The rattle of the handloom is growing fainter in Ilkal,home to the humble weave.
A rolling brown landscape turns crimson at the horizon,the red pallu streaked with a brilliant band of white the Ilkal sari is like a splendid sunset,its story synonymous with the fragile beauty of Indias lesser-known handloom traditions. Perched on the Solapur-Chitradurga highway,in the Bagalkot district of north Karnataka,is the town of Ilkal,where a fine weave of silk and cotton flourished for hundreds of years. Today,despite the Geographical Indication tag a system by which products peculiar to a geographical region are registered and protected from misuse accorded to the nine-yard wonder fashioned on the looms of Ilkal,the weave is low-profile,catering largely to a niche middle-class and lower-middle-class market in north Karnataka and Maharashtra.
Several yards too long for the modern wearer,and too expensive for a section of its original patrons,the Ilkal sari is struggling to weave its way into a market flooded with cheap replicas. Eighty-one-year-old Kantamma,a resident of Ilkal,has worn the saris all her life,but she can no longer afford to buy a handwoven one. Priced between Rs 800 and Rs 1,200,it costs three times as much as her lilac polyester sari with Ilkal-like borders machine-printed on it. To her credit,Kantamma wears it well,paired with the customary blouse made of Guledgudda khana,a dark-coloured fabric woven on a pit loom with kasuti embroidery running across. Thirty years ago,an Ilkal sari cost Rs 78-80. There were four kinds of borders then,now the gayatri border (a row of round motifs aligned between parallel lines) is impossible to find, she says.
A third of Ilkals population of 60,000 is engaged in weaving and selling saris. There are about 5,000 power looms manufacturing saris in combinations of cotton,silk,rayon or artificial silk and other synthetic fabric. Fewer than 200 handlooms have survived,most of them kept alive by families with alternative sources of income and extra pairs of hands.
Unlike Kanchipuram,Ilkal is a humble weave,marrying silk now glossy rayon or chamka with black cotton weft for a coarser garment. Renuka Engali,46,a weaver for the past 15 years,says it is the cotton,interwoven with over 4,300 strands of rayon,that adds texture to and extends the life of an Ilkal sari. For as long as she can remember,weavers in Ilkal have been working with rayon thread. Silk is too expensive and we use it only for the pallu,which is special and made separately, she says,her hands busy knotting red silk thread with the body of the sari an exercise that takes three to four hours. Her tiny house,one of 250 in a weavers colony built in the 1980s with aid from the Dutch government,is a chaos of colour. Spindles thick with lustrous green and red thread vie for space on a long wall shelf and two rickety looms,25 years old,creak rhythmically with each motion. There is never a moment to be wasted in the Engali household,where Renuka and two of her sons earn a living hand-weaving saris. They weave 20 or 25 a month,on each of which they make a profit of Rs 300-400. But that is not enough to keep the family afloat. One of my sons is employed in a garage. Another is studying. Weaving is not a lucrative trade, she says.
Things are better now,says 28-year-old Shankaramma Waggar. Twenty years ago,weavers had to beg the Marwari businessmen to buy their saris. Now they come to us, she says. Waggar is among the new generation of weavers trying to experiment with colours and motifs. She has woven cotton-by-cotton and silk-by-silk saris in rich purples and blues,with multicoloured stripes and peacock borders. A traditional Ilkal is either plain or chequered,in muted colours,with orange or red borders and a red silk pallu. People want different designs today,but not many handloom weavers are willing to experiment, she says. An Ilkal saris beauty derives not from zari or embellishments,but from threadwork borders and its magnificent red pallu of pure silk. Draped on the heads of local women,it evokes the plumage on an exotic bird. To the trained eye,the jagged edges of the white band that flashes through the pallu tell many stories,their shapes inspired by fort ramparts,mountains,food grain,fine combs,and other memories of an era of prosperity.
The Ilkal weave is very distinctive and could appeal to modern urban sensibilities,says Neelam Chhiber,co-founder of Mother Earth,a clothing and home furnishings chain that builds on the strengths of marginalised craftsmen from rural India. Cotton-silk is a tricky market and it doesnt help that Ilkal is very far from other weaving clusters like Banaras and Kanchipuram. Traditionally,it has not catered to a premium segment of customers. But this could change with a big branding exercise, says Chhiber. There is a very big responsibility on the government, she adds.
The Karnataka Handloom Development Corporation building in Ilkal,also famed for its red granite,is deserted and the lone official,assistant technical officer K Balamurugan,claims the government has done all it can to encourage weavers. Now we let them run their own businesses. Some of them supply to us out of gratitude. Ilkal saris are fetching good prices in the market and their quality has improved in recent years, he says. But in the crowded lanes of the old town,in the midst of the wreckage of a glorious tradition,lives hang by a thread. Thirty-year-old Basavarajs family of five,solely dependent on weaving,owns two looms,a charkha and a shuttle for introducing weft into the warp. When the rustic contraptions break down,work is stalled for days,sometimes weeks. There are no carpenters left who can repair the old looms, says Basavaraj.
Sitaram Pampanna Sarode,who runs a sari shop in the town,says mechanisation and modern design are the need of the hour. Sarode owns 42 looms,15 of them handlooms. We are ready to pay a premium for handloom,but not many weavers are interested in the work. They have found employment in other industries, he says. Sari houses and master weavers now depend on power looms to produce a sari in one-eighth of the time it would take to weave it by hand. The rattle of the handloom is growing fainter in Ilkal,like music flowing from an open window. With the next generation,say weavers,the window will shut forever on the trailing end of a silken heritage.