Narayanpet weavers fight to keep Kalamkari & handloom alive

In this era of industrialisation, weavers and artisans are trying to revive age-old craft of Kalamkari and the handloom sector in a bid to preserve their roots
A Kalamkari artist Prasad is seen working on a saree
A Kalamkari artist Prasad is seen working on a sareeExpress

HYDERABAD: While Kalamkari, which literally translates to craftsmanship, found its voice through the retelling of Hindu mythology, this art form is mentioned in ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain literature. Kalamkari and the subsequent handloom sector spread in the region due to the patronage of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. Cut to modern times, when the dyed block-painting of fabric has been hit by the ever-industrialising textile sector. However, refusing to be bogged down by capitalistic forces, weavers and artists from Narayanpet are striving to keep the craft and the handloom industry alive apart from preserving the local heritage.

Even just over a decade ago, the Machilipatnam Kalamkari in undivided Andhra Pradesh received the Geographical Indication (GI) from the Government of India in 2008. While the Krishna district in AP is known for this art form, Kalamkari sarees from Narayanpet are well-known for their unique border designs and fine artistry, which involves a lengthy and laborious process.

While handloom sarees involve dying, warping and weaving, a Kalamkari piece also needs dying the borders in red and black and hand-painting the designs, amongst other lengthy processes.

The Covid-19-induced lockdown adversely affected the sector and left many local weavers unemployed, making it difficult for them to survive and forcing them to give up the craft. However, some of them decided to take up the handloom work again, out of their love and attachment for the art.

The handloom industry has been a source of employment for local artisans, especially women, who have been in the profession for many years and have also been passing on the legacy to the next generations.

78-year-old Kasturi works the looms in Narayanpet district | Express
78-year-old Kasturi works the looms in Narayanpet district | Express

An object of admiration

For 78-year-old Kasturi, who has been a weaver since childhood, working on the hefty wooden handloom is almost second nature to her after working in the handloom sector for more than five years now. “I come from a family of weavers and was exposed to weaving since childhood. I took up handloom work after my wedding as a means of earning as I was the sole breadwinner. Later, I developed an admiration towards it. Now I feel more responsible towards preserving the rich heritage of weaving and somewhere consider it as a small contribution towards that effort,” she tells TNIE.

Each weaver earns anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 6,000 for a saree, depending on the design while their monthly income comes up to about Rs 15,000, which, according to them, is not enough to sustain a family.

Another 45-year-old weaver, Hemlatha, who has been working as a weaver for 10 years, speaks about the challenges faced by the community with the high demand for readymade garments and little value and awareness for handloom.

“It is becoming extremely difficult to continue with this work due to poor payments for the tedious and laborious work. Every day comes with its own set of challenges as I manage my children and family and then come to work. If the weather is supportive, we can weave a good number of sarees in a month, but with bad weather, the work becomes slow and that affects our earnings too,” Hemlatha adds.

P Prasad, a Kalamkari artisan, who belongs to a family of weavers, says he learnt the craft from his father. While he worked as a weaver from a young age, he turned to Kalamkari as it pays higher wages, he adds.

“Making a Kalamkari saree is very difficult,” he explains. “The process of creating colours and dyeing the fabric is lengthy and meticulous. Since I work with natural colours, the effort and time required are greater compared to synthetic dyes. Beyond earning a decent income, my hope is for society and the industry to appreciate our artwork, acknowledge the effort we put into preserving the original craft and recognise us as valuable contributors to the craft industry. Often, we feel neglected, which can be demoralising, but it’s our genuine love for the art that keeps us going.”

Kalamkari artistans earn between Rs 4,000 and 15,000 for one saree, depending on the design.

Konda Kavitha Reddy, designs, textile revivalist and founder of Kavidhara Handlooms, who has been in the handloom industry for over 20 years, works with the Narayanpet weavers and artisans. Reviving the industry, which is nearing extinction, is the need of the hour, she emphasises.

Speaking to TNIE, Kavitha says, “What legacy are we leaving for our future generations? It’s crucial that we revive our textiles, designs, weaving techniques and unique and authentic art forms for their sake. The primary challenge we face now is preserving the originality of designs specific to certain regions, as they are being diluted by other influences, losing their authenticity. Unfortunately, this holds true even for Narayanpet handloom sarees.”

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