Caught between warp and weft of misfortunes, the weavers of Pochampally struggle to stay afloat
On December 2, the village of Pochampally in Telangana – a traditional group of hand weavers – will receive the award for “Best Tourist Village” at the 24th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations World Tourism Organization ( OMT) in Madrid, Spain.
Tucked away from the busy highway between Hyderabad and Vijayawada, Pochampally is often referred to as the Silk City of India and is renowned for its unique Ikat silk saree. Over 80 percent of the households here, around 3,000 families, make a living by dyeing the yarn and hand-weaving this premium silk saree. Dotted with shops selling these sarees, Pochampally’s main street has shoppers arriving in fancy cars most days.
The rewards are nothing new for the village, which is currently basking in the glory of the latest world prize. In 2004, Pochampally Ikat received Geographic Indicator (GI) status and was granted Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) protection in 2013. In the former unified Andhra Pradesh, the village was also declared a village model for its cleanliness and civic facilities.
More importantly, it was in Pochampally that social reformer Acharya Vinobha Bhave started the Bhoodan movement after receiving a donation of 100 acres in 1951, which was then offered to the landless workers.
At the Telangana State Tourism Development Corporation (TSTDC) tourist park in Pochampally, an accommodation center where loom weaving demonstrations are held for tourists, Praveen Kumar, 35, is busy weaving a silk sari . The BCom graduate quit his job in the audit department of a private firm 15 years ago to become a full-time weaver.
The silk thread comes from Bengaluru and it takes six to seven days to weave a sari, he says. The pre-weaving process takes another whole week. The designs are first drawn on the wire. These threads are then tied and dyed in different colors before being mounted on the loom to weave the Ikat fabric, says Kumar.
The craftsmanship involved, however, is challenged by inexpensive alternatives that come with similar designs printed on them. “Our saris are priced between Rs 7,000 and Rs 20,000, depending on the intricacies of the design. But printed versions of exactly the same designs can now be found on e-commerce sites for prices as low as Rs 500 and people are falling for that, ”he laments.
Visthari Gottimukla (60), who has been weaving Ikat sarees on her own home loom for more than five decades, hopes the latest global recognition will bring more people to the village in search of her saris. Visthari’s family, made up of his wife Andalu, son Ramesh, who lost his legs in an accident, and daughter-in-law Anitha, all depend on the salary she earns from weaving.
The raw material is supplied by a trader and as a family they earn around Rs 10,000 per month on the return of the finished products. Together they earn about six saris per month. “Most of the families in Pochampally who have their own looms work for a monthly salary. We receive orders based on demand and there is no work during the rainy season, ”Andalu explains. “If more people buy our saris, we’ll have more work.”
Pointing out that their trade has become less profitable, another weaver, who requested anonymity, said the cost of raw silk thread has doubled in recent months. Explaining the economics, he adds, “To weave seven basic design sarees in one month, I need 1.75kg of warp and 3.5kg of weft. These are priced at Rs 5,300 and Rs 5,200, respectively. Add the cost of the color and the gold threads as well as the wages of the weavers, and that would come down to Rs 48,500. These saris are sold for Rs 7,500 each. As a family of six members who depend on this work, we make a profit of only Rs 4,000 and that remains our only source of income, ”he laments.
At the Acharya Konda Laxman Bapuji Pochampally Handloom Market, a three-story shopping complex established four years ago with 40 private stores, Karnati Narasimha of Vikas Handlooms says production has declined due to increased costs of inputs and stagnation in demand. According to Narasimha, the younger generation of weavers migrated to cities in search of better livelihoods. Narsasimha, who is also the chairman of the market merchants committee, says the government should announce a package of Rs 250 crore for the development of Pochampally.
