Godha Vishnu, who had travelled to south Bengaluru’s Banashankari from the other end of the city to attend a programme organised by Tamilnadu Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society Ltd popularly known as Co-optex recently, was moved by the tag displaying name and picture of the 55-year-old Mohan, who had woven the elegant green Dindugul cotton saree she bought.
This is the industry-first initiative of Co-optex. “The aim was to ensure a bond between the weaver and the wearer at the time when many are quitting traditional professions to wade out of poverty,” says Venkatesh Narasimhan, managing director of Co-optex that completed 82 years this month.
On the stage, two male employees of Co-optex held hand-woven sarees one after the other while many from the audience took notes, and captured the rich colours and intricate weaves on their mobiles.
Explaining the fascinating story behind each of these sarees and the centuries-old crafts over the mic with slides was Narasimhan, the IAS officer credited for the co-operative’s turnaround.
The lecture-demonstration of hand-woven sarees got an upbeat response from the women audience. “A few years ago, the only time we would step into a Co-optex showroom was during Pongal sales to pick up towels or veshtis in bulk. No way, for sarees or any trendy wear,” says Chitra Saisekar, holding on to the pile she had picked up at the counter.
With 200 showrooms across India and 1.5 lakh members, who are part of 1,400 societies of the innermost towns of Tamil Nadu, Co-optex is the country’s largest weavers’ co-operative society.
“It takes 16 days to make a silk saree and a cotton saree on an average takes three days to complete. Weavers need a lot of hand-holding and mentoring. Instead of imposing decisions from the head office, we involve them in designing and make them understand the need for change,” says Narsimhan. “Five designers, including those from National Institute of fashion Technology (NIFT) and National Institute of Design (NID), have been handpicked to work with the weavers, giving a contemporary twist to classic designs.”
India’s handloom sector is the largest cottage industry employing close to 13 million weavers, and weaving is the second largest economic activity after agriculture.“From time to time, weavers are taken on exposure visits. With their help, we have successfully revived seven lost weaves, including Koorainadu and Sungudi and Kanchi cotton. Co-optex has always worked for weavers’ empowerment,” says Narsimhan, adding that Co-optex has also gone for a social media thrust to drive awareness and sales, clocking `1 crore via its Facebook page.
“You should know what you are wearing. When you do that, people respect you,” says Sreemathy Mohan, a Chennai-based techie and a saree enthusiast, who conducts textile walks in the city. “Co-optex is a model of what passion can achieve. The best pattu (silk) is the government pattu. Besides, if you can bring disillusioned weavers back to their looms, that’s an added benefit.”
The co-operative makes 25 different types of sarees, working with silk, silk cotton and pure cotton. Popular among them are Chettinadu cotton sarees made by weavers in the Karaikudi area of Sivaganga district; Manamedu cottons of Trichy known for rich traditional motifs such as mango, diamonds or the ‘vankhi’; Chinnalapatti woven in the tie and dye technique in weft and border with half-fine zari; Kancheepuram silks that are a must in every South Indian bride’s trousseau; Coimbatore ‘soft silks’; and Madurai Sungudi.