Weaving a tradition

Weaving a tradition
Cotton seems to be a time-tested discovery that has survived the onslaught of many other discoveries and inventions. The use of cotton in the Indian subcontinent can be traced back to as  early as 6,000 BC. Newly developed varieties were introduced to Africa in the 18th century and later spread to India, Pakistan and China, where they replaced traditional ones. Later, Indian varieties took a backstage, giving way to exotic ones from abroad.

In recent years, there has been a change in the mindset of farmers, consumers and other enthusiasts, and as a result, the search for indigenous cotton has started, yielding some results. Since indigenous cotton varieties show tolerance to drought, they are suitable for rainfed areas. Each region in India has its own varieties like Karunganni cotton of Tamil Nadu, Kala cotton of Gujarat, Ponduru cotton of Andhra Pradesh and Jayadhar cotton of Karnataka.

Local variety

In the past, Jayadhar cotton was found on every field in North Karnataka. At least 60% of the land that a farmer owned was set aside for growing Jayadhar cotton. This species of cotton was grown both as a single crop and as an inter-crop alongside potato, garlic and chillies. Both sowing and weed management are inexpensive. As it is a native strain, it has disease and pest-resistant qualities.

Unlike hybrid cotton varieties, Jayadhar does not require much water or chemical inputs while growing. Even in dry soil conditions, one can get moderate yield. Apart from Jayadhar, there are Suyodhar and Renuka varieties under Gossypium herbaceum. Under Gossypium arboreum, Pandharpur is grown in the Raichur region. Some of the American strains have also adapted well to Indian conditions. Jayadhar cotton is mostly used to manufacture items such as denim, surgical cotton and bedsheets among others.

Karnataka is one of the major long staple cotton producers in the southern zone. Cotton is cultivated in either rainfed or irrigated condition in Raichur, Bagalkot, Vijayapura, Ballari, Dharwad, Belagavi, Shivamogga and Mysuru districts.

Most of the cotton-based industries are situated in the northern districts of the State, in the hinterland of cotton growing areas. Cotton is ginned after harvest to be used further. Therefore ginning units, where seeded cotton (kapas) is pressed between rollers to separate the seeds and lint, are found in large numbers. Lint needs to be pressed into a compact form for further use and such pressing units are also abundant in this part of the State. Pressing also aids transport of lint to factories. Cotton undergoes processes like combing and cleaning before it is spun into yarn, which is used for weaving. Thus, spinning units also thrive in the region. Cottonseed oil extraction units have gained popularity as the oil is deemed to be economical and healthy.

In line with the recent trends, many organisations and activists are making efforts to popularise organic farming and heritage varieties. V Swaminathan of Sahaja Samrudha, one such organisation working towards the revival of heritage cotton varieties, says, compared to Tamil Nadu, which has almost lost its local variety of Karunganni, Karnataka is better placed as Jayadhar is still under cultivation. “Farmers are showing interest in the cultivation of heritage varieties due to several reasons. The existing spinning machines are not suitable for local varieties as they are made for American long-fibre cotton. With little modifications in the machines, local varieties can be widely used,” he opines.

According to him, revival of heritage cotton is possible only with the cooperation of farmers, spinners and weavers, and with the patronage of buyers of finished products. “Nowadays, people are prefering local products, without bothering about the price. As a result, Jayadhar is widely used in khadi and weaving units. That brings some hope,” he says.

Handlooms in Karnataka have a glorious past and the remnants can be traced to the still thriving looms in parts of Karnataka, especially in the northern districts. However, efforts are being made to revive the once famous handlooms. Badanavalu village in Mysuru district is a living example of the handloom movement in the State, keeping alive the concept of khadi, propounded by Mahatma Gandhi. It has to be recalled that Mahatma had even visited this indiscreet village.

Remnants of the past

Surendra Koulagi, a Gandhian whose family is striving to keep alive the khadi tradition in Melkote, feels that khadi and handlooms have lost their direction. “Even in the units that claim to be handlooms, the yarn used for weaving is machine spun. It is a different issue that power loom products are sold as handloom products. There are only a handful of handlooms which use hand-spun and hand-coloured yarn. In view of encouraging the yarn spinning mills that came up in large numbers across the cotton growing regions and also handloom weavers, the National Handloom Development Corporation has mandated the mills to provide at least 50% yarn in the form of hank, suitable for handlooms,” he says.

Weavers themselves have switched over to power looms for various reasons. Sathyaprasad, finance controller of Karnataka Handloom Development Corporation, says, “The number of cotton handloom weavers is on the decline, whereas the number of silk handloom weavers is gradually increasing. Some young artisans also have enrolled recently.” So far, about 10,000 cotton weavers and 2,000 silk weavers have registered with the corporation. Most of the cotton weavers are in the northern districts of Karnataka, while silk weavers are mostly in the southern districts.

Various schemes have been implemented by the corporation for the welfare of the weavers and also to enhance and hone their skills. The corporation has developed 25 colonies in different parts of Karnataka with complete infrastructure. Besides, to encourage young artisans, two types of skill development programmes are conducted — basic and advanced. Though handlooms thrived in almost all the villages before the advent of the British, the trade is kept alive in some pockets, especially in Bagalkot district. Places like Uppina Bettageri, Guledagud, Gadag, Gajendragad and Koppal are known for their weaving tradition.

The corporation, which was established in 1975, is also taking steps to revive ancient designs and weaves, and integrate them into modern lifestyle. Karnataka State Cooperative Handloom Weavers Federation (Cauvery Handlooms) is an older organisation, which was established in 1952. It deals with silk sarees, cotton bedsheets, towels, lungis, bedspreads, mosquito curtain cloth, etc.

Shanmuga, a weaver in Kodiyala of Mandya district, which was once famous for handlooms, feels that the purpose of making a machine is to ease manual work. “A loom is also a machine. When the handlooms came into existence, there was no electricity. But now we have changed to power looms  for our convenience. What is wrong in switching over to power looms? Have we not adopted technology in other occupations also,” he opines.

However, his father Subramanya disagrees. “Nowadays youth are not willing to work hard. They have many distractions. They spend little time on the looms and keep more time for entertainment. The commitment to produce good quality clothing is lacking in the youth,” he adds. Amidst contrasting views, one cannot undermine the significance of handlooms and how they improve the quality of clothes and the lives of those involved in the occupation.
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