Kerala has a longstanding tradition of weaving and handloom production, dating back to hundreds of years, once known worldwide and applauded for its uniqueness. Over the years the industry has diminished; low wages and uncertainty in the employment pattern has left weavers in a state of total despair. Thousands of looms lie idle and the future of this age-old tradition looks bleak.
K Sudhir, Director, Handloom and Textiles, while talking to TNM said that the state now has only around 20,000 weavers who are registered under various textile society corporations.
“Kerala had around 2 lakh weavers before 2000s; the number reduced to around 50,000 in the early 2000s and has now dwindled to around 20,000. Apart from low wages, the industry faces tough competition from Tamil Nadu as their products are priced at a much lower rate,” says Sudhir.
Authorities and government officials claim that close to 19,000 looms are idle in the state.
“We had quite a large number of weavers and looms a few years back. In the recent past the numbers have reduced drastically. According to the data available with the government, close to 19,000 looms are idle in the state,” says TV Vinod, Managing director, Kerala Artisans Development Corporation.
Strenuous labour with poor pay
70-year-old Omana started weaving when she was 13. Even with 57 years of experience under her belt, her monthly income is only between Rs 2500 and Rs 3000.
“I started weaving when I was 13. This is the only work I know. My meagre income is not sufficient to meet ends. My husband is bedridden and I am the sole breadwinner of the family,” she says.
“My wages vary according to my work. For weaving one meter which takes about 2 hours a day I am paid Rs 40. Some days I can weave up to 3 or 4 meters. Many a time, I can weave only 2 or 3 meters a day… at this age I am exhausted easily,” says Omana.
Long working hours – she works from 8 am to 5 pm – and the day-long rigorous, synchronised movements of both legs and hands have taken a toll on Omana’s health.
“I often suffer from chest pain and have difficulty in breathing which interferes with my work. I have been vomiting blood off late. The days that I can’t come to work, I lose out on the money,” says Omana.
Omana has five children and none of them want to be employed in the weaving industry.
“Weaving demands heavy manual effort and the income from this strenuous labour definitely does not match the hard work. We lose out on young folks because of this. So after a weaver attains pension age, we are hardly able to find a replacement,” adds Vinod.
An aging, sickly workforce
A recent study by the government showed that of the total weavers registered under government handloom societies, close to 48% are 50 years of age and above. The study also revealed that the weavers suffer from health-related issues such as suffocation, nose block, wheezing/asthma, joint pain, etc.
According to the government officials, weavers across the state are mainly categorised into three sections – weavers under government textile societies and units, weavers under textile society and private firm partnership, and weavers who work only with private firms.
51-year-old Girija has been a weaver for over 20 years. She too depends solely on weaving for her livelihood and has health issues. Her husband is a carpenter and the couple has two children.
“My husband is a carpenter and he is unable to go to work most days as he suffers from lung congestion. My health too is deteriorating. The government’s school uniform scheme helped us a lot; from the past one year I’m able to earn up to Rs 4000 a month. Before that my income was anywhere between Rs 1500 – 2000,” says Girija.
Health issues afflict Girija and in turn affect her work too.
“I have swelling in my legs and back problems. Some days I can’t work at all; my body refuses to work in a synchronized manner and I end up weaving bad pieces. I lose out on my work days because of my health. We have only just enough to live through each day. We have no savings. Our future is bleak,” she bemoans.
‘Profit is almost nil’
Rajeev, the weaving master at the Travancore Textiles Society, says that there have been months when no employment could be generated due to lack of resources and raw materials. The raw materials needed for weaving include yarn, kasavu, colour, gum, oil, etc.
“The profit from this business is almost nil. Sometimes we can’t even afford to pay the weavers and their salary gets delayed for several months. And of their meager salary, 6% is cut as share to run the society,” says Rajeev.
The recent study by the government showed that 78% of workers employed in the weaving industry are women and men constitute the remaining 22%.
“We find a lot of women employed in the industry. We also train young girls who are looking for jobs and after providing them with the required skillset we encourage them to take up weaving. What they need is job security and decent wages,” says Sudhir.
Forced to supplement their income
The study also revealed that the weavers supplement their income by working in farms and other places as daily wage labourers.
Prasanna Kumari, a widow, has not received her salary for 3 months and has a son who suffers from cancer. She earns anywhere between Rs 2500 and RS 3000 monthly.
“My son suffers from cancer and I am his only hope. After my husband passed away, I have been the sole earning member of the family. And I haven’t received my salary in three months,” she says.
She is forced to find other sources of income when her salary does not come through.
“I work as a domestic worker or sometimes as a home nurse when I have no work in the textile society. Life is hard for sure, but we have to keep going,” Prasanna Kumari says resignedly.
All this despite the Kerala government’s newly designed policies to recover the weaving industry with initiatives like the School Uniform project.
K Sudhir also told TNM that to promise the weavers some consistency in employment and to improve their wages, the government has come up with the School Uniform project.
“As part of the new initiative we have convinced all government schools to collect uniform material from the state’s textile societies. This has come as a major relief for the weavers. Our aim is to provide them financial security and keep this traditional art from dying. We even encourage young people to enter the weaving industry by providing them training,” explains Sudhir.
Spinners worse off than weavers
If the state of affairs is bad for weavers, it is worse for the spinners. Spinners are workers who make yarn using the traditional spinning wheels. Their wages are as low as Rs 1000 a month.
Ramani is 68 years old and has now taken to spinning as her eyesight has become too poor for weaving.
“I am growing old, my eyesight is poor these days. I can’t afford to weave but I need a source of income, so I spin yarn now. I do not get more than Rs 1000 a month,” she says.
“My husband is bedridden after he had a fall and I have to take care of him as well,” Ramani adds.
68-year-old Shankuntala has been weaving since her childhood. She says weaving for her is an art that requires careful and meticulous work of a synchronised body and mind. She goes on to explain how her loom works.
“This loom has 5 nidhi and you need to step on them one by one in a synchronised fashion. It has 5 rica instead of the traditional two,” she says.
She recalls how she was rendered jobless when the Travancore textile society she worked for was shut for two years due to lack of resources.
“I used to come and sit here every day for two years. There was no work but weaving for me is a passion, it leaves me satisfied. The weaving noise and the old musty smell of these looms is my life. It’s an art that has been passed down through many generations. And I hope it never dies out,” Shakuntala says fervently.
Such stories of helplessness and misery lurk in the air of many such textile societies and are buried in long days of hard labour and sweat. There are many more who are not registered under government textile societies and they live the life of ‘unrecognised weavers’ who are not found on paper.