In a year that’s been about sustainable fashion and nurturing craft, why not consider going back to the source? From Andhra Pradesh’s seven-yard Guntur saris to Kanchipuram silks, handloom weaving has a rich history in India. Textile warriors make a case for immersive experiences and rediscovering the loom
Last October, singer and voice artiste Chinmayi Sripada shared a video on Telangana’s Gollabhama saris, which are known for their intricate weaves and everyday motifs — of milkmaids (gollabomma) carrying pots on their heads or playing kolaatam. The 11-minute YouTube short, which has since racked up over 49,500 views, explored a weaving cluster in Siddipet, one of the places where the “Telangana government has been pushing the cause of handloom”. “Less than 90 km from Hyderabad, it was like entering a time capsule [women at charkhas, men on looms, and silks and cottons in multi-hued piles],” she says. “Next, I’m planning a tour of weaving clusters in Vizag and western Tamil Nadu.”
Social media is peppered with similar videos and photos, as more and more people engage with the county’s growing handloom conversation. There’s not only a demand to buy the products, but also to hear its story, see its place of origin, and meet the people who create it. Catering to this burgeoning market now are a slew of textile walks. Once undertaken by design students who wanted hands-on experience, big-ticket designers looking to source material, or families out wedding shopping, today these have evolved into curated weaving holidays for the mindful. And the South, with its rich history of handloom, which changes every 100 kilometres, offers a rich, intricate map.
Down country roads
“[Weaving] clusters are small villages in the interiors. They are green and serene, and on a walk, all you hear is the sound of the shuttles from pit looms,” shares Sashikant Naidu. The Hyderabad-based designer, who works extensively with weavers, says he began his career thanks to such walks. “I went off on my own and discovered talented clusters about 10 years ago, in Ilavaram, Peteru, Rajolu and Bhattiprolu of Guntur district [in Andhra Pradesh], well-known for the thickly-woven, seven-yard Guntur saris, in the counts of 60s and 80s.”
Today, such ‘discoveries’ are available on demand. From day trips to short packages, the tours, led by lovers of handloom — think Co-optex or textile researchers like Chennai-based Sreemathy Mohan — explore the ethos of weaving, looking at the craft in conjunction with the local culture, food and sources of inspiration, such as architecture. For example, a trip to Kanchipuram would also feature temple tours (to draw a parallel between the mankolam motif and the sacred mango tree at the Ekambaranathar temple or the lions that stride down sari borders and along the walls of the Vaikunta Perumal temple) and a food trail to see Kanchipuram idlis steaming in brass vessels.
“Immersion” is the only way to do it, says designer Sanjay Garg, of Raw Mango. “While studying at NIFT Delhi, I remember visiting a textile cluster in Paithan, where we explored the anthropology of weaving. Everything from the food, the drapes, to the rituals were connected to the weaving in some way. It left a big impression on me, reminding me that everything is connected,” he says, adding that he’d like to replicate this in Kanchipuram soon.
The flip side
- With the good comes the bad, and sometimes walks can do harm, with designs stolen and weavers poached. “Occasionally, when we bring textile enthusiasts, they promise the weavers a lot but never deliver. It is disappointing at many levels, and it takes time to rebuild the trust,” says Deepa Anish, of Thiruvananthapuram-based store Karalkada, which is known for its kasavu saris. “Other times, we find that designs we’ve worked on for months in original zari, end up being recreated in duplicate zari elsewhere. It is important to know weaving traditions, but it is as important to protect artistic inputs.”
A numbers game
One of the challenges (to reconnect with our weaving tradition) is the dwindling number of clusters. Deborah Thiagarajan, founder of DakshinaChitra, the living history museum, remembers putting together a trail in which designer Ritu Kumar also took part. “It was a research trip, and we drew up an itinerary that began in Madras and included Kanchipuram, Kalahasti, Salem, Rasipuram, Karur, Bhavani and Erode. It was a vibrant scene two decades ago,” she says. “But if I wanted to do one now, I’d probably find more powerlooms than handlooms.” Recalling a recent trip to Dharwad and Belgaum in Karnataka, she laments that there weren’t many looms remaining, and the only people wearing the traditional ilkal saris were the elderly women in the bazaar.
