The soft rustle of the Gadwal saree can jazz up any occasion. But the centuries-old art is dying.

Fifteen-year-old P.G. Viresh, a weaver, wakes up early in the morning to the sounds of the handloom machine in his house. While many of his friends go to school, Viresh, who dropped out three years ago, helps his father at the loom. In doing so, he supports his family and tries to keep afloat an art that made waves for several decades.

For people living in Macharla, a dusty, decrepit village in Andhra Pradesh, the continuous clatter of the machines is an integral part of life. But soon the sound might fall silent. The village is part of the handloom cluster of Gadwal, a small town in Andhra Pradesh, where highly professional weavers have practiced the art for the last 300 years.

Sadly, this legacy now stands on slippery ground. This is evident in the dropping number of weavers who have failed to make enough money for their survival. Fifteen years ago, 5,000 families were engaged in this art. Now, only 1,500 families remain. They learnt the technique from Benaras where they were patronised by the royal families to weave sarees for them using gold and silver zari. The pride they took in deciding the colours, design and pattern of the sarees that became characteristic of the marvellous textile crafts of Andhra Pradesh has become history. Now, the weavers are just labourers.

The cost of procuring raw materials and setting up the looms for making a saree costs about Rs.40,000. Since the weavers cannot afford such a high rate of investment, they have to work on contract. The looms, known as Maggam, are set up in their homes where the entire family is involved in making a saree. After working for about eight hours daily for a week, two of them are paid Rs.1,500 for a saree. On an average they can make five sarees a month, which gets them around Rs.8,000. The wages vary depending on the intricacy of the pattern.

Viresh’s father, P.G. Ellapa, a weaver for the last 40 years, says, “Due to my deteriorating health and poor eyesight, my son had to leave school and assist me. With such low earnings there is no other option but for the children to take up this task to make both ends meet.”

For Ellapa, things have changed a lot since the time he was initiated into this tradition. The cost of raw materials, especially the silk threads, has soared. Even the monthly subsidy of Rs.600 from the government is not a help since they would have to bribe officials with Rs.150. A majority of teenagers like Viresh are not ready to take up this tradition.

Under the circumstances, Ellapa is worried whether the art would survive. Moreover, the weavers do not engage in any other activity like farming or agriculture for their survival.

The weavers face exploitation in the hands of their employers, usually the master weavers, who provide them the raw materials, designs and financial assistance to make the sarees, but sell the finished product at a price that is five times more than the wages given to the weavers. The weavers are forced to sell their sarees through master weavers due to the absence of other effective channels leading directly to the market. The master weavers cut 30 per cent from the wage even if there is a minor flaw in the saree.

The Handloom Cooperative Societies that were formed to end such exploitation of weavers by their employers seem to be in the control of master weavers who form a nexus with government officials.

None of the cooperative societies provide medical facilities to the weavers who work under poor conditions. Continuous hard work for 6-7 hours cause back ache, knee pains. P.G Sheshadri, a weaver, says, “I lost my finger in the machine last year. But so far I haven’t received any compensation. Nobody has come to help me. I am unable to work as effectively as I used to.”

The weavers have to depend on private money lenders who charge high rates of interest. Santhan, the assistant director of the Handloom and Textile department says, “We have started a weaver’s credit card scheme, under which the weavers can directly get a loan of Rs.4,500 to Rs.2 lakh without involving the middleman. But unless the weavers bring their problem to the notice of the head of the cooperative society, it cannot be solved.” The wages for the workers have been constant for over ten years.

Weaver’s Park, a Rs.8 crore project that was initiated by the State government in 2008, has been stalled after the first phase. Its purpose was to help the weavers’ community by providing raw materials and designs, and in turn the government would purchase finished goods at the authentic rate. But this has not happened.

Today, the introduction of power looms has taken its toll on handloom weavers in the region. The sarees made on machines using low-quality silk take less time and are sold in the market as original Gadwal sarees. The true hallmark of a Gadwal saree is the merging of cotton and silk threads in the border, which differentiates it from the sarees made on powerlooms. But customers do not know this and they end up buying the fake ones at high prices.

The government has to come up with proper remuneration and incentives so that more teenagers like Viresh can acquire skills and carry forward this legacy.