The 25-odd women weavers at a handloom co-operative society in Chendamangalam, a quaint village 36 kms from Kochi in Kerala, were strenuously working to achieve a lofty government target of supplying school uniforms when the state was walloped by the worst floods in nearly a century. The floodwaters devoured their homes and their factory, knocking aside centuries-old wooden looms, sinking fabric worth lakhs of rupees and in the process, bringing their livelihoods to a virtual halt.
And the floods couldn’t have come at a worse time. The harvest festival of Onam, that fell on August 25 this year, is the biggest season of sales for these weavers for which they prepare months in advance, meticulously weaving together products such as sarees, dhotis, towels, shirts and trousers. Armed with a Geographical Indication (GI) tag, these handloom products, borne of the blood and sweat of the weavers from Chendamangalam, almost every year sell like hot cakes at textile fairs in Kerala and beyond, bringing them precious earnings. For a dying craft, fighting hard against mechanised textile industries and supporting the women of an entire village with economic capital, the floods have knocked a punch out of which recovery looks like a losing battle.
On Tuesday, when indianexpress.com visited one such handloom factory in Chendamangalam, Liji and half a dozen other women were picking up pieces of wooden looms that were intact from a giant heap by the side of the factory. Some others laboriously focused on unfastening reams of white fabric from a loom that got submerged in the water. At the back of the factory, in a heap lay sarees with beautiful golden embroidery patterns, each costing upwards of Rs 3000, all of them soiled, muddied and bearing the worst handiwork of the floods.
“The floods took away all that we painstakingly produced over the last year. Stocks worth Rs 21 lakh are completely damaged. Another Rs 10 lakh worth products that were sent to Onam fairs in Kozhikode and Ernakulam have come back unsold. Around 4000 metres of fabric kept aside for the school uniforms are soiled,” said Liji, one of the weavers who has spent the last 26 years at the factory.
“With an eye on the Onam sales, we had taken out loans for children’s education. How do we move forward from this?” she asked.
Chendamangalam’s handloom industry and the produce it churns out every year has a lot of takers in Kerala and beyond. Hand-crafted clothes, despite a higher cost, are always a sold-out item especially during starry occasions such as Onam and Vishu. But the fact is that the industry, supported by five co-operative societies and around 600 weavers, is dwindling by the day. Government aid continues to trickle in, shoring up earnings for the workers, but older generations like that of Liji are hard-pressed to find new entrants into the field.
“The truth is that it’s a difficult job. You need a lot of patience to do this, maybe that’s why people are not coming in,” argued Liji.
“But it worries us that after our time’s up, who will take these traditions forward? The industry upholds the pride and prestige of an entire village which has even captured the nation’s attention with its products,” she added.
Stocks worth lakhs remain unsold
Pushpalatha takes care of the retail shop at the front-end of a handloom factory in Chendamangalam. Neatly arranged on several shelves are ornamental sarees, veshti mundu (for women), dhotis for men and towels — stocks worth Rs 10 lakhs that had returned from textile fairs unsold during the floods. The co-operative society is now at its wits’ end to somehow sell off these products to shore up the working capital for the next financial year. Sales are brisk at the retail shop with just around Rs 4000 worth of products sold since morning on Tuesday.
“These are not damaged products at all. We have been pleading with government authorities and the public to help us sell off these stocks because it is very crucial for our finances to rebuild the factory and start operations as soon as possible. There are people coming from outside the village to buy them, but still sales are not as high as expected,” said Ajith Kumar, secretary of the Handloom Weavers Co-operative Society in Karimpadam.
Damaged fabric to give rise to Chekutty dolls
Two entrepreneurs, Lakshmi Menon and Gopinath Parayil, have teamed up with Kumar to fashion small rag-dolls out of damaged fabric, giving it the name ‘Chekutty’ or ‘Chendamangalam kutty’. The word ‘kutty’ in Malayalam refers to child.
While the weavers themselves clean and chlorinate the damaged fabric, a bunch of volunteers pick up these clothes to produce simple ‘Chekutty’ dolls which are then sold online and off-line at Rs 25 a piece. Through the sale of the dolls, which are propped up as symbols of hope, the proceeds will go directly to the bank account of the cooperative society.
“I think it’s God’s way of helping us. It’s a combination of their kind hearts and our circumstances that led to this idea. When one door gets blocked, the other opens,” said Liji, smiling.