Another area of concern: a unidimensional model. “It is very important for such tours to be done sensitively,” says Ahalya S, founder of Chennai’s Kanakavalli store, which works with Kanchipuram weavers, nurturing and reviving old traditions and motifs. “It should not just be about how ‘beautiful’ things are, but also about understanding the nuances of the weavers’ lives, how government policy affects the second largest occupation in the country, etc.”
We speak with designers and textile warriors who’ve gone on these trips, and those who organise them, to help you understand why you need to give weaving holidays a try.
Ritu Kumar, designer
The design maven, renowned for her use of handloom and work with weavers, still remembers a 10-day textile trail she did with Deborah Thiagarajan, to Chirala and Machilipatnam. “I remember waking up before dawn and watching the printers roll out fabrics soaked in myrobalan liquid and draping it over rice roots to dry — the start of kalamkari’s three-week printing, painting and dyeing process, and one of the most recognised printing schools from India. The long process of Machilipatnam kalamkari was an eye opener, and made us appreciate the genius of that area and its control over vegetable dyeing,” she reminisces. Kumar also did a trip to Chidambaram two years ago, as research for a book she is working on. “What we have in India is rare. Nowhere else in the world do you have a connect to the garment you’re wearing, like we do here. So, go on a textile trip. See its roots, where it comes from, who makes it. This should be nurtured.”
Vijayalakshmi Malani Nachiar, Ethicus
The co-founder of the Pollachi-based organic cotton brand was drawn to textile trails after she did one in Bengal (2016) and Kutch (2017). “It is the only way to know how weavers live. You discover the issues plaguing them, and work to address them,” she says. Today, she organises customised outings at her weaving centre. “We just had a group of children come in from a nearby school. This was the youngest batch we’ve hosted, so we kept things really basic. They touched the cotton, learnt its texture, and even sang a handloom song,” she says. “Design students and textile enthusiasts, however, get a more in-depth one, with details of the warp and weft, the organic farming process, the cleaning and spinning of cotton, along with a short trip to the village to see where it all begins.” Among those who’ve been part of the trail is New York-based fashion designer Donna Karan. “She spent a day with us, and was very keen to know about organic agriculture and how our fabric was made.” ₹2,000 per day, including lunch. Details: ethicus.in.
Sreemathy Mohan, textile researcher
Last year, Mohan did a 12-week field work project for DakshinaChitra, Revisiting Real Madras Handkerchief. As part of it, she visited the artisans in Chirala to understand their issues first-hand. This ‘need to know’, she says, is essential when you plan a walk. “I’ve so far led two trips [of 10 people each] to Kanchipuram, and several individual ones. Every time, I include a weaving component. I also make it a point to visit some of the temples nearby, because that gives people an idea about the motifs [from gopurams to the kodi visiri (creeper)]. For instance, a trip to Thirubuvanam will help you understand the practise of kattichaayam, where they dye the sari differently, after tying portions of it. “When you go on these holidays, you get to meet the people who weave your garments, and see how, in just three rooms, they create such a rich tapestry on fabric, while leading a hand-to-mouth existence. Despite this, they are so generous [offering food and drink],” says Mohan, adding that she ties up with tour partners who understand the needs of something such as this. “If the group is deeply passionate about textiles, I also take them to the state-run zari making unit in Orikkai, near Kanchipuram.” Approximately ₹2,000 for a day trip, including lunch. Details: facebook.com/textiletrails.
