by Kaustav Roy
As the world moves towards Artificial Intelligence and Internet-of-Things, there are parts of it which are struggling to exist. This story takes you through one such journey about the Devanga weavers in Karnataka’s Basavanna Bagewadi.It aims to showcase their struggles and compromises as they try to keep pace with this rapidly changing world where Technology is the King.
It was a dusty afternoon. The kaccha roads looked empty. A flock of people sat near the thatched tea stall. A commotion could be heard as a woman dressed in all black and vermillion on her forehead walked briskly across the dusty road.
Soon the commotion faded away with the people moving in different directions, another sound could be heard coming out from one of the mud houses on the opposite side of the street.
This new sound was coming from a tiny mud house with thatched roof.
A frail 40-something year old Savitri Dhawalge stood near a rickety old wooden weaving loom as she her veiny hands operated the machine at a rapid pace.
The loud clattering noise from the machine filled the room. She changed the cotton reel only to reveal the incomplete tiny school shirt which a little toddler from one of Karnataka’s public schools might wear on her first day to school.
Coming from a family of Devanga weavers, she had started to learn the art of weaving as a child. Her family was from the same village where she now resides— Wandal,a small sleepy village located in the Basavanna Bagewadi taluk in Karnataka’s Bijapur.After her marriage, she started working alongside her now late husband and produced fine Ilkal sarees.
The Devanga people live in the southern part of India with concentrations found mainly in Karnataka, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Historically, this group of people have been identified as weavers. According to their mythological accounts (Devanga Purana) as stated in Devanga Association of North America’s website, they trace their origins back to a sage called Devala Maharishi. The accounts also state that this sage was the first person to weave cloth out of cotton for the Hindu god, Shiva.
They are one of the 19 Central Government recognized weaving communities in India.
The Devanga population in Bijapur district has been stated as 18,473. However,the data is based on the 1971 census and is derived from a research work titled, “Caste Politics of Bijapur district in Karnataka with particular reference to Badami taluka 1971 onwards” by M H Chalawadi.
They are also called locally Nekars.
Now Savitri’s livelihood depends on weaving contracts from the Karnataka Handloom Development Corporation. She produces school uniforms which are used in government owned schools across Karnataka.
Basavanna Bagewadi: The Weaver’s Trail
Death of Ilkal
“There used to be a time when I used to produce Ilkal sarees…Now it is just the school uniforms,” she said.
She receives Rs 500 per 22 metres of cloth reel used to produce the uniforms.
The KHDC officer at Wandal said that they provide the weavers with cloth reels at no cost which are then used to produce items such as uniforms, towels. The officer at the KHDC office added that there are currently 80 handlooms in the village and no powerlooms.
“We can’t afford a powerloom…no one in this village has one,” said her daughter who currently stays at the house with her mother and helps her sustain their steady livelihood.
Savitri pointed out that their only handloom was in a very poor state and said that they can’t even afford to repair or replace it.
“I am happy to make uniforms for school children…Its simpler and easier to make…my daughter has been a great help in all this,” she said and looked with an approving smile at her daughter.
She added that they have heard of loan schemes but they are not sure whether their cloth contracts will be enough to pay off the installments.
The story was a bit different in a nearby village.
“There are currently 350 weavers and around 200 looms in the village out of which there are number of powerlooms,” said SP Kaldki,President of the local weavers’ association.
He added that there used to be 600 weavers even ten years back.But that number has decreased as there is no demand for products that they produce.
“We make Ilkal sarees here. But there is little demand in Karnataka for them…Most of our sales take place in Maharashtra,” said Basappa Ganiyar Karawa,who owns a powerloom in the village.
Girimal Basappa,a weaver from Golasangi said he had taken a loan of Rs 2 lakhs last year and is finding is difficult to meet the installments.
“It takes 4 days and Rs 400 to produce a single piece of Ilkal saree,” he added.Plus, he has to bring in additional labour and pay them for the daily work.Savitri’s reflected the same condition however,she never has made enough to be able to afford outside labour.
His daughter Ranjitha helps him out at the workshop
Pictures from a prosperous past
exhibiting Ilkal sarees produced at his workshop
A contractual weaver working in his workshop.He gets paid Rs 100 for each day’s work.
The number of women working in this sector is much higher than men, said Kaldki.
A common sentiment that came up during conversations was that most men in the community no longer participate in the weaving trade instead leave it to the womenfolk.
Savitri’s son does not stay at home and help his mother in their weaving business.
“My son has to go the NTPC plant for work everyday…He works as a labourer there…We were too poor to give them education after school…He can’t stay back like his father and help me in the weaving business,” she said.
