KOCHI: In the late 1990s, designer Wendell Rodricks was researching for his book, ‘Moda Goa’, which traces the history of the costumes of Goa. It was then that he realised that a particular saree, worn by members of the Kunbi tribal community was no longer being woven in the state.
“It came as a shock to me,” says Wendell, who had come to Kochi to give a talk on the saree at the India Fashion Summit sometime ago.
However, there were many reasons why the Kunbi saree had fallen into disfavour. Firstly, it was worn only by the tribals. “Secondly, there was a caste issue, with the higher classes not wanting to wear them,” says Wendell. “The Portuguese did not want to promote local clothes. Instead, they were keen to promote western dresses.”
The traditional kunbi saree was made in red, black and white checks. “The reason for these colours was because it was easy to make them,” says Wendell. “The dye was made mixing palm toddy and iron filings, both of which are widely available in Goa.”
Interestingly, the saree was worn differently. The drape was held at one shoulder with a dentli knot. “There was also a dobby border,” says Wendell. The saree stops at the knee, to make it easier for women since they were working in the paddy fields.
In fact, in India’s history, the saree was always short, especially among the tribals. “Things changed when the emperor Chandragupta Maurya’s Greek wife Helen started wearing sarees that touched the floor,” says Wendel. “It was not a working saree. It was a saree to receive royalty. As for the choli, it began to be more widely used because of the puritanical British and their Victorian attitudes. Before the Victorian times, most Indian women did not even wear a petticoat.”
Meanwhile, in 2011, Wendell decided to revive the Kunbi saree in his own unique style. “I started weaving it with eco-friendly dyes so that it would get a wider acceptance,” he says.
The dyes used included indigo, manjistha, and from natural plants. “We could get natural dyes from an area that was deforested by local tribals,” says Wendell. “This was on the border between Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra. They began growing the indigo and other plants from which we could make natural dyes.”
However, Wendell did not weave the saree in checks, like the original design. “I put in more lines,” he says. “I wanted to make it minimalistic. So it became the Wendell Rodricks version of the kunbi saree.”
Meanwhile, early on in his career, Wendell began using the colour white. “People were puzzled by it,” he says. “In North India, white is the colour of mourning. So they said, ‘Who is this designer from the South trying to sell us mourning clothes?’. But I felt that white is pure and the colour of light. I saw it was the perfect colour for India because of our hot weather. But there was a reluctance to accept the colour as well as cotton fabrics.”
In the new version of the kunbi, he has used both white and cotton. And when Wendell introduced it at the 2011 Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week at New Delhi, the saree got widespread coverage and acceptance at the highest levels of society -- people like Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi, Jaya Jaitley, [textile promoter] Laila Tyabji and [actor] Nandita Das. “All of them like cotton sarees, and they all wore the kunbi saree,” he says.
In fact, the biggest compliment Wendell received was from Sonia. She wrote a letter in which she said, “You have done something wonderful for India.” A moved Wendell says, “I still treasure that letter because it was written on her letterhead. Many others wrote in expressing their liking. It validated the saree. Soon, there was a waiting list. So we opened a room in our shop called the Eco Goa room where we have cotton clothes with eco-friendly dyes.”
Wendell also sourced other fabrics like cotton woven in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. “We have had good sales ever since,” he says. “The kunbi saree is still very popular.”