The story of the Telia Rumal of Andhra Pradesh is symptomatic of the fate of the dying textile traditions of our country, says Janaki Turaga.
Kolanu Muthyalu who is 65 years old, sits in his modest home in Koyylagudem village, busy tying rubber strips on the weft thread along with his wife. A Telia Rumal weaver once upon a time, he now has only a dim memory of Telia Rumal products that he once wove. He mainly weaves bedsheets and dupattas which are supplied to the Koyyalagudem Primary Weavers’ Cooperative Society. His son Madhusudan holds a job and is a part-time weaver, and does not weave Telia Rumal products. His grandson Rakesh who is in Std.III, is most unlikely to follow in the family occupation of weaving. Trying to find a Telia Rumal weaver in Koyyalagudem is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
In Pochampalli, none of the sons of the late National awardee Chiluveru Ramalingam, who wove Telia Rumal products, have taken up weaving as their profession. All have chosen alternative professions to weaving as they have seen their father’s struggle for economic stability.
The last stronghold of Telia Rumal production, Puttapaka village still has few practitioners who are mainly youngsters who have undergone training in Telia Rumal process through government training programmes.
Today, the Telia Rumal survives in miniscule pockets in few villages that one can count on one’s hand in Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh. One by one our rich textile traditions are dying out and soon they will be only a figment of memory and part of museum collections. The story of the Telia Rumal of Andhra Pradesh is symptomatic of the fate of the dying textile traditions of our country.
A recent visit to Koyyalagudem village in Andhra Pradesh, one of the known production centres of the exquisite and nearly extinct Telia Rumal, presented only a grim picture of the future of the Telia Rumal. Older weavers dimly recalled having once woven Telia Rumals once upon a time. The younger weavers, in turn, had only heard of the older weavers having woven them and many had not even seen a Telia Rumal.
The stunning Telia Rumal was initially woven mainly in Chirala in Andhra Pradesh in the 19th and 20th centuries primarily as a trade cloth for export to Arab countries where the square 44 inch by 44 inch oil processed cloth was in much demand. Locally, it catered to fishermen and agricultural labourers who wore it, as it kept them warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather. It was also woven as sarees and dupattas which were further embellished with embroidery by the niche women clientele of Hyderabad.
Post-Independence, the decline in exports led to the decline of the thriving production centres in Chirala and Pochampalli. The subsequent decline could not be arrested despite significant government interventions in 1950s by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and the Festival of India in the 1980s. Despite a dramatic revival and a two-decade boom period from 1980 to 2000, due to the design intervention of Festival of India through Viswakarma exhibitions, its subsequent downswing post 2000 has been remarkable.
One of the most intricate double ikats, Telia Rumal is characterised by a special yarn preparation process which gives its unique character. The preparation of the yarn before the dyeing process involves the treatment of the yarn with sheep dung, castor pod ashes and sesame oil over a month. At the end of the process the yarn has a slight oil smell and sheen which gives its name “Telia Rumal”.
Its one-of-a-kind design repertoire demands the precision that is associated with Patola saree weaving, which makes the production of the Telia Rumal intricate and time consuming. It is precisely this intricate process that has been the bane of its survival. Weavers rue that it demands incredible patience as the design has to be carefully woven and continuously checked and adjusted so that the threads are perfectly aligned. Guda Srinu, a National awardee, says that production is affected by this factor alone as weavers find it difficult to invest so much time, labour and skill for comparatively less remuneration. Weavers prefer to weave other regular items which are not demanding and yet give them a steady regular income. Telia Rumal products are therefore only a part of their product portfolio.
Weavers have shifted to non-weaving occupations due to low remuneration associated with weaving, increasing availability of steady income jobs in Hyderabad such as security guards at malls, ATM centres etc., and changing aspirations. The younger generation in weavers’ families does not want to be involved with weaving. Many are educated and have well paying jobs. At present, many of the Telia Rumal practitioners have either died or are now old. The next generation of weavers who continue to practice the Telia Rumal textile process is nearly non-existent, and barely a handful practice this and that too rarely.
Given this scenario, production is limited, and only due to the persistence of Padmashri Gajam Goverdhan of Murli Saree Emporium in Hyderabad, that limited but continuous production of Telia Rumal sarees continues to this day. Sarees continue to be produced not merely of the traditional Telia Rumal design repertoire but from the modern design repertoire of the Viswakarma exhibitions of Festivals of India. Despite a sustainable niche market demand, there is a highly limited supply which has been made possible by private entrepreneurship, fashion designers, and limited State government support.
Telia Rumal’s re-invention as a significant textile heritage item within the country, is a post-Independence phenomenon, mainly due to the successive government interventions. The building of the brand “Telia Rumal” products has not occurred which in turn, has not created a brand image and new markets.
Due to its limited production for niche markets, it is not commonly available in shops and boutiques. As a result, today’s younger generation is not aware of this textile heritage and there is absence of demand for Telia Rumal products. It is a catch 22 situation, where new markets are not created due to limited production, and production is not accelerated due to absence of larger markets for this niche product. This is the conundrum that Telia Rumal textile heritage finds itself in. One of the celebrated textile products remains invisible in the public eye and mind.
Outsiders having been fed upon a rich diet of textile books about the glorious textile traditions of our country wander into the villages hoping to see and buy one of the pieces. But sadly, neither is there the production of the original Telia Rumal, nor there is enough production of the Telia Rumal products for them to buy and appreciate the intricate weave and stunning designs. In an era, where the young generation within India and overseas is discovering its rich textile tradition, and where there is the possibility of an increasing niche market for expensive niche products, it is ironic, that instead of a revival, the Telia Rumal appears to be on its way out. Would its future lay in being a studio product and practiced by professional designers?