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Emaneswaram weavers struggle to retain their legacy

D. J. Walter Scott
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Saurashtra community is losing its ‘weaver identity’ with youngsters preferring other jobs

An old woman engaged in preparation of weft yarn at Emaneswaram in Paramakudi in Ramanathapuram district.— Photo: L. Balachandar
An old woman engaged in preparation of weft yarn at Emaneswaram in Paramakudi in Ramanathapuram district.— Photo: L. Balachandar

Jayanthi Lal (34) could probably be the last generation weaver of the Saurashtra community at Emaneswaram near here as the community is fast losing its traditional “weaver identity’ with its youngsters preferring IT jobs and other greener pastures.

History has it that the Saurashtrians migrated from Gujarat and settled at Emaneswaram and Paramakudi over 600 years ago and eked out a living by weaving silk clothes for royal families in Ramanathapuram and Sivaganga districts. Albeit several welfare schemes launched by the government, weaving – considered an art – is losing its sheen as it fetches meagre income and more and more weavers are opting for alternative livelihood if interaction by The Hindu with a cross section of Emaneswaram weavers is any indication.

“I have a passion for weaving and I have been weaving since 18 years of age, 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 is helping them get secured jobs. “I will be the last generation 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 to get Rs.600 as wages, while his friends, who quit weaving to take up painting and daily wage work, earn double his wage with an eight-hour labour, he differentiates.

He got into the profession at the age of 10, when he started doing ‘kenda sutral’ (preparing weft yarn) and dropped out after standard VIII to become a full time weaver.

“I will continue weaving till my lifetime but I do not want my children to suffer like me,” he says. Besides low wages, there are lots of uncertainties in the profession with rising price of silk yarn. Weaving is not possible when it rains and when there is no power (for lighting), he points out.

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

After doing other works and preparing dinner, she resumes weaving at 7 p.m. and works till 10 p.m., she says. She goes to bed around 11.30 p.m. every day only to get up at 4.30 a.m., the next day. She takes two to three days to weave a sari and get a wage of Rs 550 to Rs 600. “The only advantage is the work spot is the living room of my house,” she says with a laughter. There is drastic fall in the production during marriage season as men weavers don the role of suppliers in marriage halls, says Mr. Perumal. What they could earn in two days, they would make it in just a few hours by working as suppliers in marriage halls, he says. However, those who have opted for construction work could not take up weaving even if they wanted as their palms would turn rough and they could not handle the shuttle in the loom. They could only do ancillary jobs, he says.

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

E.R. Ravindran has no option but to continue with weaving as he dropped out after standard VII and could not go for any other job. He could weave 10 to 12 saris a month, that too on being assisted by wife and his 80-year-old mother and earn about Rs. 8,000 a month. His only daughter Devika, studying standard VI, is clear in her ambition. “I have to study well and get a job to take care of my parents,” she says.

Only the aged are engaged in sizing of the warp. 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 with art 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 supplied the warps to the weavers, procured the finished products and sell them with 20 per cent margin.

In one warp of yarn, 11 saris, each measuring 5.5 meter long or 10 saris with blouse, could be woven and a weaver could weave 10 saris a month and make an earning of Rs.8,000, he said.

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

The weavers, who are traditionally using pit looms and making ordinary saris and dhotis, have switched over 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 ceiling should be 11 ft high.

As part of the promotional activities, the government has launched a special training centre in April at a cost of Rs 54 lakh to train weavers on value addition. About 240 weavers have so far been trained in the centre, he says. The government has introduced a savings and security scheme, under which 8 per cent of the wages of a member weaver would be deducted as savings and deposited in government treasury with equal contribution by the government. The deposit would earn 9 per cent interest and the weavers after completing the age of 60 years could draw the matured amount, he said. 

In the event of 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 become entitle to old age pension. 2,951 weavers have joined the scheme and they have a total deposit of Rs 6.4 crore, he said.

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