Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 09/5/19 11:46 AM

Feature: The Thorth Turns haute!

The Malayali towel’s 15 minutes of fame.

Kerala’s ubiquitous, uber-thin towels get an amazing upgrade, much to the bemusement of Malayalis around the world

What can I say? It’s like your old blush-pink velour pyjamas are suddenly trending like mad on every It list.

Quintessentially Malayali, the thorth is simple, sans fuss, low-key as hell but bloody effective.  It’s our gamcha. An intrinsic part of our persona. It’s so important to us that we don’t give it much thought at all.

Sometime ago, there was this video clip that went viral in God’s Own, a quirky ode which showed how versatile this piece of loosely- woven fabric is. There was the usual roster: as headgear fashioned into a sort of turban; for mopping a sweaty forehead, wiping a child’s running nose, draping over the shoulders like a mini-dupatta over the other ubiquitous Kerala catch-all outfit, the nightie; quickly mopping up sudden liquid messes; giving the hot tava (frying pan) a quick wipedown before ladling dosa batter onto it; draping over one’s torso in bed in the absence of a top-sheet; swiping unmentionable parts of your body quickly when you think nobody’s watching, though this last is a purely male activity, I assure you.

The thorth and me? I recently put it to good use while visiting the thermal spa pools of Budapest’s (Hungary) bathhouses. I use it for plopping my curls. I use it for straining wine when my muslin bag isn’t to be found. I often let my bread dough rise under a damp clean thorth.

Photo: Sheila Kumar

A glimpse of Sheila Kumar’s personal thorth collection.

I introduced a Mumbaikar friend to the thorth a few years ago and she’s been inextricably hooked to her fix of two brand new pieces every year. Nothing dries quicker in the Mumbai monsoon, she says. Another friend in Delhi uses only thorths to wipe her face dry, saying all other towelling material is too harsh on facial skin.

Usually woven in white and off-white, a colour aesthetic much suited to the Malayali psyche, thorths come in a pitch-black version, as well as kaavi, a dusty saffron, too. Prices start up from ₹ 25, and hover in the range of ₹ 250 -320, with some creamy and ultra-soft thorths costing as much as ₹ 400.

Photo: Sheila Kumar

Another glimpse of Sheila Kumar’s personal collection.

Traditionally the thorth came unembellished, with just a decorative arrow of red or blue at the sides. Then it got jazzed up, and karas (borders) of one centimetre were added in a host of colours. So, you could pick up a thorth with bands of scarlet, maroon, blue, emerald to match your bathroom décor. (Yes. Before you ask, that is the Kerala bathroom staple.)

In 2016, the thorth got an official boost under an initiative by the Responsible Tourism (RT) project of the Kerala   government. As part of the project, it was widely promoted across the state, leading to some kind of a rejuvenated enthusiasm for it.

Thorth, Now a Global Wrap

And now the thorth has gone global, perhaps riding a reductionist wave. It has received such a posh upgrade, most Mallus don’t recognise it in its new form. This enhancement has   happened incrementally, perhaps so as not to alarm the Malayalis, who like their lives — and their thorths— simple and fuss-free.

Now the big stores have started selling thin towels that are clearly inspired by the thorth, in gorgeous un-thorth shades like dove grey, peppermint green and lavender, at eye-watering prices starting from ₹1, 000, the more modish varieties costing as much as ₹3,300.

The Ernakulam-based  Kara Weaves, a social enterprise which works with handloom weaving co-operatives across Kerala, stocks stores (Bloomingdale’s and Anthropologie among others) in the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Europe, Singapore and Kuwait,  with a collection of finely-woven thorths, and has a line called Neyth where the traditional Kerala towel appears in creative avatars like hair scrunchies, cocktail napkins, yoga mats, stoles, tunics, wraps, sarongs, beach towels, bathrobes… and the darlingest  `monsoon quick-drying towels` of course.

Photo: Kara Weaves

A model wears an outfit made from Kerala thorth as part of the Neyth line of Kara Weaves.

Indu Menon, co-founder of Kara along with her daughter Chitra, terms the thorth “a reimagined home textile, with multiple uses,” and heaps praise on the versatile fabric. Mini Chandran, general manager, SwaSwara, a CGH Earth property in Gokarna (Karnataka) picks up the refrain and says, “SwaSwara  promotes  Kara thorths because they continue to be  woven on traditional wooden looms, need less water to be laundered and are made engaging with and promoting local communities,  thus keeping an ancient craft alive and sustaining it ably in modern times.”

Prem Kumar Parikarath, a retired bank manager in Kannur, waxes positively lyrical on the thorth. “The thorth is inexpensive, lightweight and dries the long hair of Kerala  women  fast.  I buy about ten pieces every year before the onset of the monsoon. After  a few months, I use them to clean my car, and my wife repurposes them as dusters!”

This ran in THE VOICE OF FASHION of 05 Sept 2019.–3055

Links to other TVOF pieces:

Humour: The South Indian Sari Blouse

Feature: The Kanjeevaram Sari

Feature: Down with brown!

Feature: Shailaja Padindala, profiled

Feature: Is comfortwear all about slouchy elegance?

Profile of a Malayali Nurse – Sr. Florrie (Nightingale) Thomas

Feature: If She`s Malayali, She Loves Gold!

Kara WeavesMalayali towelsNeythThe Voice of Fashionthorththorthu

Sheila Kumar • September 5, 2019

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