Feature: If She`s Malayali, She Loves Gold!
Gold is a Malayali woman’s BFF. But don’t be misled into thinking it’s just an expensive indulgence.
The latest scandal down south involves the state of Kerala, a woman named Swapna Suresh and 30kgs of smuggled gold. Not surprisingly, the incident has led to snide comments yet again on Kerala’s gold-love.
Actually, we need to parse that term, gold-love. Fact is, Kerala’s menfolk are not really into gold. You will find a handful of men sporting thick gold chains and gleaming signet rings, but those you will find across the country, too.
Those who drool over jewellery crafted from the effulgent metal, saving/borrowing/spending money on it, decking themselves and their female kin with chest loads, wrist loads, finger loads of it, are Kerala’s women. The Kerala woman’s gold-love is a singularly fierce, steadfast kind of attachment, one that often borders on obsession.
A recent World Gold Council study pegged the monthly per capita spend on gold ornaments in Kerala (urban) at close to ₹190; the second place went to Tamil Nadu, but at a mere ₹44.86.
Another WGC survey found that about 40 per cent of gold from the Indian gold jewellery market is consumed by the four southern states. Kerala, to no one`s surprise, is the biggest individual consumer, with a seasonal buying pattern peaking in April-May and September-December, hitting lows during the June-August monsoons.
Gold Love: Legends and Life
Intriguingly, this loud display sits ill at ease with a state known for and proud of its everyday simplicity, as seen in off-white clothing, Kasavu saris, simple thaalis (gold chains with pendants worn as signs of marriage) worn by the Hindu women, and the traditional ancestral homes which are a tasteful low-key meld of wood and exposed brick.
An interesting theory posits that the Malayali’s affair with the gleaming metal dates back to when the state used to send out its fabled spices to Italy, Greece and the Arabia of yore, receiving enormous amounts of gold in exchange. Inexorably, owning and displaying this gold became a show of prestige.
An apocryphal legend has it that once the sanctum of a temple is open, spiritual energy flows directly to the worshipper. Since most Kerala temples mandate that men enter shirtless, they supposedly become direct beneficiaries of that spiritual energy. The women, though, are perforce clothed, so their (many) gold ornaments supposedly act as a conductor of this energy.
Yesteryear factors like the Gulf boom and the rising rates of rubber, which worked to the advantage of private plantation owners as well as the state, have also played their part. Then, in the absence of too many other investment opportunities in a state not exactly known for its industrial growth, land and gold are popular investment instruments, the latter gaining an edge because of its high liquidity factor.
Then there is the trend factor. Someone set the brides- in- breastplate- armour trend rolling, a little over a decade ago, and endgame seems nowhere in sight.
Maybe the pandemic currently surging through the world will curb this gold-love? Do not hold your breath. As Mallika Ramachandran, 61, Delhi-based homemaker and keen observer of Malayali mores, says, “The Malayali woman will buy more because while she was sitting at home, she was looking at jewellery ads, her mouth-watering!”
Suresh Kumar, GM of Bhima Jewellers in Trivandrum, avers that the pandemic did not hit sales as hard as they had anticipated. The jewellery schemes floated by the company have always done well, and people continue to book jewellery. Those with family weddings looming on the horizon are also buying, he says.
Malayalam film stars and their families are regular customers at the big showrooms, and expected to head back to the jewellery counters as soon as the situation becomes more convivial.
The modern boutique jewellers admit that sales are ‘dull’ because of the shutdown on coffee mornings, kitty parties and club socials, but have every confidence in the long-term allure of jewellery for the Malayali woman, so feel business is definitely going to pick up sooner than later.
Sign of Security
But here’s the thing: every Malayali sees gold jewellery as a liquid asset, to mortgage or sell on that proverbial rainy day. Most see owning jewellery as a sign of security to shore up their future.
Bangalore-based lawyer Niranjana Menon, 29, makes a pertinent point: “Malayali women are gold-crazy but not jewellery-crazy. Gold is their safe back-up plan.”
Social approval is the other major reason Malayali women wear so much of conspicuous jewellery. Says Sunita Malik, 53, a homemaker in Singapore, “In indigent families, jewellery is pawned or used to service a husband`s drinking, gambling or unemployment problem. In wealthier families, it`s a gauge of family wealth, about impressing society.”
The buying pattern is distinct: it`s women over thirty-five who buy jewellery regularly, impulsively, enthusiastically. Ganga Jayakumar, 52, owner of the hugely popular Trivandrum salon The Mirror, states, `”I buy jewellery whenever I have money in hand, it’s my emotional sustenance. ”
The younger lot are more clear-eyed. Says Shilpa G, 26, a dentist living in Braunschweig, Germany, “I just am not a jewellery person. I mix high street with low, and happily wear trinkets, too.”
Nina Karun, 22, a producer with a radio station in Bangalore, is clear where she stands. “When I have enough money, I use it on travel. Buying jewellery would be a waste of that money.” Then again, these young women, by their own admission, own or stand to inherit substantial pieces from their mothers, so can afford to be casual about jewellery.
By and large, a woman`s ornaments, streedhan or not, is still her own property, irrespective of the Malayali community she belongs to, though there are some exceptions where the fight reaches the courts. Says Ayesha Afsar, 59, a homemaker staying in Saudi Arabia, “The jewellery I received from my husband at the time of my nikah is considered as mahar, and is solely mine.”
The Malayali woman`s gold-love? It is what it is. The rest of India needs to get over it.
This appeared in THE VOICE OF FASHION of 11 Aug 2020.