Moving past the hustle bustle of Dhaniakhali’s main bus stop of Madan Mohan Tala, the asphalt road leads to the quaint colony of weavers responsible for Bengal’s signature Dhanekhali tant saris. The symphony of battens being pulled and foot treadles being pedalled on floor looms greets visitors here.
In a dingy room attached to her home, 45-year-old Chandra Guin works in a rhythmic motion. She is pulling the batten controlling the warp thread to ensure the few meters of a magenta-coloured sari is finished by noon. She is one among the many hundreds of women who are the unsung heroes of this weaving community –people who are not recognised as weavers, mostly undocumented and excluded from any formal wage calculations.
“My husband is out of town at the moment, but we need to finish the weaving soon to collect the money,” says Guin. “Just because he’s out the work can’t stop, right? How will we survive the next following weeks if the delivery is delayed?” she asks with a smile on her face, adjusting the thread on the loom.
For the last 25 years, she has been supporting her husband to run the loom and raise her daughters, doing the business and running the household, out of necessity and not much of a choice.
In most households of the weaving hub, the looms are registered under the name of a man, the head of the family, who is a member of the co-operative that provides yarn and design to the weavers and pays them accordingly. While most men do the main work of weaving saris on the loom, the preliminary work of preparing the threads for weft and wrap are all done by the women in the homes. Not all women in the hub know how to maneuver the handlooms, but without their help of starching and hand-spinning the thread – the weaving procedure might not even commence.
Four houses away, on the courtyard of her home, 90-year-old Alaka Das is spinning the thread on a great wheel making the yarn for her son who weaves for the family. For generations she has been spinning the threads and starching it, first for her father, then her husband and now her youngest son.
“If we (women) don’t do these initial works, how will the males finish the products?” the elderly woman asks. “They can’t sit around all day in the heat with gooey starch, that’s too messy for the men,” says the granny, who boasts to have taught the work to her daughters and daughter-in-laws as well. While their work is crucial, neither is it accounted for while making the payments nor does it get the due respect.
The Dhaniakhali Union Tant Shilpi Samabaya Samity Limited, which is one of the oldest and biggest co-operatives functioning in the area, established in 1944, has only 78 active female weavers registered with them compared to 149 male counterparts. The numbers in the total members of the society too in gender ratio is grip too, only 143 female members compared to 644 male weavers.
As the production and number of weavers in the trade dwindles with each passing year, despite the initiatives taken by the government and the co-operative owing to the inability to have a stable good income, the women continue to suffer. “For weaving a sari, roughly a weaver gets around Rs 3000 to Rs 4000 a month, which might be a good amount if it was paid for the work of one person. What authorities fail to realise, the work has been done by at least two or three people and then the sum of money almost amounts to nothing,” says 35-year-old Sumitra Pal, a weaver who has a loom under her name.
“I don’t weave much these days and have instead secured a job as a cook at the primary school in the area. Even with the little I get paid, it’s my own income and earns it by devoting far lesser time,” Pal adds.
While it takes almost two to three days to weave a sari by hand, for at least working for a minimum of eight hours, straining eyes, arms and legs, any other work in far lesser time helps these ancient weaving community earn much more putting in a lesser effort.
While most have shifted to other trades or work as helpers of goldsmiths or have taken up farming or construction work, others have got work in factories to support their families. In this town, where once weavers made more than any other job, the preference is anything but weaving now.
Sumanta Bit, a 35-year-old man who dons the role of civic police by night, is carrying on his great-grandfather’s line of work only because it adds a few more bucks to his pocket. “I now have a one-year-old son, after coming back from duty and sleeping for a few hours, instead of looking for another job, I weave to earn a little more so that I can fulfill the demand of my boy,” says Bit sitting in his home’s handloom room. “A second job is good and I have the loom sitting in my home, so it’s okay to do it in the afternoon for a few hours every day. But can only do it as my mother and wife prepare the threads and get the work started,” adds Bit, one of the youngest members registered with the society.
“Most women our age are now educated and get a good earning job, why will they spend hours working on something that doesn’t help them earn?” asks Bit pointing to his wife standing by the door. “If we have working wives, isn’t it better if she does something that adds to the total income of the family than just investing long hours?”
The hub now has just a few running handlooms. While the area has developed with pakka houses and other amenities, weaving has got nothing to do with it. “I now have a two-storeyed home, a TV and proper bed and multiple meals a day is because my sons have gone out of town to work and support the family. I weave now only because my knee pain doesn’t permit me to do other work, so I stay back home and pull strings to add some money to run the house,” says Krishna Chandra Guin, 46, who has been weaving for three decades.
“While my sons were growing up, we starved for days and got them to eat pest-infested rice. Thankfully those sad days are over. Our days have turned, but sadly it’s not because of the weaving,” the man laments.
There is a provident fund, gratuity, medical allowance, pensions and bonus for weavers provided by the co-operative society, also ensuring there are no middlemen or Mahajans exploiting the weavers. However, what looks good on papers has very little to do with the actual wellbeing of the weavers.
“I have been weaving for almost 60 years now. Yes, the Samity takes care of us but the wages are still very low and not enough for us to sustain a family” says Madanmohan Pal, a 75-year-old weaver of Zamadir tant dhoti, another speciality of the area. “We do get paid regularly, and there is no dearth of work, but working for long hours and getting only in some hundreds for each finished products, there is no way I can support my family.”
The weavers earn somewhere from Rs 130 to Rs 550 per sari depending upon the design and colour of the products, earning more for dark coloured weaves than compared to light coloured saris.
Although the fashion industry is thriving despite its drive towards sustainable fashion by using more handloom products, this results in very little development for weavers. As the yield of the powerloom is always a threat, the only thing working in favour of these weavers are the durability of their goods and their unique Resham paar designs, the signature of Dhaniakhali.