“There are several problems with the weavers. We called for the removal of the 5 per cent GST on ikat and the government has now proposed to raise it to 12 per cent. The subsidy on silk threads should be increased from 10 percent to 20 percent. Now it is only intended for weavers in the cooperative sector, but it should be extended to all, ”Narasimha explains. “Neither the State nor the Union government supported us in any way. “
Echoing similar views, Ennam Shivakumar of Sriranjini Ikat sarees recalls that the TDP government promised to establish weavers’ markets like Rythu Bazaar, a government-run vegetable market that allows farmers to sell directly to consumers. “With this UNWTO award, if the government can create a tourist corridor connecting the airport to Pochampally, the Ramappa temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Ramoji Film City and the Yadagirigutta temple which will soon reopen , that would give tourism a huge boost, “he adds.
Acknowledging that demand for Pochampally Ikat sarees has been low, especially in the wake of the Covid pandemic, N Prasad, local development manager in the looms department, said WTO recognition will transform the means of sustenance of the weavers. “There have been recent efforts to help weavers display and sell their products online,” he says. “The world is our market and we have succeeded in attracting more than 40 young weavers to come online. Their products are now available on gocoop.com, a website that connects artisans, weavers cooperatives and clusters directly with customers, ”says Prasad, who is also responsible for the weavers cooperative society Pochampally Handloom.
Saini Bharath (27) and his younger brother Saini Bhaskar are master weavers with around 40 weaving families working for them. Bharath, who also works as an assistant professor of civil engineering at a private college, has been a weaver for 17 years and is among those who made the switch to online sales early on. “There are several websites, but the response from customers has not been great. Most young weavers now use Facebook and WhatsApp to contact their customers. Outside of social media, we mainly sell through word of mouth marketing, ”says Bharath, who has been nominated for the National Design Development Award by the Union Department of Textiles.
“Ikat fabrics, being a top-of-the-range product, put a limit on its sales. People would not buy high end products in large numbers. There are alternatives and people like to have variety, ”says Dr Srinivas Surisetti, professor at the School of Vocational Education, TISS-Hyderabad. The labor-intensive nature of the craft makes it difficult for the artisan to earn much even if the raw materials are subsidized and made readily available, he explains. “It all depends on the positioning of the product and the weavers should be able to reach the highly paid markets,” says Dr Surisetti, who is an expert in rural livelihoods. “But even if the product is positioned in a big way, it has to be produced in large numbers, which is difficult. These products, produced in small numbers, therefore find it difficult to reach the right market. “
Contrary to the views of Dr Surisetti, Bharath believes that the possibilities of Pochampally Ikat are endless and have yet to be fully exploited. “We’ve been doing the same thing for a very long time. It is high time to introduce new colors, new patterns and new designs, ”notes Bharath, who won the national award for designing an Ikat dupatta with different designs and colors on each side. “Anything made of fabric, whether it’s a scarf or a handbag, can be made with Ikat fabric,” he says.
Following the best tourist village label, the Telangana State Tourism Development Corporation (TSTDC) has made big plans for the area. Uppala Srinivas Gupta, the chairman of the company, said the existing Haritha Hotel in the village will be expanded with tourist facilities and boating services will be launched in the adjacent Pochampally Lake. “We are exploring various possibilities because we want to attract tourists from all over the world,” he says. “We are also planning special tourist packages for foreign tourists. “
A research study titled “Assessing the Socio-Economic Status of Hand Pochampally Ikat Weavers,” published in the International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences in 2019, recommended that weavers receive training in new techniques, encouraged to get the best designs and measurements. for the increase of their wages. He also insisted on the involvement of fashion designers to diversify the product, apart from the promotion of looms through branded clothing stores.
Sharing his observations, Dr. V Vijaya Lakshmi, the study’s corresponding author and head of the Department of Research Management and Consumer Services, College of Community Sciences, at Prof. State Agricultural University Jayashankar Telangana (PJTSAU), said ikat dependent families are unable to afford even a nutritious diet due to their low income. “They only eat brinjal, tomatoes and potatoes for vegetables and they couldn’t buy milk or fruit,” she says. “Instead of increasing the weaving activity, I felt the first step was to ensure a nutritious diet.”
Agreeing with her, Dr Surisetti says, “It’s not just about the product they make and its sales. It is only if the cluster is supported in terms of raw materials, education, health, housing, etc., as part of a global enhancement of their culture, that they will be able to bring their profession to life.