Knot an easy job for textile weave revivalists

'Knot' an easy job for textile weave revivalists

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In 2014, when Bengaluru-based Hemalatha Jain set out to revive Patteda Anchu, a handloom weave from North Karnataka, in Gajendragarh in Gadag, she was also set for the challenges that would come with the revival of the 19th-century saree. The drape was popular among the lower and middle-class families of North Karnataka and was given as a father’s gift to a bride at her wedding. Made in...

In 2014, when Bengaluru-based Hemalatha Jain set out to revive Patteda Anchu, a handloom weave from North Karnataka, in Gajendragarh in Gadag, she was also set for the challenges that would come with the revival of the 19th-century saree.

The drape was popular among the lower and middle-class families of North Karnataka and was given as a father’s gift to a bride at her wedding. Made in a coarse cotton and colours like yellow, red and green, Patteda Anchu by Hemalatha is available in natural and eco-friendly enzyme developed dyes.

Having done her PhD on the weave, Hemalatha began working on it with a sample given to her by a woman that belonged to her great grandmother. Tests revealed that it was at least 200 years old. However, Hemalatha’s concerted efforts have led to the revival of Patteda Anchu, but the path ahead is fraught with more challenges.

She says that while the drape was left to die over a period of time, her revival has brought about an army of claimants over its legacy.

Hemalatha, an associate professor at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) Bengaluru, says, “While a piece, depending on whether it is eco-friendly or handspun, is priced Rs 1800 and Rs 3500 respectively, there are some concerns online that sell it for much less.”

While cheaper alternatives are one part of the struggle, Hemalatha and her team of 55 people who work with her on the weave have been facing a horde of other challenges — right from manufacturing to marketing.

Handloom weave
A handloom weaver weaves cloth for a saree.

“We work in a format where everyone is equally responsible for the product. I also look at paying the weavers a fair wage to sustain their livelihoods,” she explains, adding, “The weavers associated with me suffer due to local boycott in the villages, as I am seen as an outsider in North Karnataka, though I am a Kannadiga.”

Hemalatha’s work is monumental, as she has also been instrumental in reviving drapes like gomi teni or jowar stalks, a saree given as a gift to pregnant women and worn during Sankranti festival, the Hubli saree, the Lakkundi saree, whose chowkdi is defined by the checks, and the dhotra sarees.

Across the country, revivalists like Hemalatha have been facing a plethora of issues — stiff competition from power looms that can make more sarees in less time and at far cheaper rates, besides the lack of enough weavers and lack of knowledge among customers.

No enthusiasm among weavers

In West Bengal’s Murshidabad district which was once famous for garad or garod saree, a special saree worn during the Durga Puja celebrations and characterised by a bright red border, has found no takers among the community.

A source from Weaver Service Centre in Kolkata who was working on the project, says, “We tried to rope in four weavers and convinced them to make a few pieces. While they were ready to make 20-30 pieces, the interest waned largely because the commercially viable ones were cheaper and fast-moving.”

“They tend to switch over to the jacquard mix variety of garod, which deviates from the original weave. And, people are mostly not keen on the originality of the weave and are okay with anything that faintly resembles it. So the weavers too have decided to switch to the commercial ones. They are unwilling to wait for customers who actually know the value of the weave to place orders. Even mentioning the idea of a revival makes them resist and protest, as they ask us what is the need to revive a weave that has no market,” says the source.

Handloom weave
A couple involved in weaving sorts threads for weaving a saree.

Not very far from Murshidabad, In Chandannagar, a former French Colony, the Farasdanga dhoti was famous even till three decades ago. One of the main centres for cotton weaving in Bengal, the place has barely any weavers left.

While there have been efforts to revive it, they have been met with resistance from former weavers who have left their traditional vocation.

The source says, “There have been funds given by the French government to establish a museum there and we tried to rope in some weavers for the project of reviving the dhoti as well. But there was absolutely no enthusiasm. Not a single weaver came forward, as they have moved on to more lucrative professions.”

It all lies in how you convince the weavers to see the benefit of the intervention for them, says Aditi Jain, designer, Gandhigram, in Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu.

She says it took several months of dialogue with them to make them see the benefit. “These are old khadi weavers in a place called Idaikal in Tirunelveli district, and they are used to making kora (plain) cloth. Though one agreed to add colour to the weave to make a new line of products like sarees, it did take us considerable time to convince them that they also get better wages when they have created a new product range.”

“The best part is that the range received positive response during our exhibitions,” she says.

Lot of labour

Radhika Singh, a writer from Delhi, who chronicled the story of revivalist Suraiya Hasan Bose who revived Mashru (a mix of silk and cotton woven with a satin finish) and Himru in the 1970s (fabric made of silk and cotton popularised during Mohammad Tughlaq’s rule) in the book Suraiya Hasan Bose: Weaving a Legacy, calls handloom fabric labour intensive and time-consuming.

“The cost of production of 3 metres of handloom fabric — hand spun, hand woven, hand printed, hand painted, (or anyone of these processes), is so much higher than of a similar length of power loom fabric — that it puts the product out of reach of most consumers in the market. Suraiya created 3 m of Himru per loom, in three months. The process involved the creation of the ‘draft’, or the ‘jala’ by the master craftsman, then the assembly of the loom in line with that design, and then two girls weaving on that loom for three months, to produce that three metres of Himru. Three metres of Himru is the length required for the stitching of one sherwani. Instead of the one lakh rupees (cost plus 20%) those 3m of Himru should have sold for, customers paid only Rs 36,000. So, each length of fabric is sold at a loss,” she recounts.

Singh says that there is a shortage of master craftsmen since the younger generation are not ready to learn this labour intensive, time-consuming craft.

“Younger people everywhere want better paid, desk jobs. They do not want to crouch over looms squinting at delicate patterns. We have almost lost the whole generation of master craftsmen. Without the craftsmen we do not have the craft,” she adds.

She says that Suraiya had a privileged background, was brought up to appreciate beauty, and handloom was her ideology.

“She struggled in every way to keep her Persian weaves alive. She is unable to run her store now, so her handloom unit is closing,” she rues.

Lack of knowledge among customers

In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the famous Sungudi sarees, which involves a detailed process of tying and dyeing, has been waging a heated battle with power loom versions.

PS Ravikumar, secretary of the Federation of Sungudi weavers, says that while the weave has been given a Geographical Indication tag in 2006, the tag has only helped to push it a little in the market.

“There is a notion that Sungudi should be priced at around Rs 500. This pricing is possible for powerloom ones, but in handloom, the whole process of making the saree takes close to two months. We need at least 15 to 20 persons for all the stages — from tying and dyeing, printing, starching to ironing. The starting price is therefore Rs 2,000 for the handloom ones,” he explains.

Handloom weave
Threads used for weaving being dried in the sun.

Moreover, the saree is sought after only by those who know its legacy. To tap the market, the weavers have begun making shirts, salwar suits and kurtas too with the weave.

“We have been training people to keep the craft alive. Earlier ladies were not involved in it, but now ladies too have become a part of the process,” Ravikumar says.

However, the question remains as to who is responsible to ensure that one can differentiate between power loom and handloom, asks Latha Tummuru designer, the Dastkar Andhra Marketing Association (DAMA) that has been popularising block print kalamkari from Andhra-Telangana on handwoven fabrics.

She says, “It has been over seven decades since Independence. In all these years, who has the onus to ensure that the market is educated? Is it the duty of agencies like ours, the government or the customers?”

She says that be it consumer goods like electronics or handlooms, the ones who really know the worth of the product are the ones who seek them. She also enlists the different aspects that dictate the preference for handloom.

“Why are they buying handloom? Is it because of its aesthetic appeal or they have memories attached to it or is it because it is sustainable and environment-friendly? Then there is the question of what should handloom deliver to you? There are several limitations from maintenance to availability- as these are available for purchase only in a set of stalls for a limited period of time,” Tummuru says.

She adds that most of the revivals are very region-centric or local. “If I am reviving a saree from Andhra, the recognition and memory of it are only in the 50-kilometres of its origin. Here, questions arise about the purpose of its revival. Are you reviving a livelihood, or product or taking it to the urban centres? You cannot restrict its availability in local market because if there was enough market there, it wouldn’t have become extinct in the first place.”

Handloom weave saree
A finished product, a handloom woven saree laid out.

Radhika points out that unless handloom is sold as a luxury fabric, it cannot be sustained. She also says that people have to be educated in the advantages of natural products — organic cotton, handcrafted items, handmade bread (for eg), handwoven textiles — to understand the need to desire them.

“Since there are no multinationals branding handloom, there is no advertising. No advertising means no promotion. No promotion means no visibility. Education is required at a basic level — on aesthetics, the need for rural income generation, knowledge of our tangible cultural heritage practised and perfected over generations of family traditions in art and performance and craft and architecture. Then we will love our craft,” she says.

Developing an ecosystem

The Registry of Sarees, a research and study centre in Bengaluru that enables design, curatorial and publishing projects in the area of handspun and handwoven textiles, has looked at revival by looking at an eco-system that can enable it.

The project in Mandya’s Kodiyala cluster aims at making the traditional weavers begin weaving the Kodiyala saree.

Ally Matthan, founder of the registry, says, “The documentation of all aspects of the cluster, their culture, the infrastructure it had, etc. have been undertaken by a person called Kshitija Mritunjaya, who is pursuing a PhD from a university in Milan.”

“These were previously weaving silk for the Mysore royal family. In a cotton cultivation belt, the earlier generations were engaged in cotton. In the last few decades, the weaver families have switched to power loom, though they still have a strong vocabulary and repertoire of hand weaving. A number of people from the younger generation have moved to Bengaluru, giving up their traditional vocation. Now after a year of extensive work, about 10 looms have been set up to roll out the product. We have convinced a few families to move back with their younger ones,” she says.

The project has been done with the support of an organisation called Shrenis that is reviving economic activities in villages. She says, “They need hospitals, schools and power if they have to relocate from Bengaluru and Shrenis is helping us with the infrastructure to provide an ecosystem that supports this revival.”

Ally says that though the product may face roadblocks, she will be happy even if a couple of them choose to continue.

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