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Tales from the loom:  Portrait of a handloom weavers’ community

Handloom weaving was a common economic activity in this region until as recently as the beginning of the millennium. Like most social vocations this was practiced only by certain communities. The ones settled here originated from other parts of present-day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh whose ancestors moved to this region in search of work. Many of these original families were directly employed by the royal court and nobility of the time.

 

Technological disruption and state support

With independence and the coming of mass industrial textile production, handloom weaving began to feel its first clashes with impending change. However, it would take another half century before it would begin a steady decline.  When this did happen (in the 70s), handloom weaving was given a second lease of life along with a niche market owing both to its rarity and scarcity.

 

Many state Governments rolled out schemes to keep traditional handloom weavers engaged economically during the beginning of its decline. The Government of Kerala (with its native-socialistic values) did all it could over the years to keep the fortunes of handloom weavers up for as long as it could. It found ways to promote handloomed clothing among its masses. But the economics of handloom weaving was becoming increasingly fragile and fraught with the years.

 

A turning of the tide

Today these few communities continue a traditional vocation that barely helps them in making ends meet. It is no longer the craft that was once lauded for its creativity and ingenuity. It is also not a vocation that its practitioners’ approach with pride and joy as it once used to be. It has become just a means to an end.

 

Many loomers take up secondary jobs, as looming is no longer their primary source of income. Even worse is the fact that their children are not being taught its ancient skills anymore. They are being schooled to find a livelihood in the larger employment market of the country.

 

The surviving handloom communes of Mudalithara

Mudali thara in Thenari is home to a community of handloom weavers whose forbears settled in this place around 500 years ago. It is a cluster of 300 odd households, all of them devoted to handloom production of cotton fabric. Much has changed in the course of these generations of weavers - from production techniques to changing customer tastes and market uncertainties.

 

Each generation has been forced to deal with these changes in their own ways, from lobbying for support with upper caste families and, in more recent times, courting the support of the government through promotions and subsidies. It has been a long and tiring battle for relevance with occasional triumphs for this community of weavers.

 

A day in the life of a handloom weaver

Meet the families of Janardhanan and Ramdass, two of the many here who claim direct descent from an unbroken line of hand-loom weavers practicing their craft in the same houses built by their ancestors 5-6 generations ago. Listen to their stories, which are stories of both survival and creativity.

 

See how yarn is prepared, spooled and set up on looms. It is not as easy as one may think. The process is arduous and time consuming. More than physical dexterity they will tell you that the most important quality a weaver can have is that of patience! Perhaps it is this virtue (more than any other) that has made them so resilient to the changing tides of fortune and helping them go with the flow.

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