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A Glorious Tradition Under Threat

The traditional silk weavers in Kanchipuram are staring at the face of extinction as they compete with growing modernisation.



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Weaver Deenadayalan spinning thread from yarn which is then used for weaving sarees. Roshini Muthukumar/NsoJ

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Roshini Muthukumar


Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu)

The saree is one of the most ancient forms of apparel known to India. Its existence goes back to the Indus Valley Civilisation when women draped cotton cloth around them. Apart from being a symbol of Indian culture and tradition, the saree plays a vital role in India’s textile and garment industry.

Kanchipuram, a city in southern India, is well-known as the “City of Silk” or the “City of Temples”. The city, which was ruled by the Pallavas was a centre for education in southern India even centuries ago. Nandita Krishna, historian, environmentalist, and the Honorary Director of CP Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation, Chennai, said, “ In those days since the city could not have survived on education alone, there was a need for trade, and that was weaving.”

According to historical records, the traditional garment was worn only by the Pallava royals in Kanchipuram and royals from surrounding states. The common folk who were weavers were never allowed to wear the exclusive piece until many years later. That was because the expensive materials were imported by the king and ordinary people could not afford them.

Kailasanathar Temple built using sandstone by the Pallavas. Credits: Roshini Muthukumar

Exclusive

The Kanchipuram silk sarees are known for their dense silk finish, rich gold borders, and traditional designs inspired by the temples in the city. It is hand woven from pure silk yarn produced in Karnataka and zari (silver thread coated in gold) produced in Surat, Gujarat. A saree woven using pure silk and zari is considered to be the most expensive as it costs between Rs 7000 and Rs 1,50,000.

Such an expensive garment is either purchased for a girl’s wedding day or as an investment. The pure silk sarees are usually kept safe and passed down many generations with an intention to re-sell. “The speciality of the Kanchipuram silk saree is for how much it can be resold. My mother had been given a silk saree for her wedding and it was worth Rs 400, but when she sold it 30 years later, she got a return of Rs 5,000 for the silk and the zari,” said Sathya Asokan, a native of Kanchipuram, now living in Chennai.

In Kanchipuram, there are two kinds of weavers: independent weavers who work for private textile organisations and the government-aided weavers who work for co-operative societies run by the government. The weavers, who are members of co-operative societies, are given a fixed

salary and the raw materials required to weave the saree. D Deenadalayan, a native of Kanchipuram, who has been weaving for 20 years now, said, “ Despite working for a co-operative society, I am struggling to make ends meet. The sale of silk sarees is not like it was, with the rise in spurious silk sarees and adverse government policies, our livelihood has taken a bad hit.”

A vibrant Kanchipuram silk saree. Credits: Roshini Muthukumar

Adulteration

With the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), there was a slowdown in demand for silk sarees and consequently the production suffered. This came as a chance for some private textile showrooms to adulterate the product and make profits. “When textile showrooms are offering a 50% to 60% discount, who will want to shop at co-operative societies who are charging exorbitant prices with no discounts?” said Deenadayalan. He also said that private organisations started producing zari for sarees using copper thread coated in gold and sold them at the same prices as silver zari.

According to data released by silk weaving associations in Kanchipuram, the number of handloom units has dropped from 2,00,000 pre-GST to less than 15,000 in 2019. This situation has arisen because of traditional handlooms competing against power looms that are better equipped while still paying the same costs for inputs. Deenadayalan said the only way the weavers saw relief was by either settling for meagre payments they got every month, or by quitting the profession and moving to better-paying jobs. “In my family, I will be the last to practise this art because I don’t want the same lifestyle for my children,” he said.

Gold-coated zari and silk thread used for weaving. Credits: Roshini Muthukumar

It is not just Kanchipuram that is struggling to hold on to its traditional art form; other silk weaving cities such as Banaras are also facing the same challenge. The overwhelming task before them now is to revive what is lost and ensure that the traditions followed in the past are carried on.

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