Chirala saree weavers losing out to computer-aided designs
The loom in Aruna Kumari's badly lit, mud-walled house in Epurupalem village runs from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., with either Aruna or her husband working at it constantly. Her ageing grandmother contributes by winding spools of yarn and joining threads of the weft for 10 hours daily. Together, the family produces 13 Chirala sarees with ornate, heavy-work pallu and border in a month, for a combined income of a little over Rs 4,000. "By next year my daughter will be old enough to help, and then my grandmother will get some relief," says Aruna. This means 11-year-old Cheluvi will have to drop out of school.
In Chirala and Vetapalem mandalas of Ongole district in Andhra Pradesh, around 10,000 families of handloom weavers, mostly of the Mala caste, and 400 families of the Oruganti Reddy caste who dye and process the yarn, are working and living in conditions similar to Aruna's. Another 800 families of weavers and over 600 families of dyers have been forced out of business.
Upholders of the tradition of the Chirala saree, telia rumal and Pattamarapu--famous as Real Madras Handkerchief, this Chirala product is being exported to African countries since before Independence--these weavers are today driven into a corner by a loophole in the Handloom (Reservation of Articles of Production) Act, 1985, that is allowing computer-aided design and embroidery units (cadeus) to flood the market with cheap lookalikes of the unique Chirala saree.
According to media reports, since 2000 this area has seen around 650 suicides and starvation deaths in weaver families. Today, even when the suicide trend appears to have abated somewhat, poverty, chronic starvation and chronic illnesses due to overwork continue to hound the community.
Says Mancharla Mohana Rao, the founder president of rcjs "In the past 10 years, computer-aided units have mushroomed all over this area and use power-loom cloth and embroidery machines to mass produce lookalikes of Chirala sarees and dress-material. These goods are sold as handloom products at prices ranging from Rs 200 to Rs 2,000, which is around half the cost of genuine handloom products."
Unlike in actual handloom work where the pattern is woven into a saree, computer-aided units take ready-made power-loom cloth and converts it into sarees by embroidering designs onto it. The designing process is aided by computer.
One can tell whether a saree is fake handloom by turning it around. In a handloom woven saree the threads of the pattern run across the width of the saree, but in a fake embroidered piece only the imprint of the design shows.
It takes one embroidery machine just eight minutes to convert one piece of power-loom cloth into a saree, whereas a weaver has to work patiently for several days to produce a genuine handloom saree. These units are, therefore, able to produce sarees on a large scale and poach into the Chirala market by pricing their product cheaper.
According to Rao, while the handloom industry in Chirala is affected by other problems like non-availability and spiralling prices of hank yarn, the power loom sector and exploitative middlemen, the computer-aided designs have hit the weavers the hardest. "As many as 800 of the 1,800 looms in the 16 km stretch from Pondillapalli village to Epurupalem have been driven out of business altogether by this boom," he says. "And those who are still weaving are on the verge of pauperization."
Utter penury greets you in every house that has a loom. Twenty-three-year-old Sivasarada and his family, including his parents and ageing grandmother, put in an average of 10 hours of work a day to prepare 12 pieces of 8 m-long Pattamarapu for a Tamil Nadu-based export company. Still they earn just Rs 4,000 a month. In Jandrapeta village, weaver couple Sulochana and Rama Rao get Rs 2,400 for 36m of kurta tops. School dropout rates among the children in the community are high because of poverty and the need for additional labour (see box Little hands).
|Computer-aided units have mushroomed all over and use power-loom cloth and embroidery machines to mass produce lookalikes of Chirala sarees. These are sold as handloom products for half the cost
--MANCHARLA MOHANA RAO
Founder president, Rashtra Chetana Jana Samakhya
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