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Fashioning harvest festivals

If striking Sambalpuris are the norm for Odisha’s Nuakhai, a modern take on Kasavu welcomes Onam in Kerala

A Sambalpuri sari depicting harvest customs by the weaver Chitrabati Meher.
A Sambalpuri sari depicting harvest customs by the weaver Chitrabati Meher. (Utkalamrita)

August is a month that comes alive with harvest festivals, elaborate food spreads and heart-emoji-inducing weaves. This weekend is dedicated to two such celebrations—Onam in Kerala and Nuakhai in Odisha. Nuakhai can be translated loosely as the eating of new grain—nua means new and khai, eat. For women, it is the time to update their wardrobes with glorious single and double ikat silk Bandha saris, or air the chequered Pasapalis usually reserved for special occasions.

Like other parts of India where regional harvest festivals are prevalent, women usually wear traditional weaves during Nuakhai," says Amrita Sabat, co-founder of the Bhubaneswar-based brand Utkalamrita, which specializes in weaves from Odisha. Simpler Sambalpuris, Khanduaswith temple or animal motifs and Bomkaisare popular during harvest festivals, while their more elaborate versions meet the needs of wedding wear. Recently, Utkalamrita was in the news for weaving a sari with mathematical equations for Vidya Balan’s promotional appearance for the movie Shakuntala Devi, based on the maths wizard. Created with intricate tie-and-dye, it was auctioned on their Instagram page @utkalamrita, just in time for the festive season.

This year, Nuakhai coincides with Onam. The traditional fervour there is essayed in evocative gold and white kasavus. “It’s one of the biggest seasons for handloom in our state," says designer Sreejith Jeevan. Last week, his brand ROUKA launched a collection,TheKodi Edit, with a range of ivory saris streaked with red, yellow and green, and accentuated with minimal line-design detailing. It also has a few options in colours like salmon pink, ink blue and vermilion.

This series, made in collaboration with the weavers of Oodum Paavum, a rural art hub project, is a contemporary spin on simpler traditional Kerala handloom saris. “Although there is a demand for updating classic pieces with a modern appeal, people subconsciously look for a traditional connect," says Jeevan.

In fact, it’s a time when even men and children buy new clothes. Men opt for dhotis with a matching shirt or kurta. Little boys are dressed in a mini version of the dhoti, while girls go for cotton pavadas (a skirt and blouse). In Kerala, Jeevan adds, there is a word for new clothes on Onam: Onakodi.

Traditional weaves remain the showstoppers at every harvest festival, from Pongal in Tamil Nadu to Bhogali Bihu in Assam. People find ways to keep the custom alive even if they can’t afford to spend too much. In Assam, for instance, a complete set of mekhela-sador is usually heavy on the wallet, so a simple white gamusa (gamcha) with patterned red borders suffices.

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