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Monday, Aug 18, 2003

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Life - Handloom

Hanging by a thread

Ranee Kumar

Puttapaka, once the centre of silk weaving, is now like a faded sari, with just the remnants of the original in it. Its saris, though dazzling and beautifully patterned, no longer find a fair market.

A Puttapaka weaver at his loom.

The winding, dusty road running through deserted villages, leads to what was once the centre of silk weaving — Puttapaka. Today this 6,000-populace place is like a faded sari, with just the remnants of the original.

For the handloom industry of Andhra Pradesh, the dawn of the gloomy, grey era has set in with not even a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. Puttapaka, located in Samasthan Narayanpur of Nalgonda district, 80 kms off Hyderabad city, has had a glorious 300-year history in handlooms, with a ring of villages, including the more popular Pochampalli, being the strongholds of silk weaving.

Even the recent inaugural of the sprawling Apparel Park Foundation in Dandu Mallapur, with a plan outlay of over Rs 3 crore, envisaging tie-and-dye units, power-looms, a garment division, and a designing unit, has not brought a ray of hope to the sceptical handloom weavers of the region. Today they seem to be in a comatose state with the flimsiest of life support systems.

While the older generation of silk producers-cum-weavers are still clutching to their charkas, the younger blood has jettisoned this ancestral trade for lucrative employment elsewhere.

Puttapaka is making a last ditch effort to survive neck-and-neck with its country cousin Pochampalli, a cotton and silk village which had shot into fame, courtesy the Andhra Pradesh Cooperative (APCO) and continues to be identified with silk saris of Hyderabad. Puttapaka silk, far superior in weave and weight, ethereal and aesthetic in design, never shared the limelight, though APCO does lift a negligible stock of silks from this handloom sector and sells them under the Pochampalli brand. Only experts and local connoisseurs can differentiate a Puttapaka silk from that of a Pochampalli.

Too nave to protect or protest at the brand piracy which has been eating into their identity, the Puttapaka weavers have been allowing APCO or other dealers to put Pochampalli label on their produce, content with the thin margin offered. To add to their woes, there came a new slump in their niche market, which was booming (never mind the pseudo label) in the 1990s. The very original, artistic patterns of weave and warp, the tie and dye borders and pallavs, are being copied by polyester printing mills which are doling out similar designs by the dozens for a song.

Gurunadam, former sarpanch and owner of one of the larger units turns nostalgic as he compares earlier prosperity to today's penury. His ancestral home, with wooden beams for the ceiling and large halls, is typically rustic, with faded walls displaying pictures of his forefathers.

"Our families were in the weaving line for the last 300 years or so in this village. They made the famous Tehlia rumaals (a sort of headband), which had a ready market in the Arab countries. Slowly, the scarves gave way to silk saris as the demand from them declined," he says.

Today, nearly 400 families are in silk weaving. "During our hey day, we invested our profits in real estate and ironically, it is the income from these immovable properties that is keeping us alive. Our looms, our colour units and the workers dependent on these are in dire straits. We are unable to provide them with a sustained income, as there is no market for the product. Deaths of handloom labourers are mounting by the day. It is sad, as we are all related. Our children have charted newer courses. Armed with diplomas in textile designing, weaving and printing, they have migrated to Salem, Bangalore and other textile rich places."

The list of woes is endless and mind-boggling. The state and the central government subsidies to cooperatives have been gradually scaled down, leaving the handloom sector to fend for itself. APCO, the major life giver, is itself in the doldrums, with staggering losses due to mismanagement. Payments are not realised even within a year after the material is lifted by it. Stuck with a large capital investment and no immediate returns, the producers are unable to meet their financial commitments and are forced to resort to huge borrowings.

The variable rate of the silk yarn, Rs 1,100 a kilo in 2002, is now between Rs 1,400 to Rs 1,600. A 15 per cent profit on each silk sari, which amounts to Rs 1,500 at the loom and takes about 65 days to flow into a six-yard material, was the profit level then. Currently, Puttapaka handloom units have incurred a whopping Rs 2.5 crore loss, with a piled up inventory of Rs 1.5 crore.

"Budget allocation to the handloom sector in this state is meagre compared to Tamil Nadu," says Samala Venkateswarulu, president of Puttapaka Coop Society, which is in a stupor thanks to piled stocks that cannot be sold even at a discount. "We have scaled down our production to a bare minimumand are battling with cancelled orders even after the material is ready," she says helplessly.

The women and children, who work along with the men, used to earn Rs 2,000 to 3,000 a month, but are now in tears as there has been no work for two months now. Debts and suicides have become the order of the day.

Breath-taking designs and colour combinations are Puttapaka silk industry's forte. . But lack of business acumen has left the Puttapaka weaversbehind in a competitive world. "It takes us a month to create a design on paper. We are not trained in designing. It is mere intuition and a love for nature that inspires us to create new patterns . Colour combinations are tried out on paper and yet intricate patterns take shape to form a gorgeous silk sari," says Jayalakshmi, matter-of-factly. .

Patenting designs or protection through a legal means never occurred to them and, today, outright copying of their original patterns is taking place with printed versions of Puttapaka coming out in synthetic fibre. To gain an edge over Pochampalli silks (with a silk weight of 250 gms per sari) another competitor, the Puttapaka silks — originally weighing 550 gms per five and half metres (a sari length) — are forced to slim down the silk weight per sari, to make reduced prices feasible.

Lack of knowledge among consumers results in premier clothes stores of Hyderabad selling a Puttapaka silk sari upward of Rs 4,000, labelling it as a Pochampalli thick silk, while the producer would put it at a mere Rs 1,500-2,000 range at his own sales outlet extensions in the city.

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