In the 19th century, as machine-made clothes began to be available, the moneyed class in India were swayed by their apparent sophistication. They shed the hand woven clothes and donned themselves with the fabric of the white man.
A century of dramatic changes later, handloom has caught the imagination of the same class again. Machine-made clothes, by now common and unremarkable, became the only choice for the masses.
Although prices of handloom soared and people began to appreciate its exquisite design and painstaking process, the fate of the weavers themselves has not improved. In fact, it has gone the other way.
“Our wages are limited to Rs 30 per metre, which is divided between two,” says Ram Lal Devangan from Champa. None of his three children have studied beyond school nor have they taken up their traditional calling. “There was no profit in teaching them,” he says.
To earn their 30 per metre, the weavers first dye the thread and warp it in preparation for weaving. Each thread is wound around the reels of the loom according to the measurement of each item of clothing.
For each inch of cloth, 120 threads have to be woven together, and for a standard piece measuring 50 inches, this means weaving 6000 threads. One metre of cloth takes more than an hour to weave with two people working simultaneously. In a day, they can only complete 7 metres. “The wages paid for this labour are very less,” says Devangan dryly.
Cloth produced by Devangan and many others living in the same basti are sent to suppliers who claim that it is further sent to private players such as Fabindia and Nalli. Disparities come to the fore when the export suppliers quote the wages given to the weavers at Rs 60. When Tehelka approached Fabindia, they refused to disclose the figures.
The thread to be used for kosa silk is bought at Rs 1,000 a kilo and to make a plain saree six meters long, 350 grams of thread is required. A question arises when one views the prices that companies like Fabindia assign to their products. For instance, a silk-cotton mix saree on their website would cost upwards of Rs 3,990.
The weavers practise their ancestral craft in cottage industries in many rural areas of the country. Devangan basti in Champa, known for Kosa silk, and Churri in Korba district of Chhattisgarh have many such industries and is also home to many export suppliers.
Premchand (name changed), an export supplier tells Tehelka, “The cloth produced here is supplied to big handloom exporters who also provide the specifications and designs like many other independent exporters.”