This post was in response to a reader request on tumblr. Its fairly basic and is confined mainly to the 19th and 20th century but does cover some ground. Here goes!
Though the “set-mundu” consisting of two pieces of cloth is considered the traditional attire in Kerala, in practice its fairly common to see the lower half i.e. mundu alone in many 20th century photographs. This is usually worn with a jacket like blouse or sometimes a saree blouse as in the 1965 film Chemmeen. Typically the mundu is a woven cloth of cream or off white with a border. While the border can be a simple coloured band, the festive version has a woven gold border and is called kasavu. You can see the kasavu mundu worn with a blouse on three of the women in this photograph of the Travancore sisters and others. Of the three sisters in the middle, Lalitha on the left wears a neriyath (the upper part) as part of a half-saree like ensemble. Ragini wears a mundu and velvet jacket and Padmini on the right wears a half-sari that is common in Tamil Nadu (in the 50s this was usually a silk skirt, a georgette upper part and an embroidered blouse). Photograph circa 1954 courtesy Betsy Woodman. L to R Ambika, Lalitha, Chandran, Ragini, Betsy’s dad, Padmini, Sukumari.
Kerala Costumes, the variations over the decades:
Pic 1: The mundum neriyathum as worn in the 19th century (see also Ravi Varma’s painting of the mother of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi)
Pic 2: The addition of a blouse and in this case also a lacy cape on Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (these additions to local costumes were common in India in the late 19th/early 20th century, a clearer picture of the blouse here).
Pic 3: Karthika Thirunal wearing a mundum neriyathum with the upper part draped like the six yard saree and worn with a sleeveless blouse (1934). Like many a young royal of the 1930s, the Princess was quite stylish.
Pic 4: Syrian Christian girls wearing mundu with kuppayam (blouse or jacket).
Pic 5: Sethu Parvati Bayi as a young girl wearing the neriyathu (the upper wrap) with a full skirt and blouse (like a lehenga choli).
Pic 6: Miss Kumari wears a fitted saree blouse with the mundu in the 1950s (still from Neelakuyil (1954).
Pic 7: Miss Kumari again, this time in Aniyathi (1954), wearing the mundum neriyathum with a fitted saree blouse characteristic of the 1950s.
Pic 8: Karthika Thirunal, her brother the Maharaja of Travancore and her mother Paravti Bayi in a 1933 portrait, the six yard modern saris and styling is akin to that of many other Indian portraits of the period. Similarly the Maharaja wears a achkan and turban which was at this time a pan-Indian costume.
Pic 9: Aranmula Ponnamma in Yachakan (1951). While the mundum neriyathum with the upper portion (neriyathu) draped in the fashion of the six yard sari and the blouse are seen in the 1950s, many films of the period also feature the six yard sari which was common in India by this decade.
In some cases, the Kerala weave can be a six yard saree.
….their black glossy hair, tied in a knot in the middle of the head, is copiously anointed with cocoa-nut oil, and perfumed with the essence of sandal, mogrees and champas; their ears, loaded with rings and heavy jewels, reach almost to their shoulders, this is esteemed a beauty;…..they are adorned with a profusion of gold and silver chains for necklaces, mixed with strings of Venetian and other gold coins; they have also heavy bangles or bracelets,….their skin is softened by aromatic oils,…Oriental Memoirs, A Narrative of Seventeen Years Residence in India, James Forbes (1813).
She has a regular profile, pure features and magnificent large eyes, in fact all the beauty of her race. In accordance with the tradition of the Nayer family her jet black hair is wound round her forehead. Pierre Loti on the Travancore Maharani (1903).
In the 19th century earlobes amongst women in Kerala were sometimes elongated, I think so that a large “thoda” could be worn as in pic 1 (see also X). Some of the jewellery worn in Kerala can be seen in pics 3 and 4 (Source). In general, like in many parts of India, a large amount of jewellery was worn (though the Rev Satthianadan remarks that Tamil women could learn from their Travancore counterparts and go easy on the jewellery:)). Hair wound into a round coil (pic 2) and placed in the centre or the side is very Kerala (in fact the style is known as a Malayala hair bun as in this 1950s description of hairstyles). This could then be decorated with flowers or jewels. PS: There is some serious hair envy on the part of travellers visiting Travancore, almost all accounts are whoa this is glorious hair!
A number of photographs discussed so far are of Nair costumes. For the sake of completion, this post includes the clothing of the Mappila (pic 1) and Syrian Christians/Christians (pic 2, also see here and here). I had done an earlier post on the Jews of Kerala (see also here). Almost all costumes do build on the mundu or lower garment with the addition of the head cover amongst Muslims in Kerala. The practice of wearing a kuppayam or chatta (jacket/blouse) was restricted to the Christians, Muslims and Jews in Kerala before it became common for everyone in the state in the 19th century (see also the Channar revolt).
Kerala also has a number of small tribal communities (e.g. the Kādir, the girl here has a decorative comb and large earrings, the costume appears to be akin to the short sari).
And there is a bit of indigenisation of the skirt-blouse in Kerala as in pic 4 (1973 via photodivision).
Let’s turn to some period drama. The stills above are from Celluloid, a biopic on JC Daniel who made the first Malayalam movie. Pic 1 is of the actors playing the film-maker and his wife (Prithivaraj and Mamta Mohandas). Pics 2 and 3 are of the actress Chandni playing PK Rosy. The movie is set in the 1920s. It’s difficult to say how authentic the costuming of the film is without viewing it but the few stills suggest a period later than the 1920s.
And lastly flowers and literature.
Wherever you turn your eyes Nothing but trees in floral splendour Even a gentle breeze Would let loose a rain of flowers. Changampuzha Krishna Pillai (translation from the chapter on Ramanan, Changampuzha by S. Guptan Nair).
The flowers of Cassia Fistula aka Golden Shower Tree (kanikonna in Malayalam) are Kerala’s state flower. They occur a good deal in Malayalam literature and are also an important part of Vishu celebrations. Pic 1: Painting by a school student exhibited at the Trivandrum museum. Pic 2: Woman plucking kanikonna flowers in Kerala.