At a time when the Indian handloom sector is on a wobbly path, weavers are changing the course with innovation and entrepreneurship. “With his eco-friendly weaves, C Sekar is doing his bit,” says Pavithra Muddaya of the Vimor Handloom Foundation. “After years of trial and error, he has developed 25 natural fibres, including from banana stems.” Sekar, who participated in a workshop at Vimor’s handloom festival recently, bought some of his best creations for display.
Recognising that weavers in Anakaputhur, a suburb near the Chennai airport, were in decline, Sekar developed a way of resuscitating the industry with sustainable practices. “I am the third-generation of weavers,” he says. “My father, P Chenchiya, faced terrible hardships to continue his vocation. I could not see a thriving weaving community fading away. Anakaputhur has a history of skilled weavers making beautiful handwoven saris, dhotis, lungis, and shirt fabrics.”
Sekar is determined to keep the legacy alive. Anakaputhur used to produce Madras-checked fabric for export to Nigeria. The weavers were hit by the ban on import of fabric in 1966. Over the past 15 years, the weavers have shifted completely to natural fibre, thanks to Sekar.
The village, which had 5,000 looms in the 1970s with each household boasting five looms, today has only 100. If 57-year-old Sekar’s efforts take off, he believes Anakaputhur, will become world famous for its 100% banana fibre saris, shirts, and fabric.
Sekar made it to the Limca Book of Records for weaving a sari using 25 natural fibres. “I work with around 100 weavers and head the Anakaputhur Jute Weavers’ Association,” says Sekar whose son, S Mahendran, is also joining the business. The association was formed under the Ministry of Textiles, with a 90% grant to encourage weavers to create more natural fibre fabric.
“The South India Textile Research Association involved us in weaving jute and cotton-blended yarn. This set me thinking of how to develop natural fibre yarn from other sources too. I remember reading a story from the Ramayana in a Tamil magazine. When Sita, needed a change of clothes, she pleaded with Hanuman to get her a sari woven from vaazhai naaru (banana fibre). That got me thinking.”
Collaborating with NIFT students in design intervention and colour combination has enhanced the reach of his products. The weavers take four to five days to complete a sari. “I have used fibres of banana, bamboo, aloe vera, pineapple, crown flower, khas khas, silk, wool, hemp, jute, cecil and gongura amongst others. I use more of banana fibres as the stems are available in plenty, although manual extraction of fibres from the stems is labour-intensive and time consuming.”
Natural dyes extracted from various natural products are used. Turmeric, coffee powder, tea, indigo, beetroot, tulsi and cow dung are used. “We use 1,000 kilograms of fibre in a year. We make 250 saris, 300 metres of yardage and 400 handicrafts with natural material in a month. With machinery this can be doubled. The government is prepared to give us grants for machinery, but where is the space to house them?” asks Sekar, who now sells through designers, government handicrafts, handloom board and social media.