Although the pandemic has left the weaving industry in Balaramapuram hanging by a thread, the weavers hope to regain pride of place for their fine work
Abhilash Rajendran is still spinning gold at Payattuvila, a small village on the outskirts of Balaramapuram, 20 kilometres from Thiruvananthapuram.
Payattuvila is one of the many places around Balaramapuram that weave the GI-tagged Balaramapuram cottons that Thiruvananthapuram is famous for.
On a Sunday prior to Onam, at least 40 weavers, men and women, are hard at work weaving dhothis, saris and Kerala’s traditional settu-mundu. Despite the two lockdowns, Abhilash and his father, Rajendran K, are determined to keep the work going at their centre, Sree Nandanam Handloom.
“My forefathers were weavers and I learnt weaving at the age of 14 from a master weaver at Kattachalkuzhi. In those days, almost every house in the vicinity of Balaramapuram had a loom,” says Rajendran.
In dark, dusty sheds, on the trademark pit looms of Balaramapuram are woven the fine unbleached cotton cloth with gold borders that has put the place on the fashion map of India.
Pivoting around the pandemic
The pandemic came as a blow in 2020 when their looms had to be shut down for three months. “We incurred heavy losses and we still have not recovered from it. As a result, not many of us can afford the real kasavu (zari) used to weave the gold borders. The real kasavu is thread plated with silver and then real gold. The price varies with the prices of gold and silver. So many of us have switched to weaving with second-quality kasavu, which is copper plated,” explains S Asokan, secretary of Venganoor Village Integrated Handloom Weavers’ Development Cooperative Society.
While the price for fabric woven with real kasavu is from ₹10,000 onwards for a Kerala sari with a narrow border of kasavu, it tumbles down to around ₹2,000 when second quality kasavu is used, say the weavers.
For the same reason, at the six-acre Eco Tex Handloom Consortium at Machavilakam, a consortium of 26 weaving cooperatives set up by master weaver Gopinath, the only weaver to be honoured with a Padma Shri, just one weaver is working with the real kasavu.
“Powerloom-woven dhothis and saris are forcing the real handlooms out of the market as it is much cheaper. The quality is inferior to that of the handlooms that we weave. Although the government has announced schemes to help the handloom weavers, the authorities must appoint handloom inspectors who can verify that the handlooms sold are authentic,” says the master weaver. After the lockdowns, there are only 350 women weavers at the consortium as against 1,000 in 2019.
The prices of the authentic handloom go up as it is a labour intensive process involving many hands and hundreds of hours of hard work,” explains designer Alan Alexander Kaleekkal of brand RAHÉL in Thiruvananthapuram.
Each worker gets between ₹500 to ₹750 depending on the number of pieces woven every day. One Kerala sari takes eight to 10 hours of work a day over a period of five to six days. The motifs are inspired from local lore, flora and fauna such as peacocks, mangoes, paisley, leaves and geometric designs including polka dots, lines and checks.
The weavers at the looms
Binukumar, a weaver trained by Rajendran, smiles as he works dexterously on a designer Kerala sari with mango motifs. It is being woven for one the oldest boutique shops selling Balaramapuram handlooms. “The mark of our handlooms is that since the motifs are handwoven, the design is the same on both sides of the cloth. If it is machine woven, the design will be only one side,” he says as he arranges the thread carefully to weave a pink mango on the cream sari with a golden border.
The kasavu is bought from Surat where cotton thread is plated with pure silver and then gold plated. “At present a reel of real kasavu varies between ₹16,000 and ₹20,000. It varies in accordance with the prices of silver and gold,” says Abhilash.
In another shed at Payattuvila, men are weaving with jacquard cards on which are punched designs to be made with the kasavu. Showing a pattern being made on the border of a dhothi, Abhilash says with a smile that it is the same designer dhothi that Mohanlal sports in an upcoming film, Aarattu.
“It was woven here for the film. The design is punched on cards with computers or manually with the help of design graphs and the threads form the design accordingly as the warp and weft are moved to form the cloth,” he explains. Another dhothi’s border has Kathakali faces as a motif. Abhilash says it is an Onam special that is popular.
“The Onam season is almost over and we haven’t really been able to recoup our losses. We are looking forward to the marriage season and house-warming functions that usually take place in the month of Chingam (August-September) in the Malayalam calendar. For weddings, most customers insist on real kasavu and that helps us,” says Rajendran even as he is busy weaving the mundu of a pudava.
A dhothi for a bridegroom with the famous tamarind leaf motif, known as puliela kara in Malayalam, is being woven on an adjacent loom.
Rajendran, who has woven for the Lakme Fashion Week Shows and leading designers, is confident that with a helping hand, they would be able to revive the glory of their legacy.
“We have the skill and the know-how. All we need are customers to support us. We also weave customised designs,” says Abhilash.