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Caught between warp and weft of woes, weavers in Pochampally struggle to stay afloat

🔴 India’s Silk City has been chosen to receive the award for Best Tourism Village by the UN, but soaring prices of raw materials and cheap replicas mean that about 3,000 families dependent on handloom weaving for survival are unable to afford even nutritious meals.

Written by Rahul V Pisharody | Hyderabad |
Updated: December 3, 2021 4:08:51 pm
telangana handloom saris weaversOver 80 per cent of the households here, roughly about 3,000 families, eke out a living by tie-dying yarn and hand-weaving this premium silk saree. (Photo by Rahul V Pisharody)

Even as Telangana’s Pochampally village – a traditional cluster of handloom weavers – prepared to receive the award for ‘Best Tourism Village’ this week during the 24th session of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s General Assembly in Madrid, Spain, the artisans who have toiled hard for the same continue to languish in abject poverty.

Tucked away from the busy highway connecting Hyderabad and Vijayawada, Pochampally is often referred to as the Silk City of India and is renowned for its unique Ikat silk saree. Over 80 per cent of the households here, roughly about 3,000 families, eke out a living by tie-dying yarn and hand-weaving this premium silk saree. Dotted with stores selling these sarees, Pochampally’s main street has customers arriving in swanky cars on most days.

Recognitions are not new for the village, which is currently basking in the glory of the latest global award. In 2004, Pochampally Ikat had received a Geographical Indicator (GI) status and was accorded Intellectual Property Right (IPR) protection in 2013. In the erstwhile unified Andhra Pradesh, the village was also declared a model village for its cleanliness and civic amenities.

Pochampally is often referred to as the Silk City of India and is renowned for its unique Ikat silk saree. (Photo by Rahul V Pisharody)

More importantly, it was in Pochampally that social reformer Acharya Vinobha Bhave kick-started the Bhoodan movement after having received a donation of 100 acres in 1951, which was then gifted to landless labourers.

At the Telangana State Tourism Development Corporation’s (TSTDC) Tourism Park in Pochampally, a lodging facility where loom weaving demonstrations are arranged for tourists, 35-year-old Praveen Kumar is busy weaving a silk saree. The BCom graduate had left his job in the audit department of a private firm 15 years ago to become a full-time weaver.

The silk yarn is procured from Bengaluru and it takes six to seven days to weave a saree, he says. The pre-weaving process takes another whole week. The designs are first drawn on the yarn. These yarns are then tied and dyed in different colours before they are mounted on the loom to weave the Ikat fabric, Kumar explains.

The craftsmanship involved, however, is challenged by cheap alternatives that come with similar designs printed on them. “Our sarees are priced between Rs 7,000 and Rs 20,000, depending on the intricacies in design. But printed versions of the exact same designs can now be found on e-commerce sites for prices as low as Rs 500 and people fall for it,” he laments.

Dotted with stores selling these sarees, Pochampally’s main street has customers arriving in swanky cars on most days. (Photo by Rahul V Pisharody

Visthari Gottimukla (60), who has been weaving Ikat sarees on his own loom at home for over five decades, hopes the latest global recognition will bring more people to the village in search of his sarees. Visthari’s family, comprising his wife Andalu, son Ramesh, who lost his legs in an accident, and his daughter-in-law Anitha, are all dependent on the wages they earn from weaving.

The raw material is supplied by a shopkeeper and, as a family, they earn about Rs 10,000 a month on returning finished products. Together, they make about six sarees a month. “Most families in Pochampally who have their own looms work for monthly wages. We get orders based on the demand and there is no work during the rainy season,” says Andalu. “If more people buy our sarees, we will have more work.”

Pointing out that their craft has become less profitable, another weaver, who requested anonymity, says the cost of raw silk yarn has doubled in the last few months. Explaining the economics, he adds, “To weave seven sarees of basic designs in a month, I need 1.75 kg warp and 3.5 kg weft. These are priced Rs 5,300 and Rs 5,200, respectively. Add the cost of colour and golden threads along with the wages for weavers, and it would come to Rs 48,500. These sarees are sold for Rs 7,500 each. As a family of six members who are dependent on this job, we make a profit of just Rs 4,000 and that remains our only source of income,” he rues.

In 2004, Pochampally Ikat had received a Geographical Indicator (GI) status and was accorded Intellectual Property Right (IPR) protection in 2013. (Photo by Rahul V Pisharody)

At Acharya Konda Laxman Bapuji Pochampally Handloom Market, a three-storeyed shopping complex set up four years ago with 40 private stores, Karnati Narasimha of Vikas Handlooms says production has been declining owing to increased input costs and stagnant demand. According to Narasimha, the younger generation of weavers has been migrating to towns and cities in search of a better livelihood. Narsasimha, who is also the president of the market merchants’ committee, says the government should announce a Rs 250-crore package for the development of Pochampally.

