The Dying Art Form of Rabkavi Banahatti

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Banahatti handloom sarees are being overpowered by the boom in the power loom industry of the district.

Shiva lives in Banahatti, a small village in the district of Bagalkot, Karnataka which echoes with the loud sounds of power looms preparing sarees. He is one of those people who has moved away from the handloom business and now works as a mechanic at a run-down car repair store. He would wake up every day, have his breakfast of chapatti and leave for work at the break of dawn, hoping to earn some money by repairing cars and electronics to feed his family of six. His cousin brother, who lives down the street from his house, owns a power loom and earns his living through it. He said that he didn’t pursue that business because his father told him not to take it up.

“My father used to earn his living through two hand looms in our house and he has been in the business for quite some generations, owing at least Rs 2 lakhs to the bank,” informed Shiva. Shiva also said that the loans are getting piled up because of the cloth material being sold at very cheap prices and that makes it extremely difficult for them to make ends meet.

  • Handloom weaver weaves a saree on his old-school handloom machine.

Jyotiba, another handloom weaver said that they sell one cloth-piece of 1.3 meters to 2.25 meters for Rs 200-Rs 300, whereas a simple saree of 8 meters is sold for Rs 350. Banahatti’s multicoloured handloom sarees made of pure cotton, in most cases, have little to no designs on them but are breathable and comfortable in nature. They are worn on festive occasions in the village. In Andra Pradesh, handloom sarees are sold for Rs 1500 on average.

Jyotiba narrated his problem of keeping his business alive as he has not been able to pay his loan of Rs 1.4 lakhs for 2 years now. He also mentioned that he can’t move from hand loom to other means of work as he doesn’t know anything other than making sarees.

The handloom business in the district of Bagalkot has gone through a period incredible boom in its time. Ramchandra,the managing director at the Karnataka Hand Loom Development Corporation (KHDC) said, “In the 80s, Banahatti handloom sarees were in huge demand but now that mill-made sarees and power looms have taken over, and the fact that many handloom weavers cannot afford the power loom machine, handloom, especially in Rabkavi Banahatti district has seen a steep fall. It’s not just the handloom either. These mill-made textiles are also affecting the sale of power loom sarees for obvious reasons. Mill-made textile takes very little time for preparation while hand loom takes at least a week and power loom takes two to three days to make.”

Even though the traditional power loom and handloom businesses in Rabakavi Banahatti are prominent; power looms taking over sarees while hand looms stick to making cloth pieces and simple sarees, people are particularly moving away from hand looms as the years go by and letting the art form die, through which the number of handlooms is decreasing drastically.

In Banahatti, there are 1427 handlooms off which, only 636 are still working. It’s the same case in Rabkavi with 1083 looms in total and only 697 still working, according to a February 2019 data provided by the KHDC.

While hand looms slowly diminish from the weaving community of the district, there are people who still continue their livelihood through handlooms and try to keep it alive. Mahesh Abakar, a student studying B.Com at STC Arts and Commerce College in Banahatti, and his family have been earning their daily bread by making sarees since his grandfather bought the handloom machine some 30 to 40 years back. His father, who is an old man now, still works on the machine every day while Mahesh lends a hand every once in a while. “Habit, can’t get rid of it,” is what Mahesh’s father says whenever Mahesh tries to stop him. “His arms and feet are sore. His shoulders barely making it through the day. He needs rest but he never listens to me.”

He tried narrating his story as much as he could, given the fact that the noise his father made while operating the handloom machine was nearly deafening to the ear. The sound stopped when Mahesh started to talk about his daily struggles; that’s when Mahesh’s father pitched in. “I’ve been working on this machine for at least 10 years now. Mahesh keeps telling me to stop but how? I’m so used to it now. My incapability to adapt to other means of employment is also another reason why I cannot stop. Mahesh is still studying and someone needs to pay for his education.”

Trying to find handloom weavers in a village comprising mostly of power loom weavers is difficult but it surprises you after you get to know how similar their problems are once you find them. Shobha Mundaganur and her family of five, who works for a master weaver, weave raw cloth that then gets sold by the master weaver to industries that develop that cloth into towels, bed sheets, lungis, pant/shirt pieces, etc. They introduced us to an old man named Pandit Shankarappa Bilagi who has been a headmaster in a local Banahatti school, teaching history to kids.

He explained that “Our children would never take up handloom as a career. We would never want that. We’re educating them and going through the pain of making sarees every day just so that they wouldn’t have to.” Shobha agreed instantly and told us about how it’s hard for her and her husband to make payments while trying to pay for her children’s education. Her three adolescent children, a boy and two girls, help with their work occasionally while she makes sure that she buys a beam of raw cotton for Rs 5000, prepare 20 meters of cloth in eight days and sells it to the Karnataka Handloom Development Corporation (KHDC). She would then earn Rs 200-600 in a week, and keep her family afloat.

Most of the handloom and power loom weavers are divided into two groups. One group consists of weavers who have bought the machines at home. The family works on the machines. The other group consists of people who either work for a master-weaver from home or they work in cooperative houses individually.

Neelakanth Muttur, the president and master weaver of the Handloom Owners’ Association in Rabkavi said that handloom workers are drunkards and spend all their money on alcohol, trying to justify why they shouldn’t be paid more than they do right now. He also said that they do get facilities from the government like free school fees, free school uniform, and shoes.

According to Ramchandra, handloom workers earn less than Rs 200 a day. The government was made aware of how bad the condition of the weavers is. That is why we have schemes like Vidya Vikas Scheme which provides free uniforms to the children of handloom weavers who study in government schools, and a Hand Loom Reservation Act in place.

 

People’s Archives of Rural India (PARI) explained the act in brief. “The Act provides for the reservation of 11 textile articles for exclusive production by handlooms. It prohibits the production of articles exclusively reserved for handlooms, by other means. It gives the central government the power to summon information or samples of the textile articles as well as inspect and seize them. It also includes a penalty for whoever produces articles or class of articles in contravention of an order. It mandates that entities/companies be punished when an offence under this Act has been committed.”

Madhav Kotyal, the vice president of the association, said that the other reason for the decline could be because of the production work being outsourced to Maharashtra as the weavers here ask for ‘huge amounts of money as advance’ before signing in to work for the master weavers. “None of them work without a hefty advance,” added Neelakanth Muttur.

According to Shankarappa Bilagi, only three to five hand loom saree-makers are left in Banahatti. The weavers, who were almost 50-60 years old, spoke about how their predecessors started making sarees almost 70 to 80 years back on their huge old hand loom machines. The saree-weaving process in that small warehouse, on three huge handloom machines which fit snugly in the space of their small warehouse. The weavers said that its “just us few now. Handloom sarees will eventually fade once we are gone.” An old woman in her 70s sits outside the warehouse and works on a charkha (spindle) to make a thread for the sarees. “After I am gone, there would be no one left to make these beautiful sarees.”

Janhavi Phanashikar, a fashion designer who specialises in textile designs explained how an art form like the Banahatti saree can be revived from the brink of death. “Many well-known designers like Vaishali Shadangule are using handloom sarees and fabrics for their collection in fashion shows. For the Indian weather, handloom is very comfortable. We can use handloom outfits for daily/casual use. For festive or party wear, people prefer synthetics or silk because of its looks and feel. Handloom fabrics take more maintenance like ironing or sometimes colour fixation. So, its usage is declined. Synthetic fabrics are easy to maintain. We can bring back handloom in the market by conscious use of sarees and fabrics. Use of power looms increased because of more outcome. But in today’s times, handmade products can be brought back in trend if we all keep trying to keep it alive.”

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