Naturally dyed hand-woven cotton saris are rare to come by. Master weaver K.V. Sengodan explains why.

It is so soft and smooth and I, for a moment, think it is silk. The turmeric yellow sari with a muted saffron border is actually naturally dyed, hand woven cotton that comes from one of the looms of K. V. Sengodan, a master weaver in Sowriyur, a hamlet 40 k.m. from Salem.

The man in question is unassuming and gentle. But his saris, which have been specially displayed for our photographer, tell a different story…. one that speaks of class and creativity combined with sweat and tears. Sengodan recently visited Chennai to participate in the national textile seminar organised by Stella Maris College. His story is similar to that of many craftsmen across the country who are fighting a losing battle to save their art to ‘the machinations of a modern world.’

Sengodan has a stunning collection to his credit but is down-to-earth about it. “I have larger issues to worry about,” he states. Yes, for, Sengodan belongs to a diminishing class of weavers who have the knowhow about natural dyeing and traditional weaving, but have few takers for their saris.

The uniqueness of the Sowriyur saris is best explained in Tamil by Sengodan, “Kalavu nesavu /maru ani neithal. It is double thread weaving with 80 warp and 1000 weft… It is a challenging task. I think I might be the sole custodian of the traditional art of weaving and natural dyeing in all of Salem district today!” says the 53 year-old Sengodan with pride and passion as he talks about the craft that he learnt from his grandfather, himself a national award-winning weaver. One among eight children, Sengodan’s one brother has retired as Deputy Director of Weaver’s Service Centre, and another is in the Air Force.

“Among my siblings, I was the only one who showed interest in the craft. I learnt the skills and technique of weaving and natural dye making from my grandfather. When I was 13, I began helping him on the loom and by the time, I was 20, I had learnt how to mix dyes.” The master weaver then pulls out a deep blue sari with brick red border and gold motifs. He points out to the red hue and explains the process of getting that exact shade. “I made this sari for my wife years ago. The red is arrived at by mixing gingelly oil and a special kind of mud/salt. That salt is available only during a particular season. Just after the rains in the middle of Margazhi, the lake recedes a little and the early morning dew falls around the wet edges of the lake. What emerges is white mud that’s actually an alkaline salt. That is the mud which is used here… While the blue comes from neeli (indigo dye), the zari used is pure.” As he smiles, you are stupefied. “It took me nearly two months to make this sari.” He pauses and then adds, “Now do you understand why the youth in our village prefer to look for employment elsewhere?”

Sengodan practised vegetable dyeing between 1986 and 2008, and then stopped when sourcing raw materials became too difficult. It was Prema Srinivasan (of the TVS group), who along with Sheela Balaji, who helped in the revival of the Sowriyur saris. “Thanks to their efforts, I was able to get back on the handloom. I owe a lot to them,” he says with gratitude.

There are around 200 families in his village, and most of them have looms, but all power-based. And most of the children are either studying abroad or working in bigger cities. Sengodan speaks of reality. “Economics is the important reason for this state of the craft. This is not lucrative. Also, it is laborious. The raw materials are procured from barks of trees, river beds and flora. Collecting them can be quite daunting. So, nobody is willing to risk it.”

Luckily for him, his nephew, a textile technology student, has learnt some of the dyeing techniques and teaches them at a school in Hosur. Sengodan is also pinning his hopes on his daughter, an M. Phil student, who has shown, in recent times, some interest in the family vocation.

Meanwhile, Sengodan is busy helping build a school in his village. And, of course, producing saris by the 100s on the 200-odd power looms he owns.

As I take leave of Sengodan, I realise how little we value our traditional crafts and their practitioners. The attitude should change and awareness increase to preserve both.

(Sengodan can be contacted at 94432 60652.)

Hard facts

Here are some points to ponder about…

In 1983-84, there were 1,500 handlooms in and around Sowriyur. By 2013, the number has dropped to 12. On the other hand, there are over 1,000 power looms today.

Ten years ago, Sowriyur was self-sustained in the pre-loom activities such as warping, sizing, winding. Today, for warping and sizing, weavers have to go to Ammapet (55 k.m. from Salem), Tiruchi or Arasur in Sathyamangalam.

Earlier, every member of the family (which often consisted of at least four children) would pitch in and share the work. Today, most children want to move to cities and even go abroad. In fact, they look down upon weaving as a vocation.