KNOWING NOTHING ELSE
A clacking sound came from the farthest end of a narrow street, breaking the silence of surroundings. It was coming from a small tile-roofed house painted light blue. While the outside world was bathing in bright daylight, it was almost dark inside the house. It is inside this darkness, Andra Sathiraju has been moving the pedals and shuttles of his handloom for the last 70 years. “This is the only thing I know,” said Sathiraju in his feeble and trembling voice, about his life as a weaver.
Living in Rayavaram, a village of around 200 weaving families in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, Sathiraju, aged 86, entered the world of threads and loom at the age of 15. Starting his day at around 7 every morning, his hands continue working till 6 in the evening, except for a one-hour lunch break. “This work doesn’t give sufficient money, and power loom has made things worse,” Sathiraju said about the decline of handloom. Ten days’ hard labour can produce only 60 meters of cotton sarees, fetching him just Rs1,500. “Young generation is going to chit business and other kinds of work,” he said with a pinch of remorse.
The records of Third Handloom Census 2009-10 show that there has been a decline in the number of handloom weavers across the country. The number has dropped from 33.26 lakh in 1995 to 29.09 lakh in 2010. Sathiraju lost his wife 60 years ago and has no children. He lives with his brother’s family. Relatives and neighbours affectionately call him thatha (grandfather).
“Thatha works with the loom and we all help him,” said Lakshmi, Sathiraju’s sister-in-law. Lakshmi grew up in a family of cloth merchants and learnt spinning and weaving after moving to Rayavaram post marriage. Sitting in a small room with a television and a refrigerator, Lakshmi spins spools for Sathiraju’s loom. “Weaving is not profitable and we don’t want our children doing this,” she said, claiming that her son Sreenu is earning more money from the tailoring shop he set up after he quit weaving.
Years of physical labour have left their marks on Sathiraju. Back pain has become his constant companion thanks to long hours of continuous sitting at the loom. Due to the peculiar way of handling the pedals and shuttles of the loom, his fingers have become very stiff and are bent at the joints. “I never went to any hospital,” he claimed, saying he never faced any serious health issues.
After setting the threads for his afternoon work, Sathiraju came out of the shadow of the loom. Standing straight and stretching his limbs, Sathiraju walked towards the narrow street in front of his house to feel the sunshine. Finished Madhuparkam sarees hanging on a rope in front of the house formed the background for his tired body. “I know nothing other than this,” he said with a sad smile.
While Sathiraju prepared his loom for afternoon work, a young weaver in Pasalapudi village, located a few kilometres from Rayavaram, took out his pen and notebook. Durga Prasad, 23, belongs to the Devanga weaving community. He returned to his village after successfully completing Bachelors in Chemistry and Bachelors in Education with only one goal.
“I wish to enter government service, preferably teaching. I don’t want to continue weaving,” he said in fluent English while arranging his books in a shelf. Having finished high school in a local government school, Durga Prasad moved to Rajahmundry, the city closest to Pasalapudi and the district headquarter, to pursue higher studies. “I learned weaving from my parents at the age 14 or 15. But they also encouraged me to study. Even now when I come during vacations I work on the loom,” said Durga Prasad, adding that he will stop weaving once he lands a job. Along with his preparation for a job, Durga Prasad weaves one-and-half saree each day.
“It fetches around Rs200, much less than the daily wages from many other works,” he said, looking at the loom in his house. He complains that power looms are mass-producing clothes with fake handloom logos and eating into the market of handlooms. “The government should intervene if it wants the handloom to survive,” he added.
It was his elder brother Raju who showed him a new path. After completing Diploma in Mechanical Engineering, Raju got a job in the Indian Railways as a loco-pilot and lives in Vijayawada now. He used to weave but has now left it completely. His younger brother is studying Bachelors in Analytical Chemistry at Vizag. “Income from weaving alone is insufficient. Other fields like agricultural labour are giving higher income than this. Then why should we stick on to this?” asked Durga Prasad. His neighbour Puchala Veera Sathya Ganesh also agreed with him. “I work part-time with a power loom, apart from handloom weaving. I am able to manage my household expenses with this arrangement,” he said. He opined that higher education is the path of development for the next generation.
The Third Handloom Census reports show that among the handloom workers aged above 18, over 29.4 per cent of the workers have never received any kind of schooling while 22.9 per cent attended middle school. Only 4.7 per cent of the workforce enrolled for higher secondary school and just 1.7 percent are graduates.
OLD GLORY NO MORE A STORY
There is a growing awareness among parents about the importance of education. With increasing levels of education and opportunities, it is no wonder that the younger generation is abandoning the traditional skill of handloom weaving for better prospects.
Skilled and experienced craftsmen like Sathyaraj who carried the torch of weaving tradition are on the brink of vanishing from the stage. The wind of technology and modernity is blowing across the families of weavers. There is a new generation aspiring to move towards hitherto untouched territories. When they openly express their disinterest in continuing the tradition, the book of hand-weaving seems to enter its final chapters.
Photographed in East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh and Pochampalli, Telangana