“It was a memorable day for me, being able to honour my roots and the hard work of my migrant parents, and to support the incredible work by Save the Loom,” wrote lawyer Amanda on her recent Instagram post. The accompanying photograph shows her standing before the Supreme Court of New South Wales in a grey sari with a black flare and white stripes under a black jacket. The next image in the post is a handwritten letter from Save the Loom (STL), a Kerala-based social impact agency whose sari Amanda was wearing. It is called the Usha sari from STL’s Vidhi (Sanskrit for law) range of 15 handloom saris for women lawyers. In the letter, STL said it views the saris as a medium to build “better workspaces and pay the right wages”. To the left side of the letter is a tiny label (that is stiched to the sari hem) and reveals the name of its weaver; in this case, Preethy R.K.
That Insta post was possible because three women came together. Amanda, on a career-high, bought the sari. The late Justice K.K. Usha, who inspired the sari’s name, is the first Malayali Chief Justice of the Kerala high court, a champion of women’s issues and fought against discriminatory practices. Preethy R.K., one of Kerala’s many faceless weavers, toiled for 16 hours (two-day shift) on the loom to weave the sari. Law and weaving were once fiercely male-dominated professions, but recent figures show a remarkable turnaround. According to a report by the law ministry in July 2022, women now constitute 15.3 per cent of the law workforce; a long way from when the legal profession was opened to women in India in 1923. And about 92-96 per cent of weavers in Kerala’s Ernakulam district are women after the men left the trade for jobs providing higher pay and better incentives.
Contemporising a dress code set in stone
Part VI, Chapter IV of The Bar Council of India (BCI) has specific rules relating to the “Form of Dresses or Robes to be Worn by Advocates” in black, white, and grey hues. Women can wear a full-sleeve jacket/blouse, stiff or soft collar, and gowns; or an open-breasted coat with a collar/collarless blouse; saris/ long skirts even in “mellow or subdued colour”; or Punjabi churidar-kurta/salwar-kurta. The Vidhi collection adheres to this BCI-approved dress protocol but even ensures what the young law graduate, intern and lawyer, wants. The generation settles for Punjabi suits or classic shirts and trousers. The additional layers of black jacket and coat, they find, restrict movement and are stifling during summers in courtrooms with poor ventilation, and unfashionable for an evening soiree right after the day’s courtroom session. Following the dress code is sacrosanct, going by the retirement speeches of senior judges like Indu Malhotra, and the numerous occasions when the judiciary admonished lawyers and litigants for dressing casually. Menon was mighty pleased when the R&D dug up serendipitous finds such as the first Supreme Court woman judge, Justice Fathima Beevi, and the first woman lawyer, Anand Chandy, both of whom hailed from Kerala, STL’s headquarters. It felt befitting to launch Vidhi on Justice Chandy’s birth anniversary in 2021.
Vidhi’s black, white and grey saris, made from pure cotton, use a superior thread count of 2x120 than the usual 80 by 80, and combed yarn to reduce wrinkles. The saris, claim STL, can be washed with other garments as the dye does not bleed. With 60 minutes of drying time, the saris can be worn every day and do not require heavy ironing. They are pre-washed and de-starched by the washermen at the colonial era Dhobi Khana in Fort Kochi.
Justice Usha’s family is STL’s longstanding patron, participating in Menon’s 2018 fundraising campaign. He recalls retired Justice K. Sukumaran, one-half of India’s first judge couple, who visited a weaver’s collective in Chendamangalam with his daughter and Advocate Karthika wrote three cheques: Rs 30,000 to fix the loom of a weaver he used to patronise; Rs 50,000 in his wife’s name for a deserving woman weaver; and Rs 50,000 as an advance payment for his handloom purchases that year. In 2020, in her memory, STL instituted a scholarship titled Usha (University Scholarship for Handloom Artisans) for handloom artisans and their children. Talks are on to facilitate student exchange programmes with the likes of the National Institute of Design and universities abroad. In fact, the specially-abled people from NGO Sree Narayana Sevika Samajam, run by Justice Usha’s daughter, hand-hem the saris for STL.
STL only produces unstitched yardage and doesn’t venture into design experiments like pre-draped saris, unless a collaborative effort like their ‘Colours of Resilience’ show at the 2018 Kochi Muzuris Biennale, where 20 designers created garments from 15 metres of yardage provided to each one. Instead, the focus lies in improving day-to-day operations. For instance, every handwoven product from a cooperative has the weaver’s registered society number attached. If the fabric is found with defect and returned, the weaver is identified and subjected to a pay cut. “Instead of only punishing them, why not reward them for all those unreturned, well-made saris?” notes Menon.
Meanwhile, the Vidhi saris have found ardent admirers, particularly among senior SC lawyers and judiciary in Calcutta, Bengaluru, besides Kochi. Above all, STL has found a new market. Convocation ceremonies. “A number of law students contacted us before the ceremony, so much so that we were not prepared,” says Menon, who will rectify that next time around.