Pochampally sari weavers, though much sought after for their skill, are in the doldrums

In her three-room house, the loom is the most precious possession that Sujatha Kamalana has. As her hand moves adeptly, slowly giving birth to a timeless creation, a nine-yard silk sari with Ikat design, she stops to adjust her sari -- a polyester one —before getting immersed once again in her life of ironies.

“I cannot afford to wear one of my saris,” she smiles, when asked if she owns any special creation. “These (polyester) saris are cheaper, and suit me,” she adds softly.

For the skilled work that they do, the wages that the weavers of the famed Pochampally sari in Andhra Pradesh get are low, and therefore survival a struggle. With the increasing cost of living, it’s of little wonder then that the lives of these weavers of Bhoodan Pochampally village are as complicated as the warp and weft of the fabric they weave.

“I get Rs. 3,500 a month for weaving saris,” Kamalana's 19-year-old son Surya Shankar said, while working on a purple and pink silk sari on the loom. “My father is often ill and so does not work, and my brother and sister are still young...but the total of Rs. 7,000 that I and my mother earn in a month is hardly enough for the family,” he added.

Prema Shankar, another weaver in the village, has a similar tale. “I know that the silk sari that I weave costs nothing less than Rs.8,000-10,000. But what can I do? We bargain, but have to ultimately settle with what the middleman pays us...we don’t have the kind of reach like he does to sell our saris in the big cities,” she explains.

The uniqueness of a traditional Pochampally sari, both cotton and silk, lies with the Ikat design. In Ikat, instead of dyeing the fabric, every thread is dyed in a pattern, and then woven in accordance with the design into the cloth. It is therefore a long-drawn process, and is almost like an art form. In the end, the design looks the same on both sides of the fabric.

Although their creation is so well known, Kamalana and Shankar’s families are among the dwindling number of weavers of the village who have not yet given up the skilful craft passed down through generations. However, there are many others who have moved away from the craft for more viable means of livelihood.

M. Anjayya, another weaver, for instance, said that his son has decided not to take up weaving.

"Weaving a Pochampally sari is an art. I take about three days to weave one, but the whole process of making a Pochampally sari is much longer. First there is the dyeing process; the designing and weaving is the last stage. But because sustaining on it (weaving) is becoming difficult, people are moving away from it. My son is not interested in taking it up for a living and wants to open a bike repair shop instead. Can I blame him?" Anjayya asked. For the 400 odd weavers and other workers in the nearby Handloom Park, set up by the union ministry of textiles, the condition is a tad bit better. The workers don’t just weave saris, but also other household products like bed spreads, table covers, quilt and cushion covers and bags in varied hues.S.N. Das, who works in the marketing department of the Handloom Park, said its weavers get better wages than those who weave at home. While designs on the saris woven in homes are mostly traditional, those in the Handloom Park have modern designs as well, courtesy a team of designers. If these challenges were not enough, Pochampally sari weavers also face competition from powerlooms which copy the designs and the products are sold at lower prices.