This article first appeared on the Alternative here in 2013.
The article is written by Elizabeth Soumya who writes on the social issues and the condition of farmers and artisans in India and abroad.
Living in a time preset on fast-forward, to move slowly and steadily is to be left behind. In the craft cluster of Bhujodi, Kutch, home to 200 weavers, it’s as though time stands still.
Tucked inside homes and hiding behind nondescript walls, they squat facing their handlooms. Here, they weave to the mellow cacophony of clashing wood as though little has changed and they have eternity on their side. Did it never occur to them to do it any other way? In the 500-year-old village’s most famous address, the residence of Vankar Vishram Valji, his son Ramji leads us through a quiet back lane, where we see nothing moving except our shadows.
He pushes open the wooden door to the work shed’s courtyard and faint music of weaving in progress begins to waft. He invites us to see how brittle thread becomes a shawl or a stole perhaps. Weaving is an arduous, solitary task where one must devote himself to the loom for days before the job is done. The one who begins must see it through to the end. Sitting at the loom could mean afflictions such as sore arms, eyes and stomach problems. Even though artisans take breaks when they want, the physically demanding nature of the skill makes weaving strictly a ‘man’s job’.
While the men sit facing the loom, weaving always begins with women. It is they who are responsible for preparing the warp thread.
Since yarn that’s bought is too brittle, it is first starched in a combination of wheat flour and wild onions which is also an insect deterrent. The onions are usually boiled, left to sit overnight and mashed before being mixed with wheat flour to make a paste. After being starched and dried, the yarn is combed and it’s time to prepare the warp; a job women are masters at.
At the Valji loom, in a room crowded with yarn everywhere the eye meets, a solitary woman is swiftly moving her wand or ‘kadani’ over a wooden frame called chaukta. She’s preparing the warp thread, putting together a bundle of exactly 1600 threads of 50 meters each that will be used to create a 39 inch width shawl. It will take her six hours of work for about two days to finish the job. Yarn is also prepared into a spindle by some. The yarn comes from Bhujodi, Ludhiana, Rajasthan and Ahmedabad and includes desi and acrylic wool (Marino and local wool), sutar, silk, dori and cotton each used to make an end product catering a different customer.
The weft yarn is then prepared by rolling on to small bobbins from the hanks. It is then laid on the loom, where the long thread tana, intersects with bana, the shorter one, hence weaving here is called ‘tana bana‘. In Kutch, two types of shuttle looms are in use, a pit loom, which is on ground level and a shuttle loom that is slightly more structured. The work done in the loom depends on the result one is aiming for. For colour variations thread fit into the loom is varied, bigger fabrics means more threads. For intricate patterns on the fabric, time consuming hand weaving that could last for a fortnight or more is required. The weaver will handpick the warp in the weft with patterns from his memory. “Any error in weaving or threads splitting will mean starting the process over informs”, says Ramji.
A simple shawl that involves only weaving can take about two days to create and at least 5-6 shawls of the same model will be weaved each time, making a minimum weaving stint last for at least 10 to 12 days. Shawls with intricate designs can take months on end. It was one such magnificently patterned Dhablo or shawl that Vishram Valji, Ramji’s father worked on for an entire year that won him the President’s award in 1974.
Till the 1940s there were about 50 looms in Kutch that worked exclusively for the local communities and it was in the 70s that the local market for woven fabric diminished and the national market opened up. Today, stoles, carpets, mats, shawls are made for the winter where the demand in North Indian cities like Delhi, Chandigarh and Lucknow is soaring. For the summer, the weavers have begun weaving in cotton, something that was never done before, carving out a yearlong market for themselves.
The ‘Vankars’ or the weavers of Kutch are Meghwal migrants who came from Rajasthan six centuries ago. Among the Meghwals, the Maheshwari and Marwada sub-castes were involved in weaving and leather work. While the Maheshwaris have gradually transitioned to other jobs, the Marwada weave on to this day.
The local art of weaving provided for the identity and needs of many communities in the region. Among these, their alliance with the nomadic, sheep herding community of the rabaris is well known. The weavers depended on the rabaris for woollen fleece from sheep and in exchange weaved for them.
Traditionally each weaver was linked to a group of rabari families and was called a ‘Rakhiyo’ to that particular group. Apart from weaving for the families, the Rakhiyo, a revered figure in the community would also perform other tasks such as play music and sing bhajans at celebratory occasions. The weavers also shared a rapport with Ahirs, a Hindu herding clan, for whom they weaved colourful patterned shawls or dhablos in exchange for cotton grown in their fields. It is the Ahir dhablo that was the design inspiration behind Vishram Valji’s award winning piece, reveals Ramji.
In the old days so strong were the turbans the ‘vankars’ weaved for the rabaris and their dhablos that they are known to have lasted for fifty years, says Ramji. The thick weaved fabrics before being used would be adorned by the trademark tie and dye craft of the region practised by the Khatri community. After which it would be decorated with embroidery by rabari women. Thus the weavers were at the crossroads of linking various communities of the region.
Today, there are 1200 weavers all across Kutch in 210 villages. The number of women involved in the preparatory and finishing processes is around 2400. At the VishramValji loom, women are paid a daily wage of Rs125 while wages for men are Rs225. Women usually manage to get work for just a couple of days while men who weave are employed for longer stretches. Of the 80 looms in Bhujodi, Ramji says the the entrepreneurial Vishramji family owns 35. Four weavers work at their loom, whereas others take orders and specifications of what must be weaved, work from home and return with the end product. Among the Kutch craftsmen the numbers of the bandhini and ajarkh artisans has risen, but the weavers have dipped, many of whom are now employed in factories in the region. While craftsmen turned businessmen thrive, independent weavers usually struggle to make ends meet, and the returns for them are barely worth the effort and time they invest.
In what looks like a ghost town, tourists continue to crowd the Vishram Valji’s ‘emporium’ that doubles up as a shop and a museum where one can witness how design has intervened in the ancient craft. “Blue and red were a rage last year, we don’t know what it’s going to be next year,” says Ramji. The finishing includes tassels, decorative embroidery, new weaved designs and mirrors among others. The fabrics that used to be extremely thick when woven for the locals have now put on a finer and thinner front, he explains. While innovation is at the crux of the trade surviving, Ramji says one must never forget that this is a skill of the hands, done at the altar of a simple loom. Speed is never the goal as much as warmth is.
FACTS: Kharad weaving, done on collapsible, nomadic looms is a dying art.
Mushroo weaving is almost become extinct with local families switching over to synthetic, mill made textiles.
Children begin learning to weave between the age of 8 and 9 years. They apprentice until the age of 14 when they become ready for economic output of weaving.
This article comes from a special The Alternative newsletter, ‘A Life in Craft’, where we explore the people, places, cultures and challenges that lie behind making these handmade products. We find that every single thread carries with it a story – tales of civilisations, kings and commoners, traditions and customs that have been woven, printed, stitched and committed onto cloth by nomadic travellers who came with their diverse influences from far and wide. Today, these are also stories of changing aspirations, the dichotomy between creation being a labour of love and the immediacy of selling it in a crowded market, of precarious ecological and socio-economic balances, and the quest for relevance.
All pictures are copyright work of Elizabeth Somya