Last weavers of Karnataka’s Salikeri: The two sisters keeping the craft alive

Salikeri, a village in Udupi district, was renowned for its handloom weavers but it now has only two women still engaged in the craft.
Last weavers of Karnataka’s Salikeri: The two sisters keeping the craft alive
Last weavers of Karnataka’s Salikeri: The two sisters keeping the craft alive
Written by:

Two women hum a tune over the rhythmic click-clack of a frame loom. One of them twines bundles of threads into smaller rolls using a charaka while the other wraps the thread from the rolls repeatedly around the weaving frames of the loom. 

Inside the lone handloom workshop in Salikeri, an idyllic coastal village in Karnataka’s Udupi district, this is a daily exercise for Vijayashree Shettigar (56) and Mohini Shettigar (49). 

The two sisters are widely considered last remaining weavers of Salikeri, a village which gets its name from the favoured occupation of its residents - weaving. 

Saalayaru in Kannada means weavers and keri means colony. 

But in the last three decades, Salikeri, which once flourished with weavers in almost every household, now has only two women who are still engaged in the craft.

Salikeri, Udupi

“Around 25 years ago, the sound (of the looms) could be heard as soon as you entered the main road leading to the village because there were at least a hundred looms here. This (points to her loom) is now only seen in our house“, Vijayashree says.

Vijayashree and Mohini’s brothers and sisters were among many people in the village who quit the craft. The eldest brother Ganesh Shettigar became a teacher at a school in Kalavara, around 30 km away. Among her other siblings, Ranga Shettigar turned to agricultural work while Subraya Shettigar began doing coolie work for daily wages. Vijayashree’s sisters Prema and Ramani left the profession after getting married. 

Today, Vijayashree is both homemaker and handloom weaver while her husband manages a grocery shop in Salikeri. “It allows me to stay at home and work. We know this is not enough to make ends meet but this is the work our family has been doing for generations and we will be the last ones in the family to do this,” Vijayashree says.

Vijayashree at her home-cum-workshop in Salikeri

Handloom weaving and its origins in coastal Karnataka

Traditional handloom weaving in Udupi district traces its roots to the frame looms or Malabar looms introduced by the Basel Mission, a Christian missionary organisation, in 1844. The Basel Mission set up industrial training by bringing in looms, which are different from the pit looms seen in northern Karnataka. “Christian Missionaries introduced weaving frames that are now seen among handmade weavers in coastal Karnataka as early as the 19th century. It might be one of the first places in India where weaving was done using frame looms,” says Prasanna, a theatre personality and activist from the Grama Seva Sangha, an organisation fighting for a better price for handmade goods.

Handlooms were then popularised across the region by Mahatma Gandhi in the early 20th century. By then, Salikeri had emerged as a village renowned for its handloom weavers. As many as 30-40 families operated handlooms in the village until around 20 years ago, according to Vijayashree. As many as 8 co-operative societies were formed after 1930 at different points to help handloom weavers in the erstwhile South Canara region. This became Dakshina Kannada district when Karnataka was formed and Udupi was carved out of it 1997.

Mohini at her home-cum-workshop in Salikeri, Udupi

But after the emergence of power looms, weavers in Salikeri slowly began turning to other work in order to compensate for the fall in demand for handmade clothes. “Our family stopped weaving because there was very little profit and it was not enough to make a living,” says Satish, a resident of the village. His parents were handloom weavers but Satish now works as a driver. “I still take the clothes woven by the Shettigars to the textile store in Brahmavar but that is my only involvement now,” he adds. 

The decline of handloom weaving in Salikeri coincided with the decline of handloom weaving in the entire coastal Karnataka region. There were as many as 5,000 handloom weavers documented in this region around 25 years ago. Today, there are 52 weavers and more than 85% of them are above the age of 65, according to Mamatha Rai, who formed the Kadike Trust and is currently working towards reviving Udupi sarees.   

Weaving Udupi sarees

Saraswati Shettigar, mother of Vijayashree and Mohini, recalls a time when her family used to weave Udupi sarees. Saraswati continued to practice the profession until two years ago, when, at the age of 83, she was unable to continue working due to pain in her leg. 

Saraswati Shettigar

“I began weaving at a young age soon after my marriage. We used to weave Udupi sarees with simple designs and there were people coming to our house to buy the clothes. Whatever we would weave, we had the belief that it would be sold,” says Saraswati. Udupi sarees, cotton sarees known for its lightness and flexibility, cannot be woven on power looms. It received a Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2016.  

But the two sisters say that they do not make sarees anymore and only make towels. “The entire family was involved in the profession when we made sarees. It is just the two of us working now,” says Mohini. They sell the towels they make at a textile shop in Brahmavar for Rs 60 per piece.

Udupi sarees | Photograph via Udupi Saree Revival, Kadike Trust

Their work takes more than five days sometimes. It begins with dipping the yarn in water before leaving it to dry for three or four days. “We use maida in this stage to make the thread stronger so that they don’t break while weaving. Then the yarn is separated and rolled into big bundles. These bundles are turned into smaller rolls using a charaka,” explains Mohini. The rolls of thread are then made to pass through the weaving frames before they are loaded onto the handloom for weaving.

'Imagine a factory of handloom weavers'

The duo hope that the traditional craft can survive in Salikeri even in the future. They are defiant when they are asked whether they would consider leaving the profession. “We have done this all our lives. We thought about stopping once or twice but we could never go through with it. We cannot imagine stopping something our family has been doing for generations,” says Mohini. 

“We wish people in our village continued weaving. Imagine if we made a factory where handloom weavers are working to make clothes? A generation of people living here would continue weaving instead of becoming drivers, watchmen and office clerks,” adds Vijayashree. 

Her ideas are echoed by activists working to empower artisans of handmade goods. “The handmade products have to compete with the machine-made products not only in production but also in marketing. For example, we should use the ideas of entrepreneurship to empower handloom workers because the biggest challenge is bringing back their confidence and make them feel that they are doing respectable work,” says Abhilash, a member of Grama Seva Sangha.

But despite having hope, Vijayashree admits that if handloom weavers are not supported, the craft that put Salikeri on the map will collapse soon. “My daughters will not continue weaving. They find it laborious and never fully learnt how to handle the charaka, the weaving frames or the loom. When this is the case, it might be true that one day we will see these looms only in museums,” says Vijayashree.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute