Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Colourful threads --- Linking Memories!!!

It was the way Murugesan's eyes caught the small dust particles on 'thari', the way his expert hands knew how to untangle the colourful threads and the confidence with which he was turning them into beautiful cloth; that reminded me of my mother, back home in Nepal.

For as long as I can remember, I have never once seen my mother without threads. Whether she is taking a break from working in the fields, or on her way to the jungle to get fodder and timber, or babysitting my nieces, or chit-chatting with visitors, she would always be either making threads out of hemp and woolen raw materials or warping and wefting cloth on her 'taan'. She can make almost everything - from bags to blankets. So, I grew up wearing the shawls and sleeping on the sheep-woollen blankets she made. Even on my first day at school I carried an old hemp bag she had made for my elder brothers.

It was not just the confidence and sureness with which Murugesan handled those long, fragile strands that reminded me of my mother and her threads, but also the 'thari' (Tamil name for handloom), which looked similar to the 'taan' my mother uses while weaving. The only difference is the thari is more advanced than taan, with which weaving is slower and more laborious. It is bigger than taan and the cloth made on it is also bigger - both in length and width (19 meter).

The warping process, the first stage of making cloth by distributing the threads in a long vertical way was exactly similar. It has to be wound on to its roller and the threads passed through the lathe and fastened to the cloth beam. Here, because of the size of cloth involved, three men are needed for a job my mother does by herself.

In Vellore, Tamil Nadu, a handloom weaver.
The wefting process, however, was a bit different. The thari, the more advanced loom, consists of four wooden uprights joined at the top and bottom to form a box-like framework. The weaving operation consists of sending the shuttle containing the weft back and forth through the threads of the warp. Then, a device operated by a treadle lifts and lowers alternate threads and a lathe hung from the top of the loom enables the weaver to push each thread of weft up against the cloth already woven.

Therefore, though this process needs manual strength, it was made easier with some help from an advanced tool. It looked like a perfect machine in my eyes. While, in taan, just a few flat wooden plates and different sizes of rods are used as a tool while everything - from sending weft-shuttle back and forth to lifting and lowering alternate warp threads to weft -  is all done by hand.

It is not just the process of weaving that was different- in India, handloom weaving is an industry, not in Nepal. That is why 44 year old Murugesan of K.V.Kuppam has been working as a wage labourer for a decade. It took him two years to master the process of weaving while my mother learned the weaving technique from her mother and grandmother before she was a teenager.
Taking part in making threads out of goat and sheep wool, or hemp and allo fibre starts as soon as a girl is able to hold a taku (an indigenous tool used to make threads from fibre).  So, she has been weaving garments for more than half a century. But, unlike Murugesan’s, my mother's skill and work is invisible. It is taken for granted as the traditional knowledge of an indigenous woman, not as an income generating occupation.

In Nepal, weaving is more a women’s forte, with men just helping in making threads, cleaning the wool or preparing rods used in weaving. Buying threads is not much of an option so they buy wool if they do not have their own, or gather hemp fibre and make threads out of them, warp and weft those threads and make the garments of their desire. Only cotton is bought from the city - and they hardly buy them - for special occasions to make a special cloth for men called 'ghalek'. They don't have a mechanism to dye the threads so they only have the natural colours: black, ash-gray and white.

In K.V.Kuppam in Vellore, handloom weaving industries get white cotton thread from Gujarat at Rs 700/800 per kg and dye them in 20 different colours which usually cost Rs 150-250. Here, it is also a traditional family business where men and women work together, which is an interesting factor. Earlier it was also a caste or community-based occupation, but not any more.
In Nepal, indigenous communities are the ones who are mostly involved in weaving.

Murugesan is not involved in all the steps of the weaving process such as making threads. On the other hand, my mother does everything from washing the wool, making it into threads, and the warping and wefting. It takes her over a week to finish one garment and sometimes longer, especially when she has to do agricultural work at the same time.

But, there are some things in common that my mother and Murgesan share apart from their weaving skill. Whatever garments that are later sold in the US and the UK through Bishopstop Trading Company are made out of what Murugesan weaved for six days, giving him Rs 100 a day. With that money he is feeding his children and sending them to school. Though whatever my mother made was usually used by the family, she did manage to sell a few garments through which she supported my brothers and me.

Like Murugesan, who makes four meters of garment every day and is surrounded by threads and needles but doesn't have time to sew his torn t-shirt, my memories are of how her cholo (blouse) used to be torn and she hardly could find the time to sew them.

Murugesan and my mother