The Saurashtrians originally migrated from Gujarat and settled at Emaneswaram and Paramakudi over 600 years ago

Thirty-four-year old Jayanthi Lal could probably be the last weaver of his generation from the Saurashtra community at Emaneswaram near here as the community is fast losing its traditional weaver identity, with youngsters preferring jobs in information technology.

The Saurashtrians originally migrated from Gujarat and settled at Emaneswaram and Paramakudi over 600 years ago, eking out a living by weaving silk clothes for royal families in Ramanathapuram and Sivaganga districts.

Despite several welfare schemes launched by the government, weaving is losing its sheen as it fetches a meagre income. Weavers are opting for alternative means of livelihood.

“I have a passion for weaving and have been weaving since I was 18, but I do not want my children to follow suit,” says Mr. Lal. He is keen on educating his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son and wants them to get secure jobs. “I will be the last weaver in my family,” Lal, a school dropout, makes it clear.

He has to toil for 12 to 14 hours a day for two days to weave a sari which fetches Rs.600 as wages, while his friends, who quit weaving to take up painting and daily wage work, earn double his wage for eight hours of labour, he points out. He got into the profession at the age of 10, when he started doing ‘kenda sutral’ (preparing weft yarn) and dropped out after Class 8 to become a full-time weaver.

“I will continue weaving but I do not want my children to suffer like me,” he says. Besides low wages, there are other uncertainties in the profession brought on by the rising price of silk yarn. Weaving is not possible when it rains and when there is no power, he points out.

N.S. Perumal (56) echoes this sentiment. He and his wife continue to weave but their three children have left the profession. His first son is an automobile engineer and working in Chennai. The other son is pursuing a degree in physics. His daughter is in Plus Two. “The loom will fall silent after our lifetime,” says his wife M.P. Girija, whose day begins at 4.30 a.m. She weaves for two hours till 7 a.m. before taking up household work and returns to the loom at noon and works for another two hours.

After preparing dinner, she resumes weaving at 7 p.m. and works till 10 p.m., she says. She goes to bed at around 11.30 p.m. She takes two to three days to weave a sari and draws a wage of Rs 550 to Rs 600. “The only advantage is that the workplace is the living room of my house,” she laughs.

There is a drastic fall in production during the marriage season as male weavers don the role of suppliers in marriage halls, says Mr. Perumal. What they earn in two days, they make in just a few hours from the marriage halls, he says. However, those who have opted for construction work cannot take up weaving even if they wanted to as their palms turn rough and they cannot handle the shuttle in the loom.

V.N. Jeeva, who has been a traditional weaver, has also ensured that none of his three children follows in his footsteps. His first son is an electronic engineer and works in Chennai. His daughter has completed teacher training and third son is studying engineering, thanks to educational loans.

E.R. Ravindran had no option but to continue with weaving as he dropped out after Class 7. He can weave 10 to 12 saris a month, assisted by his wife and 80-year-old mother, and earns about Rs. 8,000 a month. His only daughter Devika, studying in Class 6, is clear about her ambition. “I have to study well and get a job to take care of my parents,” she says. There are 11,500 weavers – about 6,500 Saurashtra weavers at Emaneswaram and 5,000 in Parmakudi – registered with 84 Handloom Weavers’ Cooperative Societies, including 55 at Emaneswaram, and only 500 of them are in the 18-35 age group, according to C. Sampath, Handloom Officer in Paramakudi.

There are 4,749 raised pit looms in the two small towns and the weavers make only saris — pure silk, art silk and cotton and blended saris of pure silk and cotton. The art silk saris (Viscos) produced at Emaneswaram and Paramakudi are much sought after in Gujarat, Mumbai and other northern markets. The societies, which supply the warps to the weavers, procure the finished products and sell them with 20 per cent margin.

In a warp of yarn, 11 saris, each measuring 5.5 meter long or 10 saris with blouse, may be woven. A weaver can weave 10 saris a month and earn Rs.8,000, he said.

Though the societies sell the saris to the retailers, “master weavers” procure them in bulk and market them in the northern states with higher margins.

The weavers, who traditionally use pit looms and make ordinary saris and dhotis, have switched to raised pit looms and started making design saris, Mr Sampath said. Setting up a loom would cost about Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 and the ceiling should be 11 ft high.

As part of promotional activities, the government launched a special training centre in April at a cost of Rs 54 lakh to train weavers on value addition.

About 240 weavers have been trained at the centre so for, he says.

The government has introduced a savings and security scheme, under which eight per cent of the wages of a member weaver would be deducted as savings and deposited in the government treasury with an equal contribution by the government. The deposit would earn nine per cent interest and the weavers, on completing the age of 60, could draw the matured amount, he said. 

In the event of the death of a weaver before the age of 60, the family would be given the insured amount of Rs.60,000 plus the savings deposit amount with interest, he says.After a weaver turned 60 years, he/she would be entitled to old age pension. Around 2,951 weavers have joined the scheme and they have a total deposit of Rs 6.4 crore, he said.