KOCHI: “If you know your weaver, you know your handloom better,” says 20-year-old Nikita Lal, far too wise for her age.
A fourth-year law student at OP Jindal University, Delhi, Nikita gracefully juggles her academic commitments with an up-and-coming ‘business with a cause’ –an online handloom shopping portal named ‘Mundhani’. “With the label, I want to support our local weaving community, while simultaneously promoting slow and sustainable fashion,” she says. And she has her own unique way of going about it.
“Mundhani’s USP is its utterly transparent supply chain. When you are buying a sari, you know exactly where it has been before it reached your hands. You know whose hands – whether it be of Omana chechi or Bindhu chechi (weavers Nikita has been working with) – were behind it. You know where it was dyed, where it was spun. Isn’t that the specialty of handloom? Somebody made this fabric with care, with their hand, just for you,” she explains.
Having grown up in a household of women in love with saris, Nikita isn’t entirely surprised with where her journey has taken her. “Both my mother and grandmother had amazing collections of saris. Whenever I get a chance, I would get hold of one of them and experiment with them. Even as a child, I used to try and come up with unconventional ways of draping a sari like, maybe, pairing it with a belt, etc.”
Nikita took baby steps into the world of ethical fashion after being inspired by her mother. “She would always talk to me about the necessity of living a sustainable life. She only shopped from ethical brands. So, I grew up thinking of eco-conscious as the only good way to lead my life,” she says. Later, when Nikita was around 15, she encountered an article in a major English daily about the state of weavers in Kerala, which she says hit her hard. It talked about the dying art of handloom and how the weavers were struggling to make enough money from it to make ends meet, she says. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it. We talk about our crafts with so much pride all the time. We act so proud of our Kerala saris. But then why aren’t we as a society doing something to better this community’s situation,” Nikita had thought then.
Five years later, the law student is fully armed to do that 'something’. “While I was in Delhi for my higher studies, I got a lot of exposure to Indian art and craft works. I started to learn how to spot a good product, how much a
certain kind of sari is supposed to cost, etc,” Nikita says. “Eventually, I started to notice that several online businesses were selling machine-made sarees by claiming that they are chanderi silk, muslin jamdani, etc.”
It was during this time that Nikita noticed newspaper reports about how the catastrophic floods of 2018 affected the state’s weaving community. “I was in Delhi attending my classes then. Later in March 2020, after Covid hit, I came back home, and the situation got me thinking. Our weavers were still struggling to stand on their feet, when yet another disaster has struck. I later learned that their sales had gone down by nearly 60% at the time. All I could think at the time was – if I can make a difference in one weaver’s life by ensuring a constant stream of revenue for them, how great would that be.”
So, Nikita immediately got to work. She contacted various cooperative societies and eventually zeroed in on two – Cherai Kuzhuppilly Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society and Chendamangalam Weavers Cooperative Society. A lot of struggles followed, she says. “The people at Kuzhuppilly hardly understood what I was trying to accomplish at the time. I too didn’t know much about the way the industry operated. I would approach them with a design and they would say no. I didn’t even know that most weavers’ cooperative societies in Kerala did not do motifs. It was initially frustrating for me as a designer. But then I began to innovate with my available options. It took several months for us to establish a meaningful business relationship. They eventually introduced me to my weaver – Omana chechi, and things have been going better since,” she says.
“Chendamangalam society, meanwhile, was easier to work with, considering it is a much bigger and more experienced network. Bindhu chechi is my weaver there.”
According to Nikita, the name Mundhani is representative of her learning curve in the field of textiles. “When I was with my weaver, I often heard them refer to a ‘mundhani’, which I didn’t know the meaning of. I have always heard it been called pallu, at least that’s what my family used to call it. So when I asked them what a mundhani was, mustering up a lot of courage, they laughed out loud and explained it to me. That was a very interesting moment for me, because that was when I realised how much more I have left to learn about this field. So I decided to name my label, Mundhani. It represents my journey.”
Each of Mundhani’s saris, meanwhile, is named after birds indigenous to the Nilgiris. “I used to think about how a sari’s mundhani lies gracefully like a pretty bird’s tail. I found that to be an inspiring thought. I have even used some of these birds’ hues as a mood board when I am designing saris. So now we have Neelachemban, Chempoth, Pacha Chundan, Komban Sharapakshi, Menipraavu, etc. Yes, they are all saris,” she laughs. But birds are hardly the only inspiration for Nikita’s mood boards. “I have a beautiful view of the sunset where I live. The hues of a sunset are tremendously fascinating. But so are unripe mangoes.” What bigger inspiration than nature, she says.
“My goal will be achieved when somebody rocks a sari I designed at a party, and when someone asks them about it, they can tell them it was weaved by our Omana chechi or Bindhu chechi. How often does that happen. How cool would that be,” asks the 20-year-old.