New spin on an old journey

New spin on an old journey

LOOMS OF THE PAST

New spin on an old journey

Over the last few years I have been infatuated with a plan to retrace Francis Buchanan’s ‘Journey’ of 1800-01 through parts of southern India. But every time I set out to cover a stretch along Buchanan’s route, I have invariably been drawn into a detour; a detour not so much as a diversion in route, but more a diversion of purpose.

One such detour related to iron smelting in Tumkur and Chitradurga districts, another was a historical inquiry into the ‘Great Divergence’ debate using information sourced entirely from Buchanan’s ‘Journey.’ Each of these detours went on for several months… finally, one summer morning, a couple of my colleagues and I were back on the Buchanan’s route…this time along the Hiriyur-Srirangapatna highway.

We stopped at Yelladakere for a cup of tea. During a conversation, we heard the word kumbli or blanket. Hadn’t Buchanan written something on coarse blankets? We looked through Buchanan’s volumes, a part of our standard gear, and soon located a relevant paragraph:

“In the neighbouring villages many coarse blankets, or cumlies, are woven from wool which the country produces. When offered for sale, they are almost as hard as pasteboard; but this quality is given to them by a decoction of the kernels of the tamarind...They seem to be an article of dress in almost universal use above the Ghats…”

We were on yet another detour from Buchanan’s ‘Journey’…to look for coarse blanket weavers. In the first village to which we were directed, Obalapura, all weavers here had given up this occupation just a year ago. We were told of another village, Yaravarahalli some 30 km away, where people continued weaving blankets.

We reached Yaravarahalli with more guarded expectations. In the courtyard of a small house, we got a glimpse of some ancient looking spinning wheels. The house was rather dark, but when our eyes slowly adjusted to the light inside, we saw an old man working on a loom that seemed to have been taken straight out of a museum. We had to come back to know more about the weavers’ lives. And could we tell our story through a documentary film?

Not just a traditional occupation

Over the course of the next several weeks we began to understand more about the weavers and coarse blanket weaving.  The weavers are of the Kuruba caste and consider this not just a traditional occupation but as something they have been ordained to do. It continues to be practised as it has been for centuries with almost no technological encroachment.

The process begins with collecting wool from shepherds once or twice every year. The weavers, armed with pairs of old rusty scissors, follow shepherds over hundreds of kilometers as they migrate in search of greener pastures for their sheep. Shearing wool not only provides the weaver with the raw material for the blankets but also keep the sheep healthy.

In return for their service, the shepherds compensate weavers with a few rupees. The wool is beaten with a stick or ginned using a bow before being separated into various colours; black, white and shades of sepia.  

With a simple wooden spinning wheel, the nimbleness of their fingers and dexterity of their toes, the weavers transform the raw wool into thread. The thread is then strung on a wooden frame some ten feet long and six feet wide, where a paste made from tamarind seeds, just like Buchanan described, is applied. This tiresome process takes several hours but is critical, for it is what gives the wool strength and the ability to resist water.

The treated thread is then measured and put on a wooden loom or rather a pit loom,   where the weaver’s legs are suspended in a pit and sits on level with the loom. Rows of woollen thread are slowly knotted together over the next day or two into a coarse but very elegant blanket.

Sold for a few hundreds...

“Two hundred and twenty five rupees?” a weaver asks a trader. “Impossible. Maximum is Rs 210, same as last year. This is my final offer,” says the trader.  We could not believe it. We spoke to the traders, also Kuruba, who take the blankets to the Malnad (about 200 to 300 km away) and sell them to shops and individuals, sometimes on credit.

With a deep sense of concern, the trader told us he sees the worst happening soon; his fellow community people may have to give up this occupation. An ancient occupation that has withstood the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution and colonisation now stands at the threshold of globalisation and rapid economic growth of the Indian economy.  

Blame it on borewells

Obalapura was a case in point. We returned to find out the one final reason that pushed them to abandoning their looms … borewells! The availability of water had increased demand for agricultural labour and wages were more lucrative than weaving blankets.

One old man was, however, quite shattered after giving up his traditional occupation. “I do not even offer prayers to the loom or the wheel anymore. Our children ask us to close the pits. We asked them: Why not put us in the pit and close it?” The documentary took shape in the next few weeks. We attempted to capture the sights and sounds of this ancient occupation in its contemporary and increasingly frayed context and at a critical juncture in its long and textured history.  

On June 24, it was screened at the Royal Anthropological Institute film festival in London. But the reaction of our weaver friends from Yaravarahalli was even more fulfilling. “The film will tell our children someday of the hardship and struggle we endured in weaving blankets over hundreds of years!”

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