The birthplace of a Kancheepuram silk saree — where patterns and motifs are hand-drawn on old-fashioned graph paper with a 2B pencil — is the tidy living room of 59-year-old designer and fourth-generation weaver B Krishnamoorthy. As a designer, he creates new ones by borrowing from the old — ‘But only the idea,
the outward shape’ — and as a self-made archivist and educationist, he weaves up many reference catalogues. The design notebooks of this National Award winner are filled with drawings, over ten thousand of them, of parrots and peacocks, an army of elephants and horses; stunning variations of coins, lines, leaves and flowers; and the mythical yali—part lion, part elephant, part horse.
Unlike Krishnamoorthy, seventy-nine-year-old K Veeraraghavan did not grow up around handlooms — his father was a contractor for the Public Works Department — and he picked up weaving in school. In the 1970s, Veeraraghavan bought rough cotton sarees locally and sold them in Karnataka and Andhra. The margins were poor — a rupee or two per piece. When that fell to fifty paise, he had to do something else. Around 1980, he began reproducing designs from the silk sarees on to cotton. He experimented with the yarns too, replacing the heavy sarees that didn’t find takers, with lightweight ones. It was these sarees — rich in look and feel with designs similar to those on the famous Kancheepuram silk — that fetched Veeraraghavan the National Award in 1992.
Krishnamoorthy and Veeraraghavan are two of Tamil Nadu’s 319,552 handloom weavers. They not only belong to a well-known lineage — the famous Kancheepuram — but are also innovators and designers who build on the old. The turn of the twentieth century might have done well in romanticising the genius of the metropolitan artist. But those like Krishnamoorthy — in a little bustling town away from the limelight, their lives changed by an Industrial Revolution that happened two centuries ago in a far-away land — will never be valorised and rewarded in the same way.
It takes 219 people to create a Kancheepuram saree, from the silk farmer to the buyer. Krishnamoorthy listed them out. ‘It starts with mulberry leaves — the landowners, labourers, farmers, then the designers, dyers, warp twisters, zari makers, jala makers, weavers, salespersons. I’ve counted even the electricity guys; you need power to twist the yarn, don’t you?’
The town that weaves this exquisite silk, just two hours from Chennai, is synonymous with its temples and has lent its name to both a spiced-up version of the humble idli and a sophisticated silk-weaving tradition.
Handloom weaving is an ancient occupation in the region now called India. It finds mention even in the Atharva Veda, in which a passage ‘personifies day and night as two sisters weaving, with the warp symbolising darkness, and the woof the light of day’. In the seventh century, Kancheepuram was already thriving and finds glowing mention in the travelogue The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions by Chinese traveller Tripit aka Master Xuanzang.
Twenty-five years ago, the town was thriving with over 70,000 weavers, and the villages around were full of looms, said E Muthukumar, General Secretary of Tamil Nadu Handloom Workers Federation. Today, according to official data, there are 36,521 weaving families in Kancheepuram. The actual numbers might be even lower, he predicted. ‘From what we know and see, many weavers have left the job. They’ve gone on to work in saree showrooms. Almost half the salesmen in the big silk saree showrooms in Kancheepuram are former weavers. Many have joined the catering business. And once they leave, they seldom come back.’
[Krishnamoorthy] began as a helper in his weaving household when he was a
school-going 12-year-old. After class ten, he trained in the actual weaving and designing from his father and grandfather as well as from two other weavers in town. He also learnt jala work — an old, complex technique of weaving motifs on silk sarees. He was then an apprentice for two years, weaving paavadais, or long skirts worn by girls, worked in a store in Kancheepuram as a weavers’ coordinator.
When he was 21, he joined Co-optex — the Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Society — as a weaver and later moved on to designing and drawing graphs. That is when his education in handlooms truly began and he honed his drawing skills.
In Co-optex, he visited and observed designs at other handloom weaving centres in the state. He developed two lines for them — the popular Puthinam sarees and traditional Kalakshetra patterns. In 2004, after 24 years of service, he missed the challenge of something new and opted for voluntary retirement. But it was his stint in Co-optex, designing as well as working with patents, that laid the foundation for a lifetime of innovating.
Unlike sectors where state intervention hasn’t always been beneficial, some of its policies have had a positive impact on handlooms. Besides, Tamil Nadu is considered a progressive state for weaving because of the number of weavers in the cooperative fold.
Co-optex, established in 1935, functions as the apex marketing body in Tamil Nadu, with 1.5 lakh weavers supplying to them. At the Chennai office, Managing Director TN Venkatesh explained its operations. ‘Whatever is produced by the 1,085 weaving societies across the state is marketed by Co-optex. Our interaction is more with the society and through the society’s designer, to the weaver.’ The organisation pays 40% of a saree’s retail price as weaver wages. ‘In a few states like Odisha and West Bengal, they are comparatively lesser than Tamil Nadu, but in Varanasi, it could be very high, going up to a lakh for a saree. But remember, it would have taken the Banarasi weaver two and a half months to make it.’
Like many traditional livelihoods, weaving too cannot be learnt later in life, not even at 18, said Krishnamoorthy. ‘It has to be taught when young. Why can’t it become part of the curriculum? We cannot train young boys and girls, you see, that is banned under the Child Labour Act. So it has to be done institutionally. That is the only way to save weaving.’
Venkatesh is credited with the idea of attaching a photograph of each weaver to the saree. The initiative was widely praised and lent dignity to the profession, recognising each weaver as an artiste rather than just an unknown worker labouring over the looms. ‘I must be very honest,’ he said, ‘the exercise of first tagging a weaver identity card was started by my predecessor and I sort of gave momentum to it. My thought was: a painter signs his painting, the author’s name is mentioned in the book. When the focus of the arts is on the person who has done it, why should it be invisible for weaving?’
Extracted with permission from ‘Nine Rupees An Hour’ by Aparna Karthikeyan, published by Context in 2019
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