KOCHI: Handlooms and handicrafts of Kerala always enthralled Biju George Puthussery. This love culminated in the formation of Graamyam, a brand that closely works with traditional artisans to revive their dying art and craft
Kerala is famous for its quaint villages that still live in the scent of traditional art and craft. Kuthampully, Balaramapuram, and Chendamangalam, famous for their handlooms, tell the tales of a community through many lifetimes. Weaving is, however, one of the many forgotten forms of art in Kerala.
Biju George Puthusserry was working in Singapore in the drab world of technology for two decades when the artist in him felt the desire to revive the crafts he watched growing up. When he returned to Kerala in 2018, he started to conceptualise his plans. Along with Rakkee Thimothy, his wife, and sister Betsy George, he started the holding company Puthussery Projects Pvt Ltd.
He travelled throughout the state identifying communities of artisans and learning about their work, life and traditions. “I visited exhibitions and markets and came across many of them. But most of their craft was repetitive. So I would visit them and recommend changes; try to make their products unique and diverse,” Biju recalls.
However, not many were open to change, few of them were hesitant to trust him, an outsider. “I visited around 12 communities in Kerala. Traditional crafts are sidelined, and this is pushing them to extinction. For example, the mat weaving in Killimangalam is sustained by just four artisans. After them, it would just die,” he says.
In 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, when the state was quietly celebrating Onam, Biju and his family along with members of four artisan communities set up Graamyam. “I am helping them modernise their craft to appeal to the new market,” he adds. Communities from Chendamangalam, Killimanagalam and Aruvacode work together under Graamyam now. Graamyam was conceived as a premium brand. Biju believes that’s the only way forward for traditional artisans to make a profit and earn the value for their hard work. “Majority of our buyers are abroad now. We are exporting to Australia, the US and Singapore,” he says. Biju gives 20 to 25 per cent of the profit towards development of art communities.
Killimangalam is a little hamlet on the banks of the Bharathapuzha. The Kuruva community of this little village is famous for its grass mats. Now, at the Killimangalam grass mat weavers cooperative society, a community organisation started in late 1950, just four women are carrying the entire craft on their shoulders. Sudhakaran N C, the secretary of the co-operative society, says “the community has completely moved on from the craft. These four women we trained are the only ones sustaining it.”
Kuthampully, a picturesque village with around 300 families, echoes the churning of looms. Saravanan and his family, along with four workers from Tamil Nadu, has been weaving for years now. They traditionally weave veshti, Kerala settu sarees in white with golden zari borders and designs, and two-piece settu mundu. Saravan used to earn around Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 per piece earlier. They have been earning around `1,400 with Graamyam. “During the lockdown, business was down. But that’s when Graamyam opened. We didn’t have to be without jobs for long,” he says.