The ‘traditional’ attire of Keralam

The photo above is from the inaugural function of the International Theatre Festival of Keralam (ITFoK). There was a heated debate in Facebook about the scene highlighted in this photo. The debate was about how settu mundu is being touted as the traditional attire of Keralam when it represents only the upper-caste traditional attire. The discussion was initiated by someone called Abdul Kareem and I got to see it when Sudeep Ben re-shared the photo in his FB page. After following up on the debate in the FB pages of Sudeep, Abdul Kareem and BRP Bhaskar, I posted my thoughts in one of the posts. Here it goes:

1) It is important that we ask questions about what is being celebrated as ‘traditional Kerala attire’. Every community/caste/tribe has had a different attire so it is impossible to define what is traditional and what is not. And just because one of them is being commonly celebrated as ‘traditional’ (which has happened long before the ‘disturbing’ questions about caste arose) does not mean that it must be accepted without a question.

2) Wikipedia says that ‘Mundum Neriyathum’ is “one of the remains of the pre-Hindu Buddhist-Jain culture that once flourished in Kerala and other parts of South India” (Ref: It is also said to be an adaptation of the Graeco-Roam costume called ‘Palmyrene’. So I am not sure how ‘Hindu’ it is. Upper-caste Hindus might have adopted the dress-code because they could afford it while the lower-caste being the working class couldn’t have afforded the attire.

3) The Sangeeta Nataka Academy function is a less harmful example if compared to the inaugural function of the TV programmes like Idea Star Singer which seem like a Hindu religious ceremony.

4) The remaining question is which identity we should use as a common cultural identity. Now it is dominantly upper-caste Hindu and not many have questioned this, so it continues. Whether we need to have a common pre-set cultural identity when it is projecting only one cultural identity is the next question. In this particular case, whether an ‘international’ theatre festival needs to have a local identity stamp on it is a third and more relevant question. I think it will be good to let people wear what they want to wear rather than giving a false notion of a common cultural identity.

11 thoughts on “The ‘traditional’ attire of Keralam”

  1. I am sorry, I don’t understand the point. There are certain things ‘Indian’ that we have. Those are not necessarily ‘Hindu’. There are churches in Kerala where they light big lamps. Any supposedly ‘secular’ guy can oppose lighting of lamps in govt functions saying that it is a Hindu custom. But the point is, you ‘secular’ guys are intolerant to the local culture. Didn’t your friend Abdul Kareem (or his forefathers) know that if they chose to stay in India they would see the local customs instead of Arabian customs? I simply don’t understand the ‘secular’ viewpoint that somehow Indian govt must celebrate customs that didn’t originate in India. US president took oath along with a Bible. Secular liberals would say “why not any other book?”, but they are pushing it a touch too far.

  2. You didn’t get my point Abhilash. India does not consist of a singular culture and tradition. Same applies to Kerala. I was talking about a single community’s tradition being representative of a society that is multi-cultural in itself. I was asking to find something that all communities, castes and tribes can relate to and then celebrate it as the common cultural tradition. And if there is none, just admit and get ahead with it.

    This is not just about ‘Hindu’ if that reference is what disturbing you. Even among Hindus, the lower caste and upper caste have had different culture and traditions, not just in the way they dress but also in terms of worship and temples. Similarly, it is different among Christians in Keralam.

    Cultures and civilizations have only prospered by being open, adoptive and adaptive. Including India (Didn’t you read my point #2 that Mundum Neriyathum “is also said to be an adaptation of the Graeco-Roam costume called Palmyrene”?). So even the ‘local tradition’ is a result of an ever evolving cultural process which continues to the date.

  3. Recently while traveling to different parts of India I was wondering what exactly is that which makes us think of us as Indians ! Certainly not language nor dress nor customs nor food habits….then what is it ? Is it just geography ? it is a miracle, JO!

  4. I think it is because of the British that we remain together. And we know that standing apart wouldn’t do us much good considering we are divided into small states and would be left powerless if we stood apart. Honestly, I don’t see what is miraculous in this. I see it as a survival tactic which is inherent in every human being.

  5. Does the national anthem represent India and its people?

    The problem I am seeing with your blog is the tone of intolerance for local culture. Of course we have to be open to other cultures, but that does not mean you have to give up the local customs and give it a very divisive description (upper-caste tradition, seriously?)

    Can I learn French and then raise a hue and cry about the language not featuring in the 8th schedule? And therefore constitution does not represent me?

  6. A problem can be solved only when we see and admit that there is a problem. Unless, it’s futile to discuss about it. You don’t see any division in local customs. You think upper-caste tradition is a ‘divisive description’. Tomorrow, you might even argue that there is no caste (forget the news coming out about caste based atrocities every now and then). Well well, I wish we were all angels and there is no crime happening in the world. Dream on, as long as you have a cozy bed.

  7. Its one thing acknowledging different views and a totally different another to endorse the views. You are endorsing a view that you this dress does not represent all Keralites. Which brings us to the questions you chose to ignore – about national anthem and French. Try answering the questions. we can have a discussion here after that. Your emotional rant doesn’t serve any purpose.

  8. Emotional rant, really?

    What do the following gems from your first comment show?

    1) “Didn’t your friend Abdul Kareem (or his forefathers) know that if they chose to stay in India they would see the local customs instead of Arabian customs?”

    What is the relevance of this question here? “if they chose to stay in India”? Why would he have to choose? Did you have to choose to stay in India? In India, which is a country of his own as much as it is yours? “Instead of Arabian customs”? That old ‘go back to pakistan’ slogan, eh? Where did he imply that he wanted to see Arabian customs in place? Did I quote him thus? Or did you read him saying that?

    2) “I simply don’t understand the ‘secular’ viewpoint that somehow Indian govt must celebrate customs that didn’t originate in India.”

    Who is asking to ‘celebrate customs did not originate in India’ when all I asked was to find a common thread, and if not, don’t endorse a singular tradition to apply to the common man?

    3) “US president took oath along with a Bible. Secular liberals would say “why not any other book?””

    Though I have a clear view of how state and religion should be kept separate, what does US President has to do with Mundum Neriyathum?

    I chose to ignore these because I wanted to focus on the topic. But now you are on to more – of national anthem and french. Try someone else with your bait, mister. From my existence in the online world all these while, I have learnt that it is futile to have a discussion with people who get their ‘facts’ from Sangh Parivar websites. And if you come back with any more such ‘enlightening rants’ it will go straight to the dust bin. If you really want to discuss, do your own home work on the different traditions of different religions/communities/castes/tribes and come up with an argument that can prove that there is some tradition that can be applied to the Malayali society as a whole.

  9. But do they say this is the only traditional attire of kerala? As far as i know most of the nambudiri ladies (4-5 generations before) never used to wear blouse and all they used to wear was a mundu. These debates are started by people who dont have any other job to do in life.

  10. Well, they look quite dignified and nice. We need not wrack out brains much about which strata of society they belong to. This particular attire is part and parcel of Kerala culture as much as “chattayum Mundum” of Christians and the “Thattam” of Muslims.

    As for the reference to British unifying the country, you may not be correct. Long before the British came, at least a trickle of people used to trek to faraway places. Among the Hindus, those in the south would try and undertake a final pilgrimage to places in the north like Varanasi. Likewise, those in the north would come all the way to Rameshwaram.

    Right now, we are all Indians and should be rightfully be proud of our diversity and see things in a positive light.

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