“Without my son’s job ,it would have been very difficult to make ends meet,” Savitri said as if silently thanking her stars for providing her son with the job.
She said that the weaving business no longer is enough to sustain their family and therefore, her son had to take up the job at the plant.
“Most young people now prefer to work in restaurants,construction.It pays them more,”said Kaldki.
However,the weavers have tried to diversify into other products.They now make towels,aprons,socks.But nothing has really bolstered their economy
Sivakumar,a worker in a weaver’s cooperative workshop at Nidagundi said he has been working for the last 30 years and has seen the decline in their weaving community.
He said the lack of powerlooms is mainly due to erratic electricity supply.Even though the taluk has a NTPC plant,a hydroelectricity project at Almatti and an array of windmills.
He added that their local association used to have a President (SK Gowda) however,currently they don’t have a person to represent them.Currently, they don’t have a person to represent them.
The Kuppasts of Nidagundi
The household of Kariayappa Basava Kuppast is located in a dingy lane away from the main road.However,the structure looked grand as it stood on an enormous rock.
The house had the typical zamindar house one would often find in North India with a spacious courtyard in the middle.The walls had a series of family pictures,both b/w and coloured ones.
One of his son is settled abroad as a doctor while the other helps with the family business.
Kariyappa’s wife pointing to one of the pictures said, “My eldest son completed his MBBS here and went to America.He never had any interest in the weaving business…he got married last year to a nice girl from our village…my younger son helps us a lot with the business.”
Ladies from the neighbourhood sat in circle in the courtyard as Basavaraj Karaveerappa Kuppast,the younger son showed them the intricately crafted Ilkal sarees.
One of the women who was part of the group said, “We came from Nashik from my nephew’s wedding…Whenever I come visit my sister, I pick up a few sarees from here…”
Kariayappa was an enterprising man and had tried to bring in other weavers from his neighbourhood and started a business in his house. As he gave a detailed tour of his weaving workshop,he pointed out the main complex machinery he had developed to simplify the weaving process.
While reeling one of his machines stationed in of the rooms,he said, “In this one you can make complex saree designs in no time.But you have to reel in all the threads properly,he added as he intricately put in around a 100 threads lines.
A quick look up the broad stone steps revealed looms and machines from a bygone era. Most of them rotting; waiting to fade away into oblivion.
“We have ten looms…three of them are powered and are in working condition.”
His mother, who was curious about the new strangers in the house, spoke in crude Hindi, “There used to be so many more people. Now no one wants to work…It is just us left.”
GA Waghmore,a KHDC textile inspector in Bijapur said that the production has not gone down significantly.The problem is there is no demand at all for goods that the nekars produce like Ilkal sarees and towels.
“Whatever the consumption is…it is largely local,” he added.
The Vishwa Programme aims to formally equip the weavers with advanced weaving skills.
However, Savitri said that neither she nor her daughter have never received any training or been part of a formal training programme organized by the KHDC.
The Ministry of Textiles recently launched the “Hastkala Sahyog Shivir” which plans to host textile camps and extend benefits to weaving communities across 200 weaving clusters in India.Golasangi which is a part of the initiative hosted a rally under the initiative in November 2017.
Girimal feels that the KHDC even though a government initiative to promote weavers in Karnataka has not entirely been successful to part its role.He said that the payout needs to increase for the weavers’ to stay in the profession.
On the other hand,Kaldki said that the government subsidies has really helped them to keep the cooperative workshed at Golasangi running.
Neeta Shah, AGM Merchandising of GoCoop,a handloom e-commerce website, said that the company currently based in four cities – Bangalore,Hyderabad,Bhubaneswar and New Delhi has extensively worked with handloom clusters across the country including Karnataka.They have conducted training programmes,workshops and the response has been good till now.
The Central government and state government schemes for weavers have failed to achieve their targets especially in Basavana Bagewadi.
A possible scenario where the government helps out the weavers’ with subsidy whereas the private players provide the training and handle sales can help to revolutionise the weaving scene.
Private startups can bring in disruptive technology and viral marketing strategies to the table which can give the scene the necessary boost.For example,Fab India brought ethnic products produced in rural areas and gave them a market.
A private startup can go on experimental mode and entirely overhaul the networks of production and distribution. Some textile and clothing based startups are even experimenting with clothes-on-rent and try-and-buy which will give the potential customers a chance to tryout before actually purchasing it.
In conclusion, there needs to be more private and government partnership in this particular sector so that it uplifts it as well as benefits the weavers.