“There are multiple issues concerning weavers. We had been demanding the removal of 5 per cent GST on Ikat and the government has now proposed to hike it to 12 per cent. The subsidy on silk yarn should be hiked from 10 per cent to 20 per cent. Now it is only provided for weavers in the cooperative sector, but it should be extended to all,” says Narasimha. “Neither the state nor the Union government has supported us in any manner.”

Echoing similar views, Ennam Shivakumar of Sriranjini Ikat sarees recalls that the TDP government had promised to establish weavers’ markets like Rythu Bazaar, a government-run vegetable market that lets farmers sell directly to consumers. “With this WTO award, if the government can start a tourism corridor linking the airport to Pochampally, UNESCO World Heritage Site Ramappa temple, Ramoji Film City and the soon-to-be-reopened Yadagirigutta temple, it would give a huge boost to tourism,” he adds.

In 2004, Pochampally Ikat had received a Geographical Indicator (GI) status and was accorded Intellectual Property Right (IPR) protection in 2013. (Photo by Rahul V Pisharody) In the erstwhile unified Andhra Pradesh, the village was also declared a model village for its cleanliness and civic amenities. (Photo by Rahul V Pisharody)

Agreeing that the demand for Pochampally Ikat sarees has been low, especially in the wake of the Covid pandemic, N Prasad, local development officer in the handlooms department, says the WTO recognition will transform the livelihoods of weavers. “There have been efforts made of late to help weavers display and sell their products online,” he says. “The world is our marketplace and we have been able to get about 40-plus young weavers to move online. Their products are now available on gocoop.com, a website that connects artisans, weavers’ co-operatives and clusters directly with customers,” says Prasad, who is also the in-charge of Pochampally Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society.

Saini Bharath (27) and his younger brother Saini Bhaskar are master weavers with about 40 families of weavers working for them. Bharath, who also works as a civil engineering assistant professor at a private college, has been a weaver for 17 years and is one of those who moved to online sales early on. “There are multiple websites, but the response from customers has not been great. Most of the younger weavers are now using Facebook and WhatsApp to reach out to customers. Apart from social media, we sell mostly through word-of-mouth marketing,” says Bharath, who was named for the national award for design development by the Union Department of Textiles.

“Ikat fabrics, being a premium product, pose a limit for its sales. People would not buy premium products in large numbers. There are alternatives and people like to have variety,” says Dr Srinivas Surisetti, Professor at the School of Vocational Education, TISS-Hyderabad. The labour-intensive nature of the craft makes it difficult for the artisan to earn much even if the raw materials are subsidised and made easily available, he explains. “It all depends on product positioning and the weavers should be able to reach high end-high pay markets,” says Dr Surisetti, who is an expert in rural livelihoods. “But even if the product is positioned in a big way, it needs to be produced in big numbers which is difficult. So these products that are produced in small numbers struggle to reach the right market.”

handloom saris weaving The silk yarn is procured from Bengaluru and it takes six to seven days to weave a saree, a weaver says.

Contrary to Dr Surisetti’s views, Bharath feels the possibilities for Pochampally Ikat are infinite and yet to be fully tapped into. “We have been doing the same for a very long time. It is high time we introduced new colours, patterns and designs,” notes Bharath, who won the national award for designing an Ikat dupatta with different designs and colours on either side. “Anything that is made of cloth, be it a kerchief to a handbag, can be made using Ikat fabric,” he says.

Following the best tourism village tag, the Telangana State Tourism Development Corporation (TSTDC) has made big plans for the region. Uppala Srinivas Gupta, the corporation’s chairman, says the existing Haritha Hotel in the village will be expanded with tourism amenities, and boating services will be started in the adjoining Pochampally lake. “We are exploring various possibilities as we want to attract tourists from across the globe,” he says. “We are also planning special tourism packages for foreign tourists.”

A research study titled ‘Assessment of Socio-Economic Status of Pochampally Ikat Handloom Weavers’, published in the International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences in 2019, recommended that weavers be given training on new techniques, incentivised for best designs and measures be taken for enhancement of their wages. It also stressed on involving fashion designers to diversify the product, apart from promotion of handlooms through branded clothing stores.

Sharing her observations, Dr V Vijaya Lakshmi, the corresponding author of the study and head of the Research Management and Consumer Services Department, College of Community Science, at Professor Jayashankar Telangana State Agriculture University (PJTSAU), says families dependent on Ikat are unable to afford even a nutritious diet due to their low income levels. “They consume only brinjal, tomato and potato for vegetables and they were unable to purchase milk or fruits,” she says. “Instead of uplifting the weaving activity, I felt that there is a need to first ensure a nutritious diet.”’

Agreeing with her, Dr Surisetti says, “It is not just about the product they make and its sales. Only if the cluster is supported in terms of raw material, education, health, housing, etc, as part of promoting their culture in a comprehensive manner, will they be able to keep their craft alive.”

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