Silence of the looms

Silence of the looms

The story of Ilkal is a microcosm of the crisis that besets Karnataka’s and India’s handloom industry, laments Neeta Deshpande

If you had visited Ilkal in north Karnataka few years ago, you would have experienced a town where life was lived to the rhythm of the handloom. The renowned handloom centre is representative of the weaving tradition in Karnataka.

However, the timeless world of the handloom weaver who crafted the traditional Ilkal saree by hand is in the throes of a fundamental change. Mechanised powerlooms running on electricity which produce an ersatz version of the saree have arrived in a big way, threatening the very survival of the handloom and the livelihood of the weavers. 

Technology is here

The displacement of traditional livelihoods by mechanisation is a motif that runs through the evolution of human societies. The history of the Industrial Revolution, widely regarded as a harbinger of progress, is replete with stories of those left behind.

In Ilkal, this story is being played out today in the handloom sector, with the traditional Ilkal saree now being produced on powerlooms. It is estimated that a single powerloom displaces a dozen handloom weavers who are left with no recourse to earn a livelihood.

According to residents of Ilkal, the town had about 5000 handlooms a decade ago. Today, they count as few as 200 functional handlooms here. 

Weavers are increasingly abandoning the handloom and either switching to producing cloth on a powerloom, or turning to unskilled low-paying labour which ironically earns them more than handloom weaving.

Ilkal’s transition from a handloom to a powerloom centre makes us pause to reflect on its implications for both the handloom weaver who cannot make ends meet, as well as the powerloom operator who is left no better off.

A visit to the weaving shed of Vijaykumar Shasal offers an explanation for the decline of handloom weaving. Three members of Shasal’s family together craft the beautiful Ilkal handloom saree in a meticulous and elaborate process.

After expenses, including the purchase of raw materials, one saree earns them Rs.250 for two days of hard and skilled labour by all three of them. Better prospects?It is no surprise then that Shasal yearns to leave handloom weaving for other work.

Even weavers working as construction labourers are earning Rs.200 a day. The arrival of powerlooms producing cheap cloth has left handloom weavers in a deep lurch.

Also, exploitation at the hands of the master weaver, who provides them raw material and loans, buys their woven cloth, sells it in the market but pays them low wages, exacerbates their distress.

Ironically, if a handloom weaver chooses to become a powerloom operator, this transition brings financial woes of a different nature to his doorstep. Sangappa Mahamuni who produces the Ilkal saree on powerlooms in Gajendragad town near Ilkal lays out the arithmetic of making ends meet in his new life since he abandoned the handloom. 

Two years ago, Mahamuni bought two powerlooms for about a lakh each, through a scheme of the Karnataka Government’s Handloom and Textile Department which paid half of the purchase price. The remaining funds were procured through a bank loan. The additional one lakh rupees needed to set up the shed for the powerlooms, were loaned to him by a master weaver.

He now produces two sarees a day on his powerlooms earning Rs. 140. Power cuts often slash this daily income by half.

While master weavers and traders higher up the textile chain who control marketing profit enormously from powerloom production, the powerloom operator at the bottom of the economic ladder is no better off.

No way for sustainability

These vexatious dilemmas which confront handloom weavers as well as powerloom operators in the north Karnataka region and elsewhere have no easy answers. The transition to a powerloom not only displaces handloom weavers from their livelihood, but also fails to rescue the powerloom operator from his daily predicament.

The Handloom Reservation Act, which reserves eleven articles of cloth products exclusively for weaving on handlooms, was designed to prevent the takeover of handloom markets by powerloom products.

However, this Act has been observed only in its violation, with powerloom operators producing cheap and inferior imitations of these reserved articles and passing them off as genuine hand-woven products. 

The story of Ilkal is a microcosm of the crisis that besets Karnataka’s and India’s handloom industry. Veteran handloom activists like Prasanna who founded Charaka, a successful women’s handloom cooperative in the Shimoga district of Karnataka, believe that the predicament of the weaver can be addressed only if there is political will, which in turn requires the exertion of public pressure. 

It is only then that India can preserve an important unbroken craft tradition and deliver economic justice to lakhs of its practitioners.

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