TN Venkatesh, Co-optex
The Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Cooperative Society is on a revival and innovation path, and textile trails are an integral part of this. “Whenever there is a group of 10-12 interested people, we organise a two-three day tour of weaving clusters,” says the managing director. “We’ve done several trips (Salem-Rasipuram-Vanavasi or Puttapaka-Pochampally-Koyyelagudem, home to Andhra’s single and double ikats) where we’ve introduced weaving, sungudi-knotting and Athangudi tile making. If Kanchipuram is the preferred place for silk, we take them to Kumbakonam and Thirubuvanam for cottons. Trails are such a great way to learn about what you wear. Despite my background in textiles, there is so much knowledge gathering. For example, the commonality in usage of motifs and patterns, like how Kanchipuram and Bishnupur use similar representations of the fish and horse. You rediscover cultural similarity as you explore.” Co-optex organises such tours on request, “since that is not our chief mandate”. ₹2,500 to ₹3,000 a day, inclusive of transportation and food. Details: [email protected]
Sreejith Jeevan, Rouka
Since the 2018 floods decimated weaving clusters in Kerala, Jeevan has been working closely with those in Chendamangalam. “In Kerala, the fabric is simple, but what goes into it is complex. A lot of people are keen to see the origin and process after seeing our materials. So, I take them to the clusters from where I source; they look around, observe, and buy from the weavers,” says the designer, who just launched a line of saris and separates that reinterpret Kerala’s kasavu sari, woven by the women of the Society: 648 cluster. “These trips are eye-openers. Many believe that weaving is about the loom; they don’t know the pre-weaving processes — the washing and starching, where people work between 4 am and 7 am. Not many know that one mundu comes into being after six people have worked on it. Even in a documentary, you don’t get to see weavers for the living, breathing people they are.”
Jeevan also goes on tours himself, which he says are lessons for life. “Once in Thirubuvanam, I showed some weavers a few of my mother’s saris that I had with me and asked if they would weave something similar. They laid them out and told me how each was unique to a region; they even named the cluster area. Till then, I’d never considered the signature of a cluster.”
Ramesh Menon, Save the Loom
Combining fashion, art, craft and textiles, Menon’s STL Tours (under the umbrella of Save the Loom, the non-profit that had rallied to weavers’ help in the aftermath of last year’s Kerala floods) brings in a mix of fun and education. “Such holidays have an impact,” he stresses. “Weaving tourism not only brings sensitivity to an urban population — about the craft, its people and where it originates — but also supports the village economy.” Menon organises two holidays at the moment. The first is curated around Kerala’s five main centres: Balaramapuram (rich silks and kasavu), Chendamangalam (fine cottons), Kuthampully (with a Tamil influence, seen in its bright colours and motifs, like checks), Kasargod (a Mysuru tradition brought down by the Saliyar community) and Kannur (export-quality linens). The second is to Kanchipuram, with visits to the looms of national-award winners, and a detour to Puducherry. “There is always a cultural context to what is getting woven,” he says, adding how a recent five-day trip with 30 students from Pearl University included a village tour, masterclasses with artisans, and a day each in Fort Kochi, Chendamangalam (weaving clusters) and Munnar (Aranya Natural dyeing unit). When possible, participants also join the weavers for a meal, and for luxury tours, stay at sustainable properties from brands like CGH Earth. From ₹25,000 onwards (airport to airport). Details: savetheloom.org.
— With inputs from Surya Praphulla Kumar
Book your tour
Mystical Palmyra: Shanmugapriya Thyagarajan organises holistic tours that offer a bit of everything, including weaving. “We’ve taken people to clusters in Kanchipuram, Madurai, Karaikudi, Tiruchi, Uraiyur and Thirubuvanam. The focus is on seeing the speciality in an area, including music, weaving, food and culture [and how they inform each other],” she says. “For instance, we recently did one to the Avudayar temple [Pudukkotai] with historian Pradeep Chakravarthy, to learn the link between it and local weaving patterns, which incorporates motifs like the Nattiya Kalai Mudra (signs of dance) or the horse.” Approximately ₹15,000 onwards (2D1N). Details: mysticalpalmyra.com
Treasured Holidays: Radhika Naware, an independent textile researcher from Pune, does frequent textile tours, focussing on the town of Ilkal and the kantha work of Karnataka. “In 2014-2015, I worked on a project with Hands of India, which did a survey of Ilkal. Since then, I’ve been taking groups of people there, to see the processes and techniques, and to teach them how to differentiate between handloom and powerloom fabric,” she says. “It is usually a mixed group of textile enthusiasts from across India and abroad, and regular people. My trail is for five days, and we begin at Hampi. We also visit Aihole to check out Banjara embroidery. Approximately ₹4,000 a day. Details: facebook.com/TreasuredHolidays
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