The handloom business has suffered various setbacks over the years, with inadequate wages discouraging artisan weavers from pursuing the work.

A weaver working on a hand loom in Mangalagiri
news Business Thursday, February 18, 2021 - 18:28

In the Old Mangalagiri neighbourhood, the streets are filled with storefronts and signboards of handloom stores. Situated around 17 km from Vijayawada, Mangalagiri town in Guntur district is famous for its unique handloom weaves. While the handloom business continues to be the town’s defining feature, over the years the number of looms and artisan weavers have gone down substantially. The town, which had around 10,000 looms in the early 2000s, now has less than 2,000 active looms, as estimated by those who continue to run handloom businesses in the town. 

The reasons for the decline include rising production costs, competition from power looms, and stagnant, inadequate wages driving weavers to find jobs with better pay. These adversities, which have persisted over the past few years, have worsened during the pandemic and its aftermath, according to weavers and master weavers. 

In previous years, when handloom weaving was largely a local business, the main product  was cotton ‘kattubadi’ sarees mainly worn by agricultural workers and other labourers, according to Ganji Ravindra, who runs a handloom business in the town. “From the 1960s to early 1990s, these affordable sarees were worn by women from the working class. Wealthier customers would buy the more expensive varieties with zari borders etc. The local demand went down over time as prices went up and the sarees became less affordable for workers,” says Ravindra. The local market was eventually superseded by exports of sarees and fabric to other states and major clothing stores like Fabindia since the ‘90s, he adds. 

A loom in the work shed of Tek7 Handlooms in Mangalagiri 

While the production costs have continued to rise over the years, power loom imitations available at much lower prices has meant that the market rates couldn’t be increased accordingly, in turn affecting artisan weavers’ wages, say master weavers in Mangalagiri who run handloom businesses. “Earlier, the sarees were considered to be comfortable and of good quality, suitable for work, especially in the summer. Today Mangalagiri sarees have become more like an artefact, like the Kondapalli toys. They’re not considered to have the utility they did earlier,” says Ramakrishna, a weaver.  

Reviving business after lockdown 

“During demonetisation, followed by GST, and now the lockdown, we have seen the business being hurt. Production cost and overall prices have increased. Use of these clothes for daily wear purposes has gone down,” says Ravindra, adding that over the past two months, yarn rates have gone up drastically. 

According to Giri Babu, production manager at Tek7 Handlooms, the costs of fabric dye and zari have also gone up along with yarn, driving up production costs by about Rs 100 per saree since the lockdown. Yarn is usually bought from Hindupur in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, while the dye and zari come from Mumbai and Surat. 

In  some cases, orders placed before the lockdown have been withheld, and that stock is still waiting to be cleared. Thatha Rao, who handles sales at a handloom store, says that some clothing companies that had placed big orders have not been able to purchase them yet due to the aftermath of the lockdown. “These companies are also now starting to show an inclination towards power looms as they cost a lot less and are less likely to have even small defects,”  he says. Overall, master weavers say that while the business is back to functioning normally, no one is really happy or enthusiastic. “Earlier we used to be after the weavers with deadlines and targets. Now there’s no reason to rush. At a slow pace, work is continuing because there’s no other choice,” says Thatha Rao. 

Ravindra says that after the lockdown was lifted, local demand went up briefly, during festivals and the wedding season. But with the more recent hike in prices, the status of the business in the coming months is likely to be precarious, he says. 

Support for artisans and weavers 

Artisan weavers say that wages were already inadequate even before the lockdown, discouraging future generations from pursuing the profession. Members of the Padmashali weaving community have been migrating to other jobs like gold jewelry business and other clerical jobs, where income is higher than that of weavers, who make an average of around Rs 10,000 a month when business is good.  

“Apart from the skill for weaving with intricate detail, the work also needs dedication and zeal for the craft. You sit at the loom for two days to make a saree, and yet the pay is as much or less than what you would make as a daily wage worker. You have to be careful to avoid mistakes or defects, so the work is not viable or interesting for younger people from the community. Almost none of the weaving families have younger generations continuing the work. Most of us have been in the weaving profession for around 40 years, and are possibly the last generation of weavers in the town,” says Srinivas, a 55-year-old weaver. 

The lockdown was a sudden blow on the financially precarious weavers. As production stopped for over a month, weavers were dependent on master weavers to provide basic financial support. While each artisan would typically weave around 12 to 15 sarees a month, in the first few months since the lockdown was announced, work fell to around three to four sarees a month.

A few weavers say that while co-operative societies of weavers have become supportive networks over time in other parts of the state, in Mangalagiri, they have not worked so well. Several weavers’ cooperatives that came up in the town have failed and shut down over the years, they say. 

Ravindra says that the Mangalagiri handloom business continues to be dominated by private sector master weavers. While about 30% of the business is in cooperative societies which sell their products to the government, business is often dull as the payment cycles are slower than in private businesses, he says. 

In 2019, Mangalagiri MLA from YSRCP Alla Ramakrishna Reddy had said the state government had allocated Rs 200 crore for weavers’ welfare. The state government had even announced a scheme called YSR Nethanna Nestham, to provide an annual aid of Rs 24,000 for each weaver’s family. In 2020, the aid was disbursed months ahead of schedule due to the losses suffered amid the pandemic. However, the scheme is only applicable to weavers who have their own loom in their homes, and not those who work at a master weaver’s workshed. 

In Mangalagiri town, however, the majority of weavers are those who are employed in workshed looms. “Production has always been more streamlined in the town, with master weavers providing raw material and specifying the design and requirements. That’s the reason the town became a weaving hub in the first place. Whether the loom is at home or in a workshed, the wages and dependence on master weavers is the same,” says Ravindra. 

Giribabu, a beneficiary of the scheme who works on his loom at his house in Weavers’ Colony, argues that it’s the weavers in worksheds who are more precarious and in need of support. Several master weavers also say that they have been unable to increase wages, and the scheme would be a boost for their weavers, as well as ancillary workers involved in other steps of the process like dying the yarn. 

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