Yarn sizing by weavers. (A S Diwakar)
Snapshot
  • It seems like in the next few decades cotton handloom weaving will be wiped out altogether, unless there are drastic design interventions and a renewed demand from the market.

    It would be a sad day for India and the world when the song of the loom falls silent!

The rhythmic clickety-clack of the loom lulls you into relaxation. There is something deeply meditative about the song of the loom, even as nimble hands pass the shuttle with a jari thread from one end to the other with a practised, swift moment. It is almost noon, but the gentle diffused sunlight coming in through the wooden slats of the weavers’ workshop imparts the looms with a dream-like quality, to be seen only in Dutch painter Rembrandt’s pictures.

I am at Mangalgiri, a small temple town in Andhra Pradesh about 20 miles from Vijayawada, that is the home of fine handwoven cotton textiles as a part of an arts and crafts trail organised by APCO, the Andhra Pradesh Weaver’s Co-operative, and facilitated by Co-Optex, the weaver’s co-operative from Tamil Nadu. We are at the looms of a master weaver. It is a square room, with a sloping, tiled roof and wooden slats criss-crossing for walls. There are about eight pit looms inside, each one has a different coloured sari stretched on it. Two of the eight weavers are women.

A pit loom is a kind of a loom where the weaver sits on the ground on a cushion or a mat, with the loom placed before him or her. The legs of the weaver are placed in a pit below the loom where the pedals are located. According to Lakshmi, one of the women weavers, this position helps her to regulate the right amount of pressure required to press the pedals to weave the Nizam border, a task that requires great skill and patience.

Drying of the yarn. (A S Diwakar) Drying of the yarn. (A S Diwakar)

The cotton textiles of Mangalgiri are famous all over India for their cheerful, vibrant colours and the soft, breathable fabric. So what sets the Mangalagiri sari apart from other cotton saris? For one thing, the colours of Mangalgiri saris are often double shaded, with different coloured warp and weft intermingled together to give lovely, unusual shades that change colour when light falls on them. It is like magic really, how a Mangalgiri sari can appear to be both pink and purple at the same time.

Mangalgiri saris are also famous for their striking golden borders woven in jari. There is a particular type of a border called the Nizam border, which has got the geographical indication (GI) tag for Mangalgiri saris. Nizam border saris are the toughest to weave. The pallu of the sari is also woven in jari, but has only simple horizontal lines. Simplicity is what sets the Mangalgiri sari apart from the other cotton weaves of the region. There are no motifs on either the body of the sari, nor on the pallu. It is the intricately woven jari border that gives the sari its distinctive look.

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Joga Rao of the Weaver’s Co-operative Centre in Vijaywada tells us that the master weavers of Mangalgiri get the plain uncoloured cotton yarn from Tamil Nadu. It is first cleaned and then dyed in multiple colours by using vat dyeing technique. The coloured bales of cotton are then wrung and hung out to dry on bamboo sticks in the sunlight. “The yarn has to be completely dry,” explains Rao.

“If there is even a little moisture in the yarn, it will break on the loom.” The dried yarn is then stretched on the street and starch is sprayed on them lightly. It is then combed using a huge brush to take out any tangles or unwanted fluff. The yarn is then hand-rolled in huge skeins and taken to the looms.

Even though we think of only weavers bent on their looms when we think of handloom saris, weaving is an extremely labour-intensive process that involves multiple specialised tasks. Normally, all the ancillary tasks are done by different members of the weaver’s families. Thus, handloom weaving is more of a family enterprise, than an individual profession.

Handloom weaving is a highly skilled profession, but it finds few takers today. Most of the weavers we see are over the age of 50. "None of the youngsters want to do this work,” says Sree Kanth of Lakshmi Sarees, one of the master weavers, whose workshop we visited. The reasons behind the dwindling enthusiasm are many. Demand for inexpensive cotton saris like Mangalgiri saris is falling, as many women in India are increasingly adopting salwar kameez as their attire of choice, and those who do wear saris prefer synthetics made on power looms, as they are much cheaper, easy to maintain and last longer. All the women weavers we met in Mangalgiri wore only power loom saris.

It takes a skilled weaver two full days of work to weave a Mangalgiri sari, which will cost about Rs 800 in the wholesale market. Retail price of the sari can be anything between RS 1,500 to Rs 2,500. The weaver gets paid between Rs 350 to Rs 500 per day depending upon his/her skill. But a power loom can churn out hundreds of saris in that time, priced at Rs 250 or less. The economics clearly is not in favour of the hand-woven saris. As the demand shrinks, it is difficult to increase the wages. As a result, the looms of Mangalgiri are shrinking in size.

Mangalgiri town. (A S Diwakar) Mangalgiri town. (A S Diwakar)

At one time, this little temple town reverberated with the sounds of over 10,000 looms, now only about 3,000 survive. Most of the weavers belong to the Padma Shali community with weaving as their traditional hereditary craft.

However, the younger generation is opting to get college education and move away from weaving, but the weavers are not too unhappy about it. "Our children do not want to weave and I don’t blame them,” a weaver tells me in a matter of fact voice. Most weavers in Mangalgiri work for a master weaver, who operates the looms, provides the yarn and the dyes and sells the products under his/her brand name.

Mangalgiri saris can only survive if the demand for the saris increases, otherwise, the industry is bound to die a slow, lingering death. The thought was looming large in my mind as I prayed at the famous Narsimha Swamy temple of Mangalgiri.

Mangalgiri Nizam border. (A S Diwakar) Mangalgiri Nizam border. (A S Diwakar)

India has had a long and unbroken tradition of handloom weaving that has continued for over 5,000 years. Indian cotton was exported widely.  In fact, the finest cotton textiles in Rome and Venice were exported from India. The word for cotton in Roman was corbasino, a corruption of the Sanskrit word karpas for cotton.

However, sadly, it looks like in the next few decades cotton handloom weaving will be wiped out altogether, unless there are drastic design interventions and a renewed demand from the market. It would be a sad day for India and the world when the song of the loom falls silent!

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