"This is it. I never thought that a simple man like me would get such an honour," says Chintakindi Mallesham, as he shows off a medal with the words 'Padma Shri', India's fourth highest civilian award.
43-year-old Mallesham's journey has been one of hardship and perseverance, which has now gained him recognition and fame, besides a national honour.
A weaver by profession, Mallesham invented the patented Laxmi Asu Machine, which processes yarn, and has managed to reduce the time taken to weave a Pochampally sari to an hour-and-a-half, from about six hours when done manually.
Hailing from a poor weaver family in Telangana's Sharajipet village in Nalgonda district, Mallesham was forced to discontinue his education and dropout in Class 6.
His family inducted him into the tradition of handloom weaving, and it was here that his idea for the machine began growing.
As part of the weaving process, a silk thread has to be wound from a single peg on one side to 40 pegs on the other, on a four-foot structure. The thread has to be wound through each of the 40 pegs, using the single peg as a pivot.
The process, known as asu, is laborious and painful as weavers were left with aching shoulders and elbows.
"The asu process is essential to the Pochampally way of weaving. No matter what the final design on the saree is, it can only be decided after this process. The design itself is determined by this process as well," says Mallesham.
When he was younger, Mallesham remembers watching his mother sit through the painful process, and that's how he became determined to make the process automatic.
"To do it manually, one has to move a 12km thread almost 9,000 times. When my mother would complain, I would think that it would be nice to automate this entire process. That's where it all started," he says.
(An asu machine under construction)
Building from scratch
At one point, Mallesham's mother asked him to give up the inherited profession and take up some other work. However, he remained steadfast and decided to solve the one main problem of the asu process instead.
However, Mallesham had no technical knowledge to build a machine. While he passed Class 7 privately and passed Class 10 on his third attempt, that was the end of his education.
"I started observing my mother, and identified five main movements that were necessary to weave the thread. Then I got to work on figuring out each one individually," he said.
However, the next seven years between 1992 and 1999, Mallesham struggled to build a working machine, even as his friends and family members continuously dissuaded him, stating that it was the job of an engineer.
He began with an outer frame using wood, and began punching holes and putting the pins together.
"I was dedicated. I had several ideas and failed many times. I kept purchasing several items to try and make the machine work, which also left me in debt," Mallesham said.
"I got married and was in dire straits as I had even spent my wife's money only to face persisting problems with the machine. Therefore, I decided to go to Hyderabad to find a job," he added.
Mallesham moved to Hyderabad and became an electrical wiring contractor. In a few months, he went back to his village and brought his machine to the city.
"I used to earn a living during the day, and work on the machine at night. I was only able to think about the machine. After around two years, I figured out my last component and made a working machine. I was beyond ecstatic," he says.
(The first model of the machine built my Mallesham)
He immediately took it back to his village, showed it to his parents. Eventually, the local media picked it up, and several weavers began approaching Mallesham to make more such machines.
"That's when I stopped being a weaver, and became an engineer," he beams.
Reinventing the Asu machine
Initially in 2000, the cost of making one machine was Rs 13,000. Mallesham set up a workshop and began building machines. This continued for the next five years.
In 2005, Mallesham faced his next challenge. The price of steel almost doubled, which shot the machine's price to Rs 26,000.
"As many couldn't afford the machine, my friend asked me to try an electronic process over a mechanical process. I travelled to Koti in Hyderabad and picked up books on electronics, circuits, transistors, resistors, microchips etc," he says.
"However, they were complicated subjects explained in English, which I couldn't speak. I bought a dictionary and poured through these books for another two years," he adds.
At the end, Mallesham designed an upgraded version of the asu machine that worked with two motors. In 2009, in a bid to make the machine function better than a human, he began reading up on micro-controllers.
The asu machines he makes today not only have a micro-controller, but Mallesham personally uses software code and programs them in assembly language, to weave the thread and create various designs on the cloth.
Since then, he has been supplying these machines to several weavers across the district and has set up a larger workshop and hired labour.
Mallesham and his asu machine have received widespread recognition, as he won the Rashtrapathi Award in 2009, showcased his machine to former Indian President Abdul Kalam, and even had coffee with him for 10 minutes.
In 2010, Mallesham was even named in Forbes' list of the seven most powerful rural Indians.
In 2016, he was given the 'Amazing Indian' award by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and was also hosted as a state guest at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan during former President Pranab Mukherjee's tenure.
In January last year, he was awarded the Padma Shri, which has a special place on his rack full of awards.
Mallesham's innovation also impacted social change and resulted in fewer school drop outs, as several weavers continue to ensure their child gets educated, as the machine handles the laborious process.
In December 2017, Telangana Handlooms and Textiles Minister KT Rama Rao, sanctioned a financial grant of Rs 1 crore to Mallesham to set up an innovation centre.
Joking that he is now a 'crorepati', Mallesham says that he is obliged to give back to society.
"They have put Rs 1 crore of public money in my hands. I see it as a big responsibility. While the asu machine is complete, I have more ideas to help weavers across the country," he says.
"I want to reduce their labour and ensure that they go a long way forward. I have started working on something, and I will fulfil my duties for the trust placed in me by the Telangana government," he adds.