A few months back, before I started this Fellowship, I was looking for a traditional silk saree in cobalt with wine red jari border. If beautiful sarees are what one is looking for then Coimbatore provides you with plenty of stores. But I couldn't find this particular combination or weaving style. I must have visited at least 5 different stores. They all told me that what I was looking for was 'too traditional' and that there aren't too many weavers left for that particular style, since their art is running out of fashion and there are too few buyers. They said that people normally look for more 'modern' styles of saress, that are multicolored or double-shaded. The salesmen actually advised my mother to buy the traditional ones if we happen to chance upon them anywhere, regardless of the price, and hoard them, since very soon there'd be no weavers left in that particular art form. I was extremely disappointed, but then I just told myself I'll inherit my mother's on some future date. I can't believe how shallow my thought process was then. To hear something like this should have troubled me quite bit. It does now. I had the opportunity to meet a few weavers in a small village in T.Pet Block in Tiruchirappalli district on one of my field visits. That entire village primarily consists of only weavers. Almost every family owns a hand-spinning machine, used to weave cotton sarees. I was invited by Mr. Loganathan to his house to show me what goes into making a beautiful hand-spun saree. He explained to me the workings of the machines, where the different threads goes, how to control the levers and coordinate them with the peddling action and how to make different patterns. I can't possibly reproduce the explanation, at least not without a machine for demonstration, but mostly because it is a sophisticated art. There is a lot of work that goes in, I can assure you of that. The threads are really thin and delicate, which have to be manually separated first. The ones of equal measure have to be then placed in the machine.The kind of strain that must cause to the eyes! It takes at least five days to make a saree. There is a cooperative society, with a store, closed on that particular day, on the outside of the village, facing the main connection road, that provides all the weavers with the raw materials, the cotton and silk threads. On completion of the saree, the weavers give it back to the society, who then display some at their store and the rest is sold to different retail outlets. Mr.Loganathan told me that they receive somewhere close to Rs.1000 for 4 to 5 sarees, which takes 3 or 4 weeks to make.That's it, Rs.1000! No wonder the art is dying out. By now his entire family had joined us. His daughters told me that their Father could have earned so much more had he worked as a daily-wage laborer, but that he couldn't bring himself to stop making sarees, that he is too passionate about the art. I asked them why he didn't try to set an independent business, given that these sarees are sold for a good amount in the markets. "The raw material is too expensive", was the response. The cooperative procures the threads and sells the final product. If not for them, these weavers would have been out of business long ago. Mr.Loganathan seemed overjoyed at my interest in understanding his skills, but there was a clear sadness in those eyes. It was very apparent that he loved his profession. But, for such a delicate art, he is paid much less than he deserves. I can only try to imagine the ways in which that must depress him. There are so many such art forms that are on the verge of becoming extinct. It isn't just about the material loss of these beautifully crafted items, but more about the people behind their making. For them it is like watching a child suffer a painful death, because ultimately, to live, money is what they need. These are hard choices they are confronted with, to pick between survival or a passionate, meaningful life.
A dying art and a depressed man..