Making room for the loom

Gopi Govindan of Sree Meenachi Silks. Photo: Special Arrangement  

At first, Panjukalipatti looks like any other sylvan village brushed aside by the mighty highway in Tamil Nadu. But listen closely, and a sound akin to a gushing waterfall and a train’s rattle becomes apparent in the background. Soon, as the billboards advertising silk sari showrooms come into view, the sound explains itself. It is coming from the looms – powered by man and machine - that know no holiday.

Situated approximately 20 km away from Salem, Panjukalipatti has emerged as a key supplier of silk saris to most of the big name retailers in Tamil Nadu, besides supplying furnishing materials to Western countries. Not bad for a village that was once known for its mat-weaving industry.

“All the big sari stores like to claim that they own the looms that weave their products, but this is not accurate,” says G. Gopi, of Sree Meenachi Silks, who collaborates with his brother Prabakaran to run the designer handloom sari shop in Panjukalipatti. “By the time their branding and advertising is over, our role in the production is completely erased,” he rues.

Gopi’s father Govindan switched over from farming to weaving in 1975, “because it was a really respectable career option then,” he says. “It is not easy to become a handloom weaver, as it takes nearly 2 years before you’re allowed to operate a loom. My brother and I both started learning weaving in our schooldays, because we were expected to follow our father into the business,” says Gopi, a Commerce graduate and MBA who has been involved actively in the shop’s management from 2010. His brother has a diploma in Textile Engineering.

From two looms in 1980, to over 300 today, with an in-house design team, an online presence and educated proprietors, Sree Meenachi Silks embodies the sea change in the state’s weaving industry.

The decision to stick to handlooms has not been without its problems, however. “We have found ourselves unable to compete with powerloom products that are manufactured on cheap Chinese machines,” says Gopi. “If one kilo of silk thread costs Rs. 4,000, the polyester blends that powerlooms use cost only Rs. 800 per kilo. So a handloom silk sari that costs Rs. 10,000 can be woven for as low as Rs. 4,000 on the powerloom. Customers no longer care for the finesse of our work – they just want a sari that looks good, and is affordable.”

It’s a busy Sunday as cars line up outside Sri Rajarajeshwari Sarees, and customers disembark with the sole intention of snapping up wedding wear. Delegations of would-be buyers WhatsApp their relatives about the potential selections of silk saris and dhotis that glimmer in the well-lit display area.

Overseeing all this is K.R. Mahadevan, the fourth generation proprietor of the store. As the eldest son, the English Literature post-graduate went on to take up weaving after his father.

Since 1982, Mahadevan has been modernising the business, mainly by uniting the disparate clusters of weavers in Panjukalipatti. “I first arranged finance because banks were not willing to lend to us in those days, shared designs and organised the weavers to run at least 20-30 looms in a unit. Once they were ready, I contracted them to produce the designs that I wanted, and then started to supply the products wholesale to big stores in cities like Chennai,” says Mahadevan.

The initial response was terrible, he admits. “Some stores would refuse to let us in. Some others would buy our samples and refuse to place orders. Quite a few shady operators would order saris and then would disappear before we could collect payment for our delivery. It was a huge learning experience,” recalls Mahadevan.

Deciding to downsize his operation, Mahadevan started approaching smaller shops in nearby towns. “The positive word-of-mouth that these businesses gave helped to get us bigger orders over time. This is how we learned to break the monopoly of big manufacturers.”

Today he employs around 800 weavers to maintain his supply chain.

The costliest sari in his Panjukalipatti showroom is priced at Rs. 58,000. When designer saris are easily sold for Rs. 1 lakh in the metro cities, Mahadevan knows he still has to project his silken wares as affordable objects of desire.

Besides the regular handloom silks, he also has a range of ‘soft silk’ saris that are woven on powerlooms, and cost around Rs. 4,000 to 5,000.

In the inner streets of Panjukalipatti, weavers are hard at work. As in many traditional professions, the women’s role is crucial, though rarely highlighted. In weaving, women seem to be involved only in tasks like winding the silk threads on spindles.

The handlooms here are lowered into a trench on the floor to make them more stable. Weavers operate the machines by perching on the edge or sitting cross-legged. The shuttles with coloured silk thread pass rapidly between the two ends of the loom as Seenu weaves a pink and blue sari. “It takes three days to finish a pattu sari by hand,” he says.

For contract weaver S. Parthiban, who invested Rs. 2 lakh in a powerloom after a leg injury left him unable to operate the handloom, it takes just one day to create a sari.

“I earn Rs. 400 to weave a sari, but I know that the price would easily go up to Rs.5000 by the time my product reaches the big stores. I don’t think I’d let my sons become weavers, because it is a very hard way to earn a living,” says Parthiban.

While silk saris remain popular, the future of weaving is not so certain. “My son is studying Medicine, and I think I can continue like this for the next two decades. After that, if the business is no longer profitable, I am not sure what I’d do,” says Mahadevan of Sree Rajarajeshwari Sarees. “I am happy that at least I am able to give a livelihood to some weavers.”

G. Gopi of Sree Meenachi Silks feels that the absence of an industry forum is a disadvantage. “Right now, it’s every weaver for himself. And it is not that there is a shortage of orders. What we lack is the labour to fulfil those orders. The government should try and improve our industry by creating more opportunities for Textile Engineering graduates.”

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 3:51:35 AM |

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