In the birthplace of Uppada silk that is favoured by India’s rich and famous

The Uppada sari from Telangana finds a new, young clientele, but the men have trickled out of the trade.

Even before we turn off the coastal highway from Kakinada, we know that we are close to Uppada. The signboards and banners have begun to appear along the road, followed by retail shops and wholesale outlets, all selling only Uppada silk saris. Inside the large village, homes double as weaving workshops and retail outlets, with a handloom on the front porch or side veranda going clackety-clack. “Madam, Uppada cheeralu choostara? Do you want to look at Uppada saris?” the voices float in the air.

Ignoring the call of rustling silk, I head to my meeting with Venkateswara Rao Koppula, president of the regional weavers’ association. From their store, Row’s Handloom Fabrics, his son Pradeep first takes me to the workshop. On the way, we pass another small lane where a few men are drying and separating the newly-dyed silk threads stretched out on wooden stands. That is the only time I see men working in the village. Most of the workers at the handlooms are women, working alone or in pairs.

At the workshop, there are two looms on either side of the long veranda, each with two workers. At one end, there is a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law pair working together in a rhythm that has been part of their lives for several decades now. They keep up a steady chatter with each other, even as their hands move in an easy rendition of muscle memory. Typically, a sari takes 10 days to finish, with two or three weavers working together, whereas an intricate pattern can take anywhere from three weeks to two months.

On the other loom, Bhuvana and Adhira, both in their early teens, are working with a steady focus. Like many other girls in the village, they have dropped out of school to earn a living from the local craft. There is no whisper of “child labour” in this town, where every family member, from the youngest child to the oldest matriarch, is expected to contribute to the business, and where the skill is passed on informally from generation to generation. A family can earn anywhere from Rs 10,000 up to Rs 30,000 a month from weaving, depending on the output.

The girls’ voices are shy and soft, and their replies are slow, as they deftly move the purple-and-green silk threads up and down, in and out. They go on and on in sync, until they stop to pull the sari over and cut the threads close to the surface on the reverse side of the sari. This — the perfect finish on both sides of the sari — is a hallmark of the Uppada Jamdani, named after its origin in the weaving tradition of Bangladesh.

Unlike the heavy Kanjeevaram silks, even the grandest Uppada silks are known to be soft and fine. Nobody seems sure of how the Jamdani — a Persian word, meaning flower (jam) vase (dani) — method travelled down to this beach town in the south of India, but there is an apocryphal story that a group of Bangladeshi weavers (from what was then still Bengal) migrated to these areas over a century ago. Ally Matthan, expert on handwoven textiles says of the Uppada, “It has successfully crossed borders, and managed to create and sustain its own design language, distinct from the Dhakai Jamdani.”

Uppada silk — woven now mainly in the villages of Uppada and Kothapalli in the East Godavari district — has always found patronage among the rich and famous, beginning with the ruling families of the region. It is said that the weavers created unique designs for the royal women of Pithapuram, Venkatgiri and Bobbili, and were not allowed to sell them to anyone else. More recently, our political royalty has patronised Uppada weaving, from erstwhile Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa (think sari woven with threads of pure gold) to former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who bought both cottons and silks directly from the weavers. Uppada saris were also given the GI (Geographical Indication) tag in 2009, adding to the prestige of local workers.

Back at the store, Pradeep explains the process in detail, while showing various types of saris that differ in fabric, texture, design and cost. The most exquisite of them feel like paintings rather than weaves, with a perfect finish and no loose threads. As Matthan says, “Each supplementary weft motif is added separately by hand, by interlacing the weft threads into the warp with fine bamboo sticks using individual spools of thread.”

Originally known for cotton weaves, silk has been getting more popular in recent times, with saris starting at Rs 3,000 and going all the way up to a lakh and more. “Film stars come all the way from Hyderabad to give special orders,” he says proudly. Young and popular actors like Kajal Aggarwal have been seen flaunting their Uppada silks in public, which has lent the handloom a fresh and contemporary image.

Earlier, only familiar motifs such as paisley, flowers, leaves and creepers were used, but Pradeep says there is increasing demand for “modern” patterns. He shows on his phone a sample of what designers have been sourcing and training his weavers in — it is an image of an intricate floral helix from a window in Turkey’s Blue Mosque. Row’s has been in the business for 90 years, with the current owner’s father and grandfather having hundreds of weavers working for them. Fifty years ago, however, there were over 3,000 weavers in the Uppada Kothapalli Mandal alone (comprising four-five villages).

Why are only women working in the looms, I ask. There is no threat from power looms, since the work is challenging and can be completed only by hand. Unlike some other handloom weaves, there is also a lot of demand for the Uppada. However, nobody wants to do it any longer, Rao says. Young men, in particular, want to move to bigger cities in search of jobs that pay better and sound more important. Sadly, this is a tune heard across regions, and across craft communities in India.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a writer in Bengaluru.

This article appeared in print with the headline: Picking up the threads

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