I recall both my grandfathers — paternal and maternal — speaking highly of Ponduru khadi. They swore by its quality and loved to wear it, especially during the sweltering South Indian summers.
They had illustrious company. Mahatma Gandhi, too, was fond of this high-quality khadi, named after the village (now town) in which it was first made. Located near Srikakulam city in the eponymous district in Andhra Pradesh, Ponduru has given its name to what is widely acknowledged as the finest variety of handloom khadi in India.
Today, top politicians wear this variety. Leading fashion designers and clothing companies also source this khadi for their haute-couture designs. This khadi is also exported.
‘Ponduru khadi vastraalu’ (as they are called) come in the form of plain cloth, dhotis, angavastrams, sarees...
Also, since Ponduru is renowned as a spinning and weaving town, it is visited by not only wholesalers and retail shoppers but students of textile technology, too.
There is a reason this khadi has acquired a worldwide reputation. The sheer finesse and durability of Ponduru khadi have made it coveted.
The uniqueness about this fabric is the fibre. It is made from a special variety of cotton called Punasa cotton, hill/white cotton and red cotton produced in Srikakulam. The cotton is of a short staple length. Almost always, only organic manures are used during the cultivation. Also, this is one of the only places in India where a single-spindle charkha is used for spinning.
Above all, it is the skill of the Ponduru artisan that makes the khadi precious. Unfortunately, his talent and hard work are receiving lesser recognition and monetary compensation. Hence, this tribe of spinners and weavers is dwindling.
Another USP is the method of spinning. According to our local guide Gangaraju, who met us as we made our way around the weavers’ quarters: “The raw hill/white cotton with seed is ginned with the help of Valuga fish jawbone. Ginning refers to the separation of the cotton from the seed. The cotton fibre is combed with the jawbone. This fish variety is only found in the areas nearby and places like Dowleswaram and Rajahmundry, also in Andhra Pradesh, and the supply comes from the fishermen of these areas.”
He continued: “Next, the cotton is fluffed and smoothed with the help of delicate sticks, which also remove the waste. The process of slivering is done with a bow. Carding is accomplished with a wooden machine. The slivers are handmade and kept in a yendu arati doota (Telugu for dried banana stem). Then the cotton is spun into a fine yarn.”
Like most traditional crafts in India, these skills are passed on from one generation to another.
This craft is practised within certain communities only. Here it is the Padmasali, Pattusali, Sali and Devangulu communities that specialise in this work.
It was sad to learn that the tradition is gradually dying. The Ponduru village had about 2,000 spinners and weavers during the 1980s. The number had dwindled to around 200 by the beginning of this century. Today, there are probably around 50 people engaged in this craft, though some optimistic locals put the number at 100.
Ponduru khadi’s reputation has spawned many imitators. So mechanised products are being passed off as Ponduru khadi in some cities.
The two organisations associated with the development of this craft — Andhra Fine Khadi Karmikabhivruddhi Sangham (AFKKS) and Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) — have done their bit, but it is simply not enough.
Is there a solution? A few of the older spinners and weavers, including state and national award-winners, said: “We need subsidised raw materials, better wages, and bulk orders from small and big corporates who will pay decent prices for our products. Environmentalists should pay attention to our problems and offer encouragement and help because our raw material uses organic manure. Today, our future looks bleak and we can no longer persuade our children and grandchildren to stay in this profession."