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Weaving their fates

Jul 29, 2023

Narayanpet, known for its handwoven Ikkat sarees is a town of traditional weavers. We look deeper into their lives to know about their weaving process, earnings and difficulties.

Published: 03rd August 2023 10:11 AM | Last Updated: 03rd August 2023 10:12 AM | A+A A-

Students interacting with the artisans. (Photo | Express)

HYDERABAD: Vakala Vijaylakshmi is a resident of Koyyalagudem village of Yadadri Bhuvanagiri district. She has been working as an Ikkat manufacturer for the past 30 years. Starting from a very small business of fabric weaving, she is now exhibiting and delivering garments made at her unit to cities across India. She comes from a long line of fabric weavers who have been traditionally involved in the craft of hand-woven sarees.

“My family has been into weaving for the past seven generations. My father and uncle were weavers, and my husband and his family were all into weaving,” she said.

Vijaylakshmi says that her husband’s family have five members and they all collectively earn only `3-5000 per month. Although she says that the governments have helped her hold exhibitions and expos across the country, the amount of hard work that goes into making these garments is worth a lot more.

“Weavers’ Service Centre in Delhi helped me a lot in expanding my small business unit to now 300 employees working under me. The entire process of garment making takes about 60-90 days. It involves dyeing and weaving the yarn to make fabric and from that, we make customised products such as ladies’ kurtis, gents’ kurtis, blouses, palazzos, scarfs, cushions and bed covers, etc. One Ikkat cotton saree takes about 15-20 days,” said Vijaylakshmi.

The women who come to work at her unit get around Rs 300-350 per saree whereas men get around Rs 10-15K per month. The workers who dye the yarn get about Rs 20K per month, according to Vijaylakshmi. Once the product is made, the garments are then transported to different parts of the country including major cities like Delhi, Ahmedabad, Indore, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Kochin.

Ritika Upadhyay, a student of NIFT Hyderabad, went to Narayanpet, a town in Mehbubnagar district as part of the Cluster Development Project carried out by the Ministry of Textiles in order to support local weavers and manufacturers.

Observing and researching the local handloom craft there, she says, “We noticed the different types of sarees, how they are made on handlooms, how the government schemes are helping them and how we as designers can help promote their craft.”

Explaining the fabric-making process, Ritika said, “They import their yarn from the Surala district which is in AP today. Once the yarns are with them, they start the weaving process which includes the pinning and drawing. Once the weaving is done, they sell the product to customers and to the market.”

Noticing the unique style of Narayanpet hand-woven sarees, Ritika said the designs themselves revealed a lot about the cultural heritage of the place. “There are two types of saris that are very famous there which are the silk sarees and the cotton sarees. They are known for their simple borders with temple designs representing the historical and cultural aspects of the town. The speciality here is that about seven to eight sarees are woven together at a time in the loom,” she said.

However, the sad reality is that local crafts find themselves alienated from this historical culture as they compete with machine-made products. “They compete with the mass-produced products made by the artisans who sell them at a lower rate,” said Ritika.

In order to help the handloom weavers, a couple of government schemes are in place, through which weavers are able to get Rs 150 per saree on a daily basis. There is another scheme that provides around Rs 10,000 for 60 sarees. SAMARTH is also a scheme for skill upgradation among other similar schemes.

Despite that, Ritika says, there are weavers who are unable to find work and make ends meet. “The weavers say that there were 3000 in number earlier and now there are less than 300 left. They are not getting paid enough for the amount of hard work they put into the craft. We noticed a few ergonomic factors such as they are straining their eyes for a long number of hours. Weaving uses a lot of physical energy and due to the physical labour put in, their work life is till 40 years, after that they cannot work. Most of their sons or daughters are opting for other career options such as medicine. Also, payments are mostly delayed in the government scheme. In one of the schemes, they were supposed to be paid in three months, but the payments are usually done after six to seven months,” said Ritika.

She thinks that situation would not be so bad if the weavers are paid well and on time. In Narayanpet, she says one weaver is paid Rs 170 for one cotton saree and they try to finish two cotton sarees in a day. “We went to around three-four artisans and noticed the handloom, clothes and all the manufacturing processes but we don’t feel like anyone is doing really well there in terms of finance. Also, there is a lot of middlemen exploitation that takes place in this entire process,” she said. She also added that the government has made websites for them, but there is not enough promotion.

Most of the weavers, including Vijaylakshmi, have collaborated with organisations such as Fab India and several designers who buy fabric from them at the wholesale price of Rs 800-900 per saree. Most of their products are made by orders from customers. Vijaylakshmi is one of the few lucky ones who have designers and companies asking for customised stitched garments. Whatever is left with them, they sell in the local markets.

“They give me the designs, the sizes and the colour combinations and we make the products accordingly,” said Vijaylakshmi. Ritika also added that the weavers’ art is recognised and they have the freedom to use their artistic skills in their products. However, the art calls for very fixed designs representing the local culture such as temples and peacocks.

“Dovetailing our curriculum with craft cluster visits, artisans awareness workshops, craft bazaars and craft-based design projects serves a dual purpose by offering invaluable exposure to our young minds, fostering a profound appreciation for the artistry of our traditional weavers and also encourages a deep connection between generational artisans and the aspiring designers and communicators within the fashion industry,” said Sudha Dhingra, Dean, NIFT.

In order to help the weavers expand their market size, NIFT students have been planning to conduct workshops and fashion shops on Handloom Day on August 07. “We conduct such events annually where artisans from all over India exhibit their products. It helps enhance their sales and we also help them with transportation fees. As students, we try to tell them different ways to marketise and innovate their products,” concluded Ritika.