BENGALURU: The streets of the temple town of Udupi once echoed with the sound of handlooms in little houses, the smell of pure cotton dominated the air and women in crisp, starched sarees strolled down to temples. These images faded away for many years, erasing from public memory the ‘fine art’ the town once proudly produced.
The history of Udupi sarees dates back to 1844, when Malabar frame looms were introduced by the Basel Mission. Pit loom weaving was an important occupation in undivided Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts. But with the advent of powerlooms, handloom weavers were pushed out of business, leading to a decline in Udupi sari weaving. Meagre remuneration was another factor that diminished the significance of the art.
Mamata Rai, the earliest revivalist of the Udupi saree, was a frequent user before she began reviving the weave. In 2016, when she was handed over one of the last Udupi sarees from Mangalore Weavers’ Society, which was woven on the handloom, she grew worried.
Revival of the weave
Striving to save the GI-tagged, handcrafted Udupi saree, the Kadike Trust initiated revival work in 2018. The trustees visited weavers’ societies, individual active weavers and others who had long abandoned the profession in the two districts. A handful of elderly weavers were still working under the five weavers’ society and some under the Karnataka Handloom Development Corporation (KHDC) unit.
Post a detailed survey in 2018, the trustees learnt there were only 45 weavers who were active, and all of them were aged above 50. The weavers, though passionate about their profession, saw no future in it when the trust approached them. But eventually, in association with the Talipady Weavers’ Society in Kinnigoli, Kadike Trust set off on its journey to revive the age-old saree.
However, with few elderly weavers and youngsters being disinterested, the Trust had to start from scratch. Mamata Rai, president of the Trust, says their greatest challenge was to increase the number of weavers, help existing weavers continue in the profession, and attract the youth towards weaving. But first, they had to create awareness and a market with fair price and better remuneration for the artisans. They took to social media and other platforms to create awareness. “When we started off this work of revival, there was no hope and support. Though many people reached out to us through Facebook and WhatsApp to purchase the sarees, we had to work hard during the initial days. We participated in exhibitions and organic meals in the two districts to sell the sarees and establish a steady market,” she adds.
Six WhatsApp groups were created to market the sarees online at affordable prices, until a website was created with support from NABARD. The online sale of saris is used to support weavers in various ways, like honouring artisans with awards, incentives, wage compensation for new weavers, medical and emergency support.
Pre-revival, the saris were sold locally at just Rs 500-750, but with the intervention of Kadike Trust, they are now sold at Rs 1,100-2,300 at all weavers’ societies. Moreover, the price of the saris and wages to each weaver differ on the basis of count, motif, natural dyes used and designs on the sarees. “I do all the work, including marketing, to support the sustainable job opportunities of the region, which is the sole objective of the Trust,” Mamata says.
Venkatesh Shettigar, a 65-year-old weaver from Kinnigoli, recalls that when he was 20, his village had about 400 weavers. But with the advent of modern garments and rise in the price of cotton thread, they were forced to abandon the art and turn labourers. “I am ever grateful to Kadike Trust for helping us return and pursue the art. Weaving is in my blood. It has helped me financially and also helped the weaving community survive,” he says.
Training as part of revival
When Kadike Trust initiated the Udupi Saree Revival Project in 2018, there weren’t any weavers who were aged under 50 years. New weavers had not joined the profession for three decades, owing to better opportunities outside. It was feared that once the existing elderly weavers (most of them in the 65-82 age group) stopped weaving, it would be difficult to teach the skill.However, with the government laying the rule of minimum 25 people in a training programme who are aged below 50 years, it was difficult to conduct training with support from the department.
So Kadike Trust conducted its own 15-day training programme, comprising six weavers. The training and other revivalist activities inspired elderly weavers to refresh their profession, but the dearth of young weavers persisted. When NABARD approached Kadike Trust in 2020 with a keen interest in the revival project, the Trust explained the non-availability of candidates, post which it understood their plight and agreed to a training programme of less than 20 candidates.
Thereafter, Kadike Trust started a training programme at Talipady Weavers’ Society with its first batch of five trainees in March 2020, for two months. “Today, students from design schools approach the trust for their project work, which benefits both weavers and students. With transfer of knowledge from senior weavers to new weavers, there is hope for revival,” says Mamata. Five months ago, Udupi Zilla Panchayat and Udupi Society and Weaver communities started training 25 participants.
When Kadike Trust first came forward to revive the Udupi saree, one of their motives was to save the sustainable local sarees from extinction. The making of the Udupi saree is an eco-friendly process, and has the potential to provide jobs locally.
Sadhana Shettigar from Kinnigoli, a diploma graduate who is a weaver under the Talipady Weavers’ Society, says she joined the training programme by Kadike Trust because she was attracted to the eco-friendly method of making the sarees. “Weaving supports me financially. The process of making the sarees is healthy and keeps me fit and away from physical ailments, when I used to sit in front of a computer for work,” she adds.
Jaya Ramesh, a frequent user of the Udupi saree, says, “The cotton weaves are harmless and very comfortable. They are easy to maintain and soften after every wash. The price of these sarees is worth the process they go through and I respect the hand that weaves. I support the revival project by Kadike Trust in every way”.