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Caught in a time warp

At a time when rural unemployment is high, weavers of fine khadi in Andhra Pradesh are turning away from traditional weaving and spinning, all for lack of proper support, writes Meena Menon.


Spinning the traditional way may soon be a lost art.

IN the small town of Ponduru, near Srikakulam (Andhra Pradesh), women continue to spin short-stapled desi cotton the way it was done before the advent of machines. If you take a walk down the narrow streets inhabited by the Pattushali community, it is not uncommon to see women spinning like their ancestors used to, in the front rooms of their long narrow homes.

The Andhra Fine Khadi Karmikabhivrudhi Sangham(AFKKS) has, since 1949, been supporting hand weaving and spinning short staple hill cotton, both red and white varieties. It is the oldest fine khadi institution in the State, and was started by the artisans themselves.

Ponduru is truly a spinning and weaving town with looms in the houses of the Pattushali, Sali and Devangi communities. Women from the Pattushali community have all the traditional items necessary for ginning (separating the cotton from seed), carding, slivering and spinning into fine yarn, some of which can be over 100 counts. Over generations, the jawbone of a river fish has been used to separate the short staple cotton from its seed. Hill cotton fibre is strong and sticks to the seeds and it cannot be removed by hand. So, this unique ginning process was invented.

The old, tile-roofed white building whose foundation stone was laid in 1955 by Vinobha Bhave, during his Bhoodan yatra, is intact and behind it are the living quarters for a few weavers, and the spinning rooms, with a wide variety of charkas.

The hill cotton growers-farmers from the nearby villages are all given seeds by the AFKKS to ensure purity. While most use chemicals and fertilizers, some have realised the need to stop them, as hill cotton is a hardy pest resistant variety.

According to Sangham head cashier, Pekala Lakshman Rao, 125 farmers grow over 100 acres of cotton. "I used to weave my own shirts but I later joined the Sangham," he says. Traditional hill cotton grew in Ganjam district of Orissa; while in Srikakulam and Vizianagram districts, the farmers grew cotton to cater to the Sangham. There was a lot of demand but the supply was poor as few farmers were willing to cultivate more areas under hill cotton. But this is an area where the hybrid cotton (locally called Guntur cotton) is hard to come by.

In Narsapuram village in Srikakulam district, Vondana Appal Naidu grows cotton on three acres. He was among the few farmers who did not use chemical fertilizers till two years ago after the advice of a scientist. This year, he plans to drop chemicals altogether as production is declining while expenses are increasing.

Farmers like him prefer to grow hill cotton as it gets them good money, up to Rs. 2,800 a quintal, and the expenses and effort are low as compared to chillies, for instance, which cost Rs. 5,000 per acre to produce. Farmers get an average yield of 2-3 quintal per acre for cotton and production costs are low — around Rs. 1.100 per acre.

The age-old relationship between the farmer and the weaver is evident in this region. Until mills and machines came up, this was how traditional communities survived. Andhra Pradesh has seen a number of farmers committing suicide and also weavers, who have been hard hit. Ponduru remains relatively untouched, though the weaving community is dwindling thanks to poor payment and social security.

Ponduru khadi, famous all over the world, is used by designers and was even gifted to former U.S. president, Bill Clinton during his visit to Andhra Pradesh, says Dunna Papa Rao, the secretary of the Sangham. Film star Nageshwara Rao is a long time patron and even has a narrow gold border named after him on the Ponduru fine khadi dhotis. Every year the actor purchases about Rs. 40-50,000 fine khadi dhotis, Papa Rao adds.

In Lakshman's Rao's low roofed house, his wife, Meena, deftly gins the raw seeded cotton with the fish jawbone and then uses an iron rod to remove the seeds. The cotton fibre is combed with the jaw of the valugu fish, which is only available near the Dhavaleshwaram, Eluru and Rajmundry river sides and specialised fisherfolk catch this fish, according to Rao. Meena then uses three fine sticks to fluff the cotton and smooth it out — this step also removes the waste from cotton. The slivering is done with a bow and then it is carded with a wooden machine. The slivers are hand made and kept in dried banana stems. This is handheld and spun up to 80 to 100 counts by the women. They buy the cotton from the Sangham office for Rs. 25 a kg and can get 13-15 hanks if the cotton is good. There are 500 Pattushali families in Ponduru.

Women spin five to six hanks and earn Rs. 75-80 a week. Meena and her neighbour, Venkatratnam, have been spinning since they were 13-years-old. Nowhere else in India will you see spinning on single spindle charkas with 24 spokes, claims Lakshman Rao. There are 900 registered spinners and white cotton is spun up to 60-100 counts, while red is coarse, and spins up to 30-40 counts.

The Pattushalis and the Devangis weave both warp and weft since centuries and the Pattushalis are the fine khadi weavers. However, weavers are very unhappy with the rates they are being paid. Kodi Ramu will probably be the last in a long line of weavers. His son, Ramesh, a class eight student, does not even want to learn weaving with its long hours and low wages. Ramu earns Rs. 150 a day while his assistant, 60-year-old G. Appa Rao earns Rs. 100 a week. Rao's daughter rolls bidis for Rs. 10 a day while his wife, Satyavati, spins to supplement the family income, earning Rs. 70-80 a week.

Giving the hill cotton ... a unque process using the jawbone of a river fish.

The zari-bordered purple dhotis cost Rs. 1,300-1,400 for four yards but all Ramu gets is Rs. 52 per metre of which he gives Appa Rao Rs. 15 a metre. His wife Lakshmi says it is so difficult to make ends meet with these low wages, especially when there is an illness.

Baswa Mohan Rao has been weaving since the age of 10 (for 40 years now) and he learnt from a master weaver. This fine khadi weaver earns Rs. 1,500 a month. "The Sangham wants good texture and fine weaving so there is more work, but we have no wage rise, or incentives, apart from security and retirement benefits," he says. His children know weaving but don't want to continue with it. Already one of his sons works in a bank on daily wages.

Though there are medical benefits and bonus, overall the situation looks grim for the weavers who slave from morning till late night. The historic town of Ponduru may see a further decline in this traditional activity. Already from 2000 spinners 15 years ago, there are only about 900-1200 left. Earlier there were over 150 fine khadi weavers here, now it is reduced to only 45-50. However, coarse khadi weavers have increased from 10-50 to about 80 now. Poultry farming, bidi rolling or working in factories pay much more than the traditional art. Most weavers can weave up to 1-1.5 metres in a day and if it's a design variety, only one metre is possible.

While weavers are paid less, the cost of khadi has increased and there is no attempt to develop weavers or give them incentives and a decent livelihood. The number of weavers is reducing every year. However, there is supposed to be a planned increase of 25 per cent in wages, according to Lakshman Rao.

Ponduru is one of the few places in the country, which showcases the traditional art of fine khadi weaving. The relationship between the farmers and weavers is still very strong. In addition, hundreds of women supplement family incomes from spinning. The government cannot let all this die by not giving it the support and security it so desperately requires. At a time when rural unemployment is worsening, this weaving and spinning community needs more support and sustenance than ever before.

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