plastic mats in the beginning of the 1990s, the cooperative started to struggle, a struggle that continues today. According to Prabhavathi there is more at stake than the products themselves as the tradition and cultural aspects of the weaving need to be imparted to the new generation. However, the lack of interest among learners and subsidized income is preventing new entrants into this profession. Instead many of them see weaving as a part-time endeavor.

Prabhavathi is also quick to note that the story of traditional weaving is not a unique. Other traditional occupations, such as pottery, bell metal, cloth weaving, and bamboo weaving, are facing the same fate. Those occupations are highly linked with the life patterns, so it is difficult to classify those occupations simply as jobs. They are still proceeding with the traditional way of making products, which is human intensive and time consuming. It takes three days to a week to weave a bigger and traditional designed mat. The entire process of treating the grass to get the final product takes couple of weeks.

Survival of the Legacy

In response to the changing attitudes to weaving, Prabhavathi realized she needed to make changes into the products to make them more marketable. Still following the traditional roots and using natural coloring agents like chappangam, the cooperative started making new items like table mats, yoga mats, wall hangings, and other products that are easier to sell.

Killimangalam Village reached new heights in 2006 with UNESCO recognizing the tradition of mat weaving by giving seal of excellence for the special design called pallakuzhi paya (mat), which boosted interest the vanishing tradition. In 2004, Mrs. Geetha Krishnamurthy of the Craft Council of India started the initiative to get the UNESCO recognition.

The Way Forward

Prabhavathi is on a mission to take the legacy forward and to bring in more weavers. She has been working to gain acceptance from the community and to connect with like-minded people to popularize the tradition. She now has five students, and her hope is spreading, especially since her efforts are gaining recognition from different corners. She credits the Vayali Folklore Group for much of the change in recent years.

The Vayali Folklore Group’s Craftila (Crafts of Nila) initiative started working with Prabhavathi and the cooperative in 2013, and the association continues. Through Craftila, Vayali is increasing product visibility, opening new market avenues, and helping the cooperative build the much-needed institutional infrastructure. In addition, Vayali’s tourism collaborations regularly bring visitors to the cooperative. Further publicity for the cooperative came from The Magic Weavers of Killimangalam, a film by the Vayali that documents Prabhavathi’s struggles and challenges. The film earned international applause and won the Smithsonian Global Folklorist Challenge in 2016. As a result of Prabhavathi’s efforts and Craftila, her hands are full with work orders. However, according to Craftila coordinator, Mr. K. K. Vijayan, it can take years to see real results, and long-term commitments are necessary to have lasting effects.