For years, Ranganath Narcinva Kamat had a unique way of sensing when seasons quietly changed. “The seasons have their drapes. A kunbi drape tells you September is coming, the colours would flood the market. Those red checks would tell you a festival was coming next.”
Kamat, who will celebrate his 90th birthday in June, has been a master weaver of what is popularly called the Goan Kunbi sari — a handloom that has defined his life and livelihood for decades. This week, kunbi — or as art historians correct, “the Kulmi or the Goan adivasi handloom” also made an appearance at the Cannes red carpet in France. It’s a long way from Kamat’s home where, meticulously preserved in his ancestral house, are some of the handloom patches which contain the story of a state’s traditional identity in fabric. It’s a piece of history of the journey made by Portuguese colonial imports, of Brahmins and Christian weavers shaping the tastes of adivasi women who draped themselves in them, and of a fabric whose colours indicated festivals and seasons.
In the early days, the dye, always made in Japan, was imported by the Portuguese who encouraged weavers by helping with the yarn and other raw materials, says Kamat. Soon after Portugal gave away Goa, Kamat and others had to rely on Indian markets to pick the dye and other raw materials. Kamat recalls his 1950s travels to Belgaum in Karnataka, looking for dyes and yarn.
Considered to be the last living weaver of the traditional drape, Kamat says the handloom was always worn by the adivasi tribe referred to as Kunbi. There are no records to show the early weavers, but, between 1930s and 1950s, the trade was monopolised by three big families — the Shettigars of Candolim, Rasquinhas of Bastora and the Kamats. “Or, at least, you can say we three continued it till the very end,” he says. His karkhana, where 18 weavers produced the sari with him, has been converted into a residence. “And all the weavers, well, they died with time,” he says.
While the design — easy block or checks — was always decided by the head designer (in Kamat’s lineage, his father), the weave always relied on traditional colour matches and the chequered fabric, always layered with a border of a certain width and a design motif original to the adivasi. “The colours evolved with time. There was maroon, blue, and green. An indigo blue was a regular sight at farms where women would spend the day. But red was the colour of the soil, of the land, of life. The women always pulled them out, picked them after a good look, and never argued on the price,” says Kamat. The saris those days were priced at Rs 50, and the festive outfits were priced a bit higher. “There were just two fabrics then, the Hindu saris and the Kunbi handloom,” he says, “There were 1,000 Kunbi women, mostly in the Salcette and old Goan colonies. They were the ones who brought life to the market, in the farms, and in labour projects, with their vibrant way of engaging with everyone and working hard with discipline. You could identify them with the way they draped the chequered saris.”
Kamat says, “The Badalis wore it with such ease, always above the ankle, with the drape tied to their shoulders. Badalis are the women labourers who, till date, lift luggage, and even huge furnitures on their shoulders, just like their male counterparts”. Most of the infrastructure in Goa, Kamat believes, was also shaped by the kunbi clan, as they stood in the hot sun building the state, one road at a time. While many inspired work continues to keep conversations around the kunbi drapes alive, the original weave seems to have been lost, decades ago.
So diluted and lost is the tradition, that kunbi saris are mostly prints that are sold today. It took close to eight years for even Goa-based art historian, Dr Rohit R Phalgaonkar, with deep interests in the state’s heritage, to reach the Candolim residence of Kamat. Phalgaonkar, who has invested a good amount of his academic life in reviving the weave, today sends the designs procured from research to weavers in other states, hoping that the
handloom — and the hands that weave such drapes — survive.
A special function held to felicitate Kamat this month also saw Phalgaonkar’s efforts to get the new generation to reach out to the state’s heritage. “The Portuguese documents have archived workmanship, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, except for this handloom. No single evidence seems to be left of this today,” rues Phalgaonkar. “The primary colour of this drape is red, as it signifies blood, fertility, life. If you see any aboriginal tribe across the world, be it the Red Indians or tribes in other continents, they always chose red,” says Phalgaonkar.
While researching, Phalgaonkar found that while checks remained prevalent in Hindu drapes, they soon moved to other patterns, while kunbis retained the block designs. “These checks too have a pattern to them. Only a designer could design the way their lines crossed. Rust brown seems to be the traditional border, with a simple tiny white flower on the edges of the border. Even the checks were of different styles and shapes. They find mention in the folk songs of the tribes and are part of their oral histories,” he says.
Phalgaonkar is now looking to expand his efforts to revive this print. “The idea is to spread the word, and revive it. It’s a Goan identity, it’s a story of our past,” he says.