The mundu goes mod
Take a look at how the popular garment is seeing modern and functional iterations for a younger generation
Does the mundu/veshti, so ubiquitous in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and increasingly a garment of choice as much for style as comfort, need a modern twist and tuck? Some manufacturers and labels, such as Ernakulam-based Rouka and Chennai-based Purushu Arie, certainly seem to think so, riding the popularity of the garment to experiment with easier drapes, colours and motifs.
Traditionally, the mundu or veshti is an unstitched 4.5m cotton or silk wrap, and is usually plain white or cream in colour except for the borders or selvedges, which could be in a particular colour or even in pure gold zari, known as kasavu. Now, designers are taking these age-old garments, worn by men and women across many regions in India, into more fashionable and functional territory with the use of belted fasteners, elasticated waistbands, pockets, pre-stitched drapes and pleats, as well as cool prints and colours.
Arie, whose eponymous label uses veshtis/mundus as gender-neutral clothing, says wearing the mundu can be cumbersome. “Today’s clothing needs to be more functional. Everyone uses mobile phones and that means every garment needs to have pockets. People are not confident about their draping skills, unlike people from previous generations who were adept. It has also been reduced to ceremonial wear, which it necessarily isn’t."
Rouka founder Sreejith Jeevan, who is known for his contemporary interpretations of traditional south Indian textiles and designs, considers the mundu a wardrobe staple. “A lot of people do find wearing the mundu quite difficult, but wearing it on a regular basis helps you get used to it. You find a way to get used to it." But he’s willing to introduce a “fun" element with motifs that may appeal to a younger customer base.
Both agree that the garment continues to command respect. “Younger people probably have grown up watching their fathers and brothers wear it," says Jeevan, 33. “There’s a certain pride for men who wear it, because of its association with Malayalam cinema and its machismo, heroism and swagger, which also people have grown up with."
“But more than (being) symbolic, the garment has just been a way of life," he says. It’s convenient too. “Even if it starts loosening, you just tighten it and tuck it back in," adds Jeevan, who wears it regularly in the traditional way.
Arie discovered gender fluidity through the mundu, rather than the other way round. “Today, the mundu/veshti are typecast as men’s clothing, but after having studied the costume history and clothing culture of south India, I found that waist-wrap garments predate saris as well," says Arie. The mundus are Arie’s way of raising awareness about Indian perspectives on gender fluidity, which go back much further than the West’s adoption of modern gender terminology.
THE NEW LOOK
One of the earliest modern renditions of the mundu was by Tirupur-based Ramraj Cotton, one of the largest makers of veshtis and dhotis in the country. In early 2015, it launched its collection of “Genxt" mundus, with pockets and Velcro strips for fastening.
Arie’s unisex mundus and veshtis come with belted fasteners as well as elasticated waistbands. They are also pre-stitched with drapes and pleats. He says: “I wanted to experiment with its perception and aesthetic, since I feel it had stagnated over a long time. I do respect the garment, but I wanted to try out new things, so I have retained the gold borders in some of them." One source of inspiration, he says, has been the South-East Asian sarongs.
Jeevan is focusing on motifs, departing from the classic, plain-border mundus that men usually prefer. His “Glide-A-Line" mundu features embroidered seagulls. “People will look for newer options when they start seeing them. There is a market that’s waiting to experiment, even though it might be niche, especially since the regular kasavu border is what’s worn usually. A tweak or some fun is what we are gradually becoming open to," he says.
Both designers have stayed with the traditional cotton and silk. There can’t be too much experimentation with the mundu’s aesthetic, since its traditional and classic style is what draws people. The functional changes just make it easier and even more convenient to wear. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Arie claims that his pre-stitched cotton veshti was one of his highest-selling ones.
There is greater experimentation with the mundu’s more informal cousin, the lungi. It is now designed in bright colours and patterns, such as checks and motifs, giving it a contemporary yet quirky look.
THE FLIP SIDE
Not everyone is convinced that the mundu needs an upgrade, however. Nandu V.S., managing partner at Kasavukada, one of Kerala’s largest handloom manufacturers, is an advocate of the traditional mundu. He says: “Mundus made of polyester or blended fabrics need belts because they can’t be tucked around the waist, and so must be worn with belts or other accessories, but pure cotton ones don’t need them. It is also such an important part of culture in south India, and we want to keep that tradition alive."