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Sulochna, 64, weaves on amidst sharp decline of Tamil Nadu's 'legendary' tradecraft

By Niki Sharma* 
Her eyes are fixated on the swinging blocks of the loom, while her fingers and feet move deftly, pacing back and forth as she weaves the pink and green yarn. Crouched on a narrow wooden plank, she continues morphing the bright yarn into a saree. The glimmering sunshine flanking the room is reflected in the golden threading that cleaves the fabric. What she is working on is vastly different from patterned, digitally printed sarees.
Sulochana, a 64-year-old weaver in Tamil Nadu’s Kamalapuram village, is one of the few weavers left here with such apparent mastery over the craft – one that has witnessed a downfall in recent years.
Lifting her gaze from the moving blocks of the wooden machine, she glances at the intersecting warp and weft thread, and says, “I have been doing this for fifty years, and I plan to continue for as long as I can.” Fixing her own sari which keeps falling on the machine, she speaks at length of her cosy den and the way she interlaces threads of different hues here – all day long.
Sulochna spends most of the time in the room, weaving and watching TV, or sometime both simultaneously.
Her frame, dwarfed by the towering loom, may appear insignificant beside it. But look closely and you realise that the pacing fingers fully dominate the machine; it is as big as a bullock cart and occupies half the room. “We bought this machine fifty years ago when I started working. I don’t remember the cost,” she says, adding that it is now worth around Rs 2,500.
The rattling machine bears neither a stamp nor a name. Only nails and tassels prevent it from breaking apart. Though it is frayed at the corners, the machine helps Sulochana weave the sarees – with travail and through toil.
It is difficult to continue the craft when the children choose to follow other tracks. Despite the distribution of free weaving machines by the Government, no one in the village is willing to partake in this traditional craft.
While the distressed machine may remain intact a few years longer, the age-old legacy of weaving at Kamalapuram may soon come to a grinding halt. The number of handloom weavers in Sulochna’s village is dropping, as the preference for power looms has increased, and the young have little interest in learning the craft.
In 2017, 70% of textiles were supplied by power looms, a development that has continued to flank the weaving passions in rural India.
According to an official survey carried out by the Office of the Development Commissioner (Handloom), the number of weaving families reduced from 125 lakh in the 1970s to 44 lakh in 2010. This further eroded the handloom industry.
Despite the distribution of free weaving machines byGovernment, no one in the village is willing to partake in this traditional craft
Despite Sulochana’s long years in the craft, the disquieting knowledge that it is dying lingers in the air; all three of her sons have abandoned weaving. There isn’t enough money in it. Sulochana is aware of the lack of growth the loom industry is facing, but, “All of them are working outside. They do saree trading. One son shuttles between India and Sri Lanka,” she says, pointing at pictures of her children hung on the walls of the living room.
As Sulochana speaks, her husband, Thyagaraj, looks on from one corner of the room. Forty years back, Thyagaraj used to weave sarees too. But an accident forced him to quit and begin selling sarees instead. “I am very proud of my wife for how she works and earns,” Thyagaraj says with a meek smile on a youthful-looking face that belies his 70 years and counting. He yearns to help his wife with weaving, but with no other means of contributing, he believes he does his part by selling sarees.
Adjacent to the massive loom, there is an old TV set and a yarn-strewn cot. “Sometimes, I like to watch TV but I mostly make do with audio as I work most throughout the day,” she says, right before talking about her favourite TV drama, ‘Azhagu’.
To weave one sari, it takes her three days. In a month, Sulochana weaves ten saris. “The method we use is an ancient one which is why it takes so much time," she says. With an earning of Rs 750 for one saree, and Rs 1000 for a saree with more complex patterns, the couple is content with the money they make and can afford to take breaks in between. “The time required for each sari is a lot. I get one holiday after making one saree," Sulochana adds.
There was a time when each of Sulochana’s six siblings wove for a living. But now, they have all chosen different professions. “After we stop weaving, the entire family business is going to die and nobody is there to take it ahead”, says Thyagaraj as he slips into a conversation about the diminution of the weaving craft in rural areas. “The entire village used to weave, but now only a handful are left”.
Even though the Government has taken steps to invigorate weavers, the craft of weaving in rural India still sags on the hinges. Sulochna is getting used to it, trying to pace her fingers with the loom for as long as she can. “I don’t know anything else”, she muttered after reeling off her everyday schedule. The fate of the wooden loom that stands tall in her room and her pacing fingers and feet will perhaps plunge into a larger surrender – into the midst of a dying and neglected craft.
---
*Student, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai

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