Then there was this night when I knew stars wander not just in skies but on the muddy soils of tiny villages in Tamil Nadu. Not that I was unaware of the tiny dots and zig zag lines that adorn the humble courtyards of South Indian homes, but the realisation these everyday artists knew very little of the grandeur they created in little over 30 minutes in an unknown corner of the universe.
Maariamma is a housewife and agricultural labourer from the lower strata of a tiny village in Tamil Nadu traditionally segmented class and caste wise. Our conversation over a tea constantly clashed between my curiosity over her kolam practice sans mistakes and her curiosity over my hair cropped world. “A few scribbles on a piece of paper for a few minutes, that’s it!”, she mentioned on her preparation for the annual kolam competition that run among the neighbours of her tiny village on the Pongal day.
All I could remember is the edge she started the Kolam and the centre point where she completed the labyrinth of wiggly lines. A yard brimming with a beautiful crochet mat soon to vanish in the muddle of a village day!
At the suburban alleys of islet Mulavukad, the air still carries the sights and smell of Portugese legacy across the lagoons. Leisurely evenings at this suburban neighbourhood of Kochi buzz with the murmurs of chapel goers and neighbourhood tea-time chit chats. It was not hard to single out Baby Correya from among the churchgoer lot. She really stood out in her red- check thuni and blouse, otherwise known as Kebaya or Kavaya as pronounced in Kerala.
In her late 70s, Baby is perhaps one among the last few Kochin Anglo Indians of Portugese descent still wearing the age old dress called Kavaya. It is nothing but a full sleeve, close fitting, knee length jacket worn with a double layered wraparound (thuni) similar to the Lungi of Kerala men or Dakmanda worn by Garo women of Meghalaya. Baby continues to love wearing Kavaya even while a generation of her friends moved on to frocks, saris and then churidhar. “Some of us may be the last few to wear a Kavaya. A tradition will vanish with us”, says Baby with much anguish. Her neighbour Thresia D’silva aged 80, equally nods her love for Kavaya but laments about the unavailability of the thuni these days.
Kochi based Anglo Indian Voice Magazine presents Kavaya as introduced by Eurasian Nonas of Malacca and Macao many of whom were brought to Kerala and given in marriage to Portugese settlers. Even today Kavaya is the regular dress of Malayasian and Indonesian women. From Kollam to Kannur, this was the trademark dress of Parangi women. It has slowly given way to Indian saris, frocks and other western dresses. While Kavaya in south-east Asia comes in vibrant colours and floral patterns, Kochin Kavaya traditionally remained in just two colours – deep red and black checks. The red one along with floral jackets is for daily use and the black (along with a black jacket) is worn for a year after the death of someone in the immediate family. Baby remembers the last time she wore a black Kavaya was 17 years ago when her husband passed away. Within the last decade, black Kavaya has slowly disappeared from its usage among choochis (elderly anglo Indian women) and subsequently from the market. Kavaya was originally worn with gold buttons interconnected with a gold chain. They also used accompanying ornaments like the Cotinha ( a type of gold chain ) and Alpaneth (a brooch like accessory), along with a bun hairstyle.
The executive director of Anglo Indian Voice Magazine Declin Rodrigues says, “Kavaya’s unusual extended legacy in the state owes to ordinary anglo Indians of Kerala deeply inclined to the culture and traditions of the state. Similar attire in Goa succumbed to western influence much earlier than we do.” According to his estimate, around 100 nonas continue to wear this dress till date and 80% of them live in and around Kochi.
As the number of choochis wearing Kavaya plunged in the recent years, many stores have stopped selling Kavaya thuni. Earlier, stores such as Janatha at the heart of the city used to sell the thuni brought from Thevara and Madras. These days the only remaining outlet to buy Kavaya thuni is the erstwhile Gregory’s store, now renamed as Swapana, at Elamkunnapuza. These days orders for the thuni peaks only during pre-christmas months as sons and daughters prep to gift their aged mommanjis at the festive occasion.
Baby D’Cotha, an 82 year old native of Elakunnapuzha remembers the local church gathering of fourteen Kavaya wearing choochis held a couple of years ago. She remembers the gathering to be the largest to have held in recent times. A few of the participants from the meeting passed away since then leaving her with fewer friends in her age group. As generations wither and traditions fade, Kavaya may shrink to memories in a photo album or in a local museum in the years to come. Till then it is for us to hear the last remaining stories from a passing generation clad in red checks and floral jackets.