Threads of creativity

Updated - November 09, 2016 03:57 pm IST

Published - June 18, 2010 04:07 pm IST

The fabric is stretched out tight on the frames. Seated on the ground and bent over the embroidery frames are men and women who carry on a communion with the fabric. Their needles dart with lightning speed as they rapidly pierce the cloth embedding their delicate stitches on it. Their fingers work in perfect unison and soon, beautiful colours and designs begin to emerge. Floral borders and abstract shapes materialise, sometimes with only the help of colourful thread but often embellished with sequins, beads, wire and crystals.

Kanchipuram is synonymous with silk weaving. But not many know that in and around Sriperumbudur near Kanchipuram, the art of Ari embroidery is being carried on for perhaps 100 years. In nearly 40 villages in the area, men and women are employed in executing the intricate hand embroidery, as a means of livelihood. With agriculture no longer an option, they are either engaged in the embroidery or take up jobs in factories.

The long frames, or “kattils” as they are known for they resemble cots, are set up in their homes or even out in the open under the trees. The orders come from textile shops in Chennai as well as boutiques. They also come from Gujarat and other parts of the country. Ari's fame has spread across the shores and it is sought after in Egypt and Sudan; special wedding saris are commissioned by outlets in Sri Lanka.

“The main problem faced by the workers is exploitation by middlemen,” says Kalpana Sankar, CEO of Hand in Hand, an NGO which is striving “to rescue the workers from the clutches of middlemen, help form the women workers into self-help groups, increase wages and strengthen marketing activities.”

Kavitha Sivapragasam, associate consultant of MDMM Consultants, engaged by the organisation to provide marketing linkages and technical support, points out the embroidery is of varying quality -- high, medium and low. “There can be five stitches per inch and even 20,” she says.

Family profession

At a shed in Pillaipakkam village, Murugan, a master embroiderer, is intently fashioning a design on a jade green sari. Nearby his wife Pachaiamma and two sisters Radha and Indra are silently at work, threading the needle in an out of a length of black sinuous material. “We learnt the craft from childhood, from our elders,” says Murugan, a wizard at design who generously lends his expertise to his fellow workers. “The men get Rs. 200 a day and the women Rs. 150.” He reels off the names of the stitches-load, French knot, katta, sugarcane… The demand increases during festival time. “Most of those who became apprentices along with me have left the field. They are into construction work or have taken up jobs in companies. This work can be done only when young as it takes a toll of your eyesight and needs great concentration.”

Since time is money, the embroiderers hardly speak or take their eyes off their needle; music is the accompaniment to their thoughts and their work. Ari embellishes a variety of garments. In Kanthur village, Kannappan, a tailor, and his wife Gowri, have engaged a few girls to carry out the orders for embroidering T-shirts for a hosiery unit in Tirupur. The women say it is more difficult to work on these garments than on the flowing sari.

“In Erode, Tirupur, Vellore and Karur, machine embroidery is rapidly replacing hand embroidery,” rue Indrani and her colleagues, rapidly sewing silver coloured sequins on the tops. “The number of craftspersons engaged in Ari has declined sharply.”

In great demand

It is much more crowded on the first floor of a house where Kamakshi, an entrepreneur, has ten women working for her. The orders are from Sowcarpet in Chennai where such saris are in great demand. The colours are bright and the sequins laid on thickly. The material is brought by Kamakshi's husband from Sowcarpet. In fact, the whole village gets orders from Sowcarpet, says Kamakshi. “The women find it a good arrangement to come here and work undisturbed; some bring their infants with them,” she adds.

Ari is sought after even in South America, we are told when we visit Palla Molachur village. Peter and Arogya Mary are executing a piece commissioned by Roxanne Dominic, a designer who runs a boutique in Brazil. Exotic colours such as magenta, turquoise blue, parrot green and shocking pink create a striking design on a black felt fabric. “This is a sample piece. If it is approved, we will obtain the order,” says the couple.

Although there is much demand for Ari, the craft is not organised into cooperatives. “Big textile shops sometimes get a profit of nearly 400 per cent on Ari embroidered garments. So the problem of exploitation is huge,” says Kalpana. The workers face other problems too. “They all know the skill well but do not know how to bring out a piece aesthetically,” says Usha Umapathi, who employs Ari embroiderers in her design studio Lasya in Chennai.

“The workers have no forum where they can come together. “NIFT should set up a design centre here,” says Kalpana. “In fact, we need to have training, marketing and design units in one centre – you can see this happening in South Africa for embroiderers.” She points out that support is needed from the Government. “We need outlets in five star hotels; there is great demand for stoles. Health problems among the workers have to be addressed. There is a high percentage of anaemia among the female workers. Eye check-ups have to be conducted regularly for them. We are providing the women micro finance and they get Government subsidies. But much more needs to be done for these craftsmen.”

The Crafts Council of India set up schools in 13 villages of Sriperumbudur for the children of Ari workers, to learn the craft and simultaneously undergo formal education. The organisation has since turned over the schools to the Government. Some of the workers are beneficiaries of welfare measures such as insurance and provident fund, by a few employers in Chennai such as Jean Francois Lesage of Vastrakala. But the majority still looks for the stitch in time which will prop up their craft and ensure that maximum benefits reach them.

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