Every region of this country has its own unique weaving traditions. Many of us who grew up wearing cotton sarees through the hot and long summers, came to recognize the origins from the design, style and texture of the weave. From the Muga and Eri silks of Assam, the Chanderis, Benarsi, Paithani, Kanchipurams – the list can go on and on. And buying a saree in the local weave is on the agenda, where ever I travel in the country. So, our travel in Tamilnadu led us to the local weavers.
Hand looms are an integral part of the livelihood in many of the villages and towns in and around Kumbakonam, Thanjavur etc. So in Kumbakonam, we visited the house of Mr Kamsan, who had his loom in the front verandah of his house. Hand weaving is the family tradition, and he now has 60 odd looms around Kumbakonam. These are owned by him, he provides the designs and thread and pays the weavers a wage. This is an area which traditionally does silk weaving, and the style is the one which most of us would recognize as Kancheepuram. It takes Kamsan 7 days to weave a full silk saree which would sell at Nalli, Chennai for around 6000 and for which the labor charge is only around Rs 1000. So, if one puts in the cost of the silk, middle men, transport etc. a saree does not bring him much in the way profit.
Kamsan, however, feels that he is reasonably well off, since he owns the 60 looms. He feels for the actual weavers who are paid only Rs 300-400 per saree. Mixing synthetic yarn, allows for faster weaving (as silk is more fragile and breaks) and a saree can be finished in 3 to 3.5 days. Of course, none of this can compete with the power looms. The demand for sarees is on the decline, and the economics of the trade are far from attractive. Kamsan’s grandfather had over 200 looms, which in his father’s time came down to 150 or so. And he is certain that his children will not do this – they are going to school and he has not allowed them to even learn the art. Even if some of us feel proud of our handloom heritage, for the individual whose hands work the loom, the remuneration is far from adequate.
And then we moved on to Karaikuri – which is famous for the cotton Chettinad sarees. The first evening we ended up at the local shop recommended by friends – and found a huge range of lovely cotton sarees with woven borders which were very reasonably priced. We ended up buying a couple – but came away dis-satisfied as this was not the Chettinad sarees as I knew them. Then following conversation with the manager at the Bangala, where we were staying, the next morning we reached the Sri Mahalaxmi Handloom Weaving Center at Kanadukathan.
Here, again after specifically asking for it, we were shown this collection of wonderful hand woven, natural dye cotton sarees that are so characteristic of this area. And my friend and I went overboard and picked up sarees for ourselves, family and friends…..And overhearing our discussion on transport problems they even organized to courier our loot to us.
This is one of the few remaining centers making these designs. They face a greater challenge than the silk weavers, as those wearing cottons sarees is shrinking dramatically. There are many groups, like the Dastakar, making a great effort to keep these traditional crafts going. But, I really wonder if they will be sufficient to ensure their continuity. For here too, although at Mahalaxmi the whole family, including the daughter, are involved in the activities, in most centers the younger generation does not see a future in this business – either in terms of economics or social status. So, I for one, will look after mine carefully as these may not be around for much longer.