Vivek Nemana

In India, handloom weavers feel the mechanized punch of a global economy

Traditional textile artisans are suffering, some to the point of suicide, but new collectives offer hope

POCHAMPALLY, India — The dusty rural town where Satyanarayana Taraka has lived for more than 40 years doesn’t sound the way it did when he was younger.

Gone is the familiar clacking sound of handlooms, manual machines used to weave fabric, which are slowly disappearing along with the area’s signature industry.

“Every one of these houses used to have two or three handlooms running all the time,” said Taraka, whose bony, weathered features stood out against his crisp white tunic. “Now there’s a lot more quiet because nobody weaves anymore.”

Pochampally, a sun-beaten town in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, is famous for textiles and saris. But its weavers, like many others in the country’s 6.5-million-person handloom industry, are struggling in a globalized economy that relies on cheap, machine-made cloth. As expenses outstrip their modest incomes and crushing debt pushes many weavers into poverty and suicide, they are looking to new solutions — from different livelihoods to cooperative handloom enterprises.

Satyanarayana Taraka weaves a sari in his home in Pochampally.
Ankita Rao

In Taraka’s home, only the 62-year-old and his wife, Susheela, continue to earn money through weaving — about 10,000 rupees, or $166, a month. Their four sons have left the family tradition for modestly paying jobs, while their daughters-in-law work as part-time tailors.

Narsimha, their eldest son, wanted to continue the handloom tradition but said his current job with the railways provided much-needed security and benefits like health care.

“With weaving, you just don’t earn enough income to make ends meet,” said the 34-year-old. “That’s why only older people still work handlooms in our town.”

“I keep weaving because I don’t know how to do anything else,” said Satyanarayana Taraka, involved in the trade since age 10.

Settling down behind the wooden contraption strung with colorful spools, he maneuvered his arms and legs and brought the handloom alive. Thread by thread, meters of woven silk appeared, which Satyanarayana and Susheela Taraka examined for flaws. They repeat this painstaking process for hours each day to produce 15 saris monthly.

“This is hard, skilled work,” he said, holding up a purple sari. “If weavers earned a decent salary, maybe our children wouldn’t have quit.”

Handlooms and debt

On the surface, the government supports the industry, a symbolic livelihood that Mohandas Gandhi upheld as a means of self-reliance and as a rejection of the British Empire. The 1985 Handloom Reservation Act, for instance, requires that some products, like school uniforms, be made by hand.

But critics say the powerloom lobby has chipped away at the protected products. And there is concern that government policy consistently favors powerlooms and industrialization over traditional skill, said Syamasundari Boddapati, a researcher with Dastkar Andhra, an organization that works to promote the handloom livelihood.

“Unless our skills survive, how can we survive as humanity?” she asked. “These are a resource with which you can build a new world.”

A man operates a handloom in Kappaladoddi, in a more rural part of Andhra Pradesh, where weavers often feel trapped by debt.
Vivek Nemana

Other industry professionals think both the economy and next generation will benefit from powerlooms.

“Working on the handloom is laborious and monotonous, and wages are very poor and unimaginable,” said J.B. Soma, a member of India’s Textile Association. “Though there are many subsidies for handloom products, the powerloom products still come cheaper.”

Even so, the Tarakas have managed to sustain a middle-class lifestyle that far exceeds most weavers in the state. Their proximity to Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh’s capital, allows for commuting to city jobs, and their collective monthly income of about 40,000 rupees means access to healthy food and English education for their grandchildren.

Meanwhile, in Kappaladoddi — a village crisscrossed by lush paddies in a more rural part of the state — weavers feel trapped. The thrum of handlooms can be heard from dawn till late at night, but families scrape by on less than 5,000 rupees ($83) per month.

There weavers are often in debt as they take loans to pay for rising food and medical costs and educate their children, hoping they will land lucrative jobs. The vicious cycle has resulted in tragedy.

Last July, Ramarao Metla, a 52-year-old weaver, hanged himself from a tree outside the village. His wife, Sujata Metla, said that over 100,000 rupees in debt drove him to take his life — the tenth debt-related suicide in the village in just five years.

“Education was our biggest expense, the main reason for our debt,” said Sujata Metla, 47, who must now pay the family’s loans and tuition bills. “And debt killed my husband.”

Old and new cooperatives

In the 1970s, the government of Andhra Pradesh set up a series of handloom cooperatives across the state to pay weavers fair wages. But the cooperatives tend to be poorly managed, pushing weaving families like Metla’s toward often exploitative middlemen, known as master weavers, who provide informal loans at high interest rates in exchange for work.

Rambabu Vutukuri, a master weaver in Kappaladoddi, started as an ordinary weaver and now oversees about 50 families. He defended the system, saying he extended credit to weavers who weren’t working hard enough.

Rambabu Vutukuri, a master weaver in Kappaladoddi who oversees some 50 weavers and extends them credit.
Vivek Nemana

“I worked hard, very hard so that I could be in this position,” he said, displaying blackened hands. “I used to make 50 saris per month, but weavers these days make just 15. What’s keeping them?”

But Leelavathi Guntu, 25, said her obligations to the master weaver hurt productivity and will. She struggles to support her daughter’s dream of becoming a district magistrate.

“How am I supposed to get her there?” she asked. “How am I supposed to do anything besides think about how to pay back the master weaver and get my children out? “We are spending our whole lives trying to escape.”

Sudha Kishore, head of Chenetha Colour Weaves, a nongovernmental organization in Andhra Pradesh, said her group is one of the first to introduce a handloom cooperative where weavers have a voice and fair wages. It also provides an alternative to master weavers and government setups.

In late March the organization held its monthly meeting in Choutuppal, a town outside Hyderabad, with about 30 weavers. Kishore led the group through a PowerPoint presentation of their monthly sales and distribution and discussed how they could market their work.

“We need to make a move toward selling our products online or we’ll fall behind,” Kishore announced.

After joining the co-op, the Tarakas said that their income has increased only 300 rupees per sari but that their checks are much more reliable. They’re still hoping to be paid at least 15,000 rupees per month but said the new group has more potential than previous options.

“Now some people are hopeful that handloom weaving can provide a good living again,” said Narsimha Taraka, who has helped conduct surveys for Chenetha Colour Weaves.

Yarn for making saris is stretched in Kappaladoddi.
Vivek Nemana

He said the cooperative models, training and awareness programs have slowed the trend of migration to the city.

Kishore hopes this impact will grow. Though her organization works with only 100 weavers now, more capital would allow them to tap the right market. And she’s confident there is still demand for authentic textiles. In fact, Indian exports of handloom products grew from $265 million in 2010 to $554 million in 2012, according to the Handloom Export Promotion Council.

But to successfully reach consumers, Kishore said, the handloom industry needs to adapt.

“Earlier, the handloom weavers would meet the customers directly, so that firsthand knowledge was passed through in terms of market demand,” she said from the weavers’ Hyderabad showroom. “That design knowledge, that creativity — everything is lost.”

For weavers like Satyanarayana Taraka, any revolutionary model or change would need to reflect in the value of his work.

“I’m proud of what I so,” he said. “It is good work. I just wish I was better compensated so that we could live a more dignified life.”

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