The Weavers' Service Centre concentrates on designing, weaving, printing and dyeing.
The visuals transform the office. They show glimpses of the beautiful textile traditions of the country with the focus on Tamil Nadu. There are illustrations of Chettinad saris with checks and stripes in bright colours, borders with designs derived from temple sculptures, and a wall hanging - in which tigers crouch among the bushes, birds take wing from trees and peacocks spread out their plumage. Also featured are patterns in ikkat as well as various prints. Not surprising as I am at the Weavers' Service Centre, Rajaji Bhavan, Besant Nagar.
The centre has sections devoted to design, weaving, printing and dyeing as well as documentation. In the design section, senior artist D. Ravi, who graduated from the Madras School of Art , explains that the artists concentrate on traditional aspects of designs of Tamil Nadu such as the ‘rudraksha', ‘vanki', ‘mayil kann' and ‘kuyil kann'.
Some of the designs are innovations based on the old, but with additions from other regional textile traditions.
New and different
Does this not dilute the tradition and is it not in danger of losing its identity? “We have to cater to present day needs,” he replies. “There is a demand for the new and different. Many do not know there is a beauty and simplicity in the traditional. We are reviving traditional patterns such as those from Koorainadu near Mayiladuthurai which specialises in wedding saris. We are also reviving many Chettinad sari designs as well as those from Woraiyur”.
Artist Saleha Abdi from Varanasi, who has a Ph. D in textile design, is working on Banarsi type motifs for a Kanchipuram sari, which are “ zari motifs all over on cotton,” she says.
A group of designs displayed on the board is derived from Chola temples. Leather puppets of Tamil Nadu and wood carvings are also inspirations for designs.
The weaving section has six looms. The saris woven here are prototypes to be used by the Co-optex and by primary cooperative societies. P. Thennarasu, Deputy Director (Weaving), explains how new technology is being introduced by the centre to lessen the burden of the weavers. The three wheel take-up motion helps to bring about uniformity in texture while the draw box motion helps in the weaving of checked fabric. “The constant use of a single leg in traditional weaving, imposes strain on the limb and so we have introduced the pneumatic compressor developed by local engineers,” he explains.
“The National Handloom Development Corporation will display innovations at their appropriate technology exhibitions.”
All the weavers at this centre are recruited from weaving families. “Twenty years ago, my father, siblings and I used to weave on the looms put up in front of the Mylapore Weaving Society ,” says V. Kuppammal.
Hamsaveni, Subbarammal and Lakshmi Bai are at work along with Kuppammal; they are turning out silk and cotton fabrics. Training in weaving is also imparted at the centre.
Pallaveen from the Army Institute of Fashion Design, Bangalore, is here for a month to weave samples of different textures and designs for a project.
At the design and dyeing section, fabrics printed with the use of chemical and vegetable dyes are displayed. Natural dye extracts such as myrobalan, onion peel and pomegranate rind are obtained from the local markets.
“We give demonstrations in educational institutions too. We are demonstrating the use of vegetable dyes at a school for the World Crafts Council,” says the WSC staff.
“ We have produced a few of the famed Kodalikaruppur saris formerly woven at the village near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district. These saris were used by the Maratha royal families. It is important to synchronise the printing and the weaving in this wonderful craft that has faded out,” says Thennarasu.
Interview with former Director Paul:
The Weavers Service Centres were set up in 1956 in accordance with the Planning Commission's decision to cater to the needs of the handloom sector, says B. B. Paul, former Director (South Zone). “Four centres were set up in Delhi, Kolkata, Calcutta, Chennai and Mumbai. They were initially set up as design centres.
The objectives then increased to include product development, technological development, skill upgradation of weavers, extending documentation support, revival of languishing crafts and implementing Central Government schemes for weavers, dyers and printers.” There are now 25 centres in the country, seven of which are located in the South Zone.
‘We identify beneficiaries though State government organisations and though the Co-optex,” says Paul. “We also publish information through newspapers and conduct technical workshops. We impart skills special to the areas such as the Korvai technique in Kancheepuran for example. Beneficiaries then approach us directly.”
What have the WSCs of the Ministry of Textiles (Govt of India) accomplished in these many years?
“We could retain our traditional designs and weaves in spite of the inroads made by the mill sector”, he replies. “We study handloom design, specifically traditional, Indian textile designs. There is a holistic approach.”
As to whether there is enough sample development, he replies, “We are doing sample swatches. We give national awards to weavers annually and 20 merit certificates.”
He agrees the number of weavers is going down -”from 35 lakhs in to 25 lakhs.” But avers that it is owing to better economic prospects and
educational opportunities for the children of weavers and “not because the industry has declined!”
“We are creating new weavers who do not belong to traditional weavers' families,” he says.
All schemes have to be routed through the respective State Governments. Marketing is though exhibitions conducted at national, State and district levels. “This year we have held 710 exhibitions,” he adds.
The Weavers Service Centre in Chennai has been able to persuade and train a few boutiques to start printing units, he adds. “A new step is the introduction of credit card to weavers to make them financially viable,” says Paul, who hails from a family of weavers in Midnapore, West Bengal.