I want youth to take ownership of the craft and take it forward
In Guledgudda, Bagalkot, the sounds of the power looms have drowned out the rhythmic back-and-forth clacking of handlooms. The polyester ‘revolution’ has sounded death knell for many weavers in the region. Even weavers who had four to five weaving units could not survive when the famous silk ‘khana’ fabric was outcompeted by the cheaper power loom-made synthetic material.
Adappa Alorli, for instance, once employed four weavers in his unit, however threadbare returns forced him to make a living as a construction worker for more than a decade.
“I did not know how to do anything else,” says the 79-year-old. After backbreaking labour of more than 14 years, Ramesh Ayodi’s intervention – Khana Weaves – came as a beacon of hope. “I get to work in the shade, doing what I know to do well,” Alorli adds.
The organisation sells handloom khana and ilkal sarees, dupattas, blouse fabric and cloth-bound books. Khana Weaves has both directly and indirectly impacted 30 weavers, thread spinners and others associated with handloom weaving. The fabric is two-toned, with a contrasting border. The weft is cotton and the warp silk, lending the fabric its trademark shine
Pit handlooms, once commonplace in Guledgudda, are a rarity now. “There were about 8,000 to 10,000 weavers here. Now there are barely 100 or 150,” he adds. Until 25 years ago, there were 1,500 khana motifs in the handlooms of the town. Now, that number has dwindled to 15. “When I started about three years back, there was a beautiful motif with peacocks and elephants. It has disappeared before my eyes,” he says.
“The organisation mainly started as a revival effort. We may be seeing the last of the handloom weavers in Guledgudda,” says Ramesh Ayodi, is a textile graduate, an expert in natural dyeing and the convenor of Khana Weaves.
The Covid-induced lockdowns was what gave weavers impetus to approach Ayodi for help to sell unsold stock. Given its grandeur, demand for khana peaks during the wedding seasons.
Already passionate about using biodegradable fibres, Ayodi agreed to help and launched Khana Weaves. With the help of a few friends, he was even able to set up a website, facilitating the online sale of khana fabric and ilkal sarees.
A few WhatsApp messages and social media posts later, weavers were delighted to see rising sales, which eventually amounted to Rs 10 lakh. “The profits were used to invest in raw materials to produce more,” Ayodi says. He uses two models to procure fabric and sarees — he employs weavers in the organisation’s maggas, providing them with yarn, paying salaries and other incentives; or buys fabric directly from weavers who can afford raw materials.
In this way, the organisation has ensured a consistent, dependable source of income, says Devendrappa, a weaver. “We used to struggle to find people to sell materials to. They would take advantage of us. Now, we are relieved of such stresses and can focus on weaving,” he says.
While initially, the website received overwhelming sales, the enthusiasm soon fizzled out. “There is not much of a demand for khana fabric across Karnataka. It was unlikely that there would be repeat orders from customers who already bought fabric,” Ayodi says. There was a need to innovate, and fast.
Seeing that notebooks were in high demand, the idea arose to hard bind books with the fabric. “The response was overwhelming. We received interest from government officials and the public,” he said. To date, Khana Weaves has sold about 1,200 such books.
Another inventive introduction was that of naturally-dyed silk and cotton in sarees and blouse pieces. They use manjistha (the root of the madder plant) and pomegranate seeds for shades of red and pink, indigo for blue and marigold for yellow. These dyes lend fabrics a soft colouring. “Weavers here are used to chemical dyes and therefore prefer bright colours. Persuading them to switch to natural dyes is a task,” Ayodi explains.
Although there is a great demand in cities for naturally-dyed fabric because of its simple pastel hues, the uptake for natural dyes is low in the district. “When they see that naturally-dyed blouses or sarees are more in demand, they will adapt,” Ayodi says.
In the loom of one of the weavers, Lakshmibai, for instance, is a silk ilkal saree with a salmon pink and navy blue border. “In the past, I would think that such a saree would not sell because of its plainness, but now I see the value,” she says.
Jahnavi Pai, a friend who helped Ayodi set up the website, explains that changing the colour and retaining the designs is a cost-effective way of appealing to modern tastes. “Changing the motifs is more difficult as it would involve changing the loom setup. However, by changing the colour of the yarn, a more contemporary look can be achieved,” she says.
The cottage industry
The core principle behind Khana Weaves is self-sustenance at the grassroots level. As garment manufacturing processes are increasingly becoming urbanised, Ayodi points out that previously self-sustaining village industries are breaking down. “Handloom weavers have shut shop and are leaving for cities, looking for daily wage work,” he explains.
What has come in its place is less than desirable. Power looms do not support pure silk yarn and require the use of some synthetic fibres. Even as a young textile student, Ayodi was disillusioned with large-scale manufacturing processes and chemical dyes. “On a field visit to Surat, even in the gutters there were chemical dyes,” he says. The thought of the environmental damage this could cause was a particular pain point for Ayodi.
When he encountered natural dyeing with plant and animal fibres during his stint in Charkha, his interest in textiles was renewed. “There was intention in the creation of such fabrics, people who wore the garments were at ease. At the end of its life, the garment would break down naturally. It also employed many at the village level,” he says.
At Guledgudda too, it was these tenets of the Indian cottage industry that motivated him to bring weavers together and start Khana Weaves. “We source the silk yarn from nearby villages and the weavers or I dye them. The magga makers receive employment, as well as those who make the dobby (a part of the loom that is used to make the Khana motif) at the village level,” he explains. Such networks empower ownership of both craft and resources at the grassroots.
The convenor earns most of his income from natural-dyeing workshops that he conducts across India. He also charges a cut on naturally-dyed sarees that the organisation produces.
A lot of weavers have disowned their craft, he explains. Of 15 weavers who spoke to DH, not a single one wanted to pass on the tradition to their children. Sanappa Junja, a weaver says, “The business is difficult. We don’t know how much we will earn and when. Let them (our children) get other jobs.”
On the other end, many youngsters, disheartened by the financial position of their parents, have no intention to continue with handweaving. Ayodi believes that this might be the last generation of handloom khana weavers in Karnataka since the tradition has not been successfully passed down to the next.
He employs sons and daughters of weavers with the hope that they will see promise in fabrics that are produced in their town. “There is a lot of potential. In the future, I want youth to take ownership of the craft and take it forward,” he says.
Soumya (19), one such employee, explains that though her father was a weaver, “I only saw value in the fabric when I saw demand in urban areas. Now I have developed an interest in carrying forward the tradition,” she says.