Of warp & weft

LIVELIHOODS

Of warp & weft

Aishwarya Suresh travels to Ilkal in North Karnataka in search of a traditional handloom weaver, only to realise that there are not many of them left. Power looms, it seems, have taken over.

The Ilkal tradition that dates back to several centuries comes from the ancient weaving centre in North Karnataka that goes by the same name. This small town in Bagalkot district is home to several weavers and artistes, still continuing with their profession.

The popularity of Ilkal sarees is attributed to the patronage provided by local chieftains in and around the town of Bagalkot. The availability of raw materials locally helped in the growth of this tradition. While Ilkal is the main weaving centre, there are also several towns in and around Ilkal, Hubli and Dharwad where looms and weavers are found.

The urge to learn more about weaving and the conditions under which weavers continue their profession led me to undertake an interesting journey to the dusty town. While the hand loom tradition is an ancient one, the region in and around Ilkal in North Karnataka has only about 5,000 hand looms left as compared to a whopping 30,000 even as recently as 10 years ago! The use of technology and the introduction of power looms has not only diminished the use of hand looms but has also taken away the livelihoods of several traditional weavers.

On a power trip!

My journey to Ilkal initially led me to the modest home of a weaver I had managed to find through research. Much to my disappointment, the sarees he had (and it actually turned out that he was not a weaver himself) were not the type of Ilkal sarees I was looking for. My search was for the old traditional rich Ilkal silk saree, completely hand woven. He was kind enough to help me find a traditional weaver.

Somewhere in what I now know as the centre of this little town was a small non-descript looking white structure. No walls, no compound, just this white structure. This was a master weaver’s house, I was told! I was welcomed by a loud and deafening sound which comes from the constantly-at-work power looms. Once again a disappointment. Power looms were not what I was looking for!

The master weaver was from a family of weavers. Weaving Ilkal sarees has been this family’s means of livelihood for generations. After my initial disappointment over seeing power looms, I was in for a surprise when I saw, tucked away in a corner, four traditional hand looms. My joy knew no bounds! It seemed like I had finally found what I was looking for. A conversation with the weaver revealed that these hand looms were traditional looms set up by his predecessors. However by his own admission, the advent of power looms had forced him like all others to use them in order to stay in demand and be competitive.

The master weaver explained the intricacies of the weave to me and also pointed out the difference between sarees that come off a power loom and those which come off a hand loom.

Ilkal sarees are not only part of an age old weaving tradition, but also are an integral part of bridal trousseaus.

These sarees are also traditionally used for kasuti embroidery which is another interesting craft from the region. The weaver explained that these sarees did not find a very large market in the rest of Karnataka. They are, however, popular in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra thanks to some cultural similarities. Many traditional weavers have moved away from the town of Ilkal for better prospects.

Also the largest buyers of these sarees in Karnataka are large retailers in the Hubli Dharwad area. Here too, the only sarees that really sell are those that are woven on power looms. There are not too many takers for traditionally hand-woven Ilkal sarees, and therefore it is also hard to find weavers who work on hand looms. They are all either working on power looms or have simply given up this profession for better prospects.

My journey to Ilkal was indeed a revelation. I had expected some of what I saw but was also surprised and saddened by the state of affairs at the weaving centres. It was clear that there was a lot of work to be done in terms of recreating a market for these sarees.

Getting there

If you are driving from Bangalore, the easiest way of getting to Ilkal would be to get to Hubli and drive from there to Ilkal.

One can also travel to Bagalkot and drive down to Ilkal. A journey from Gadag is another option. The distance from Hubli to Ilkal is about 130 km and takes just under five hours to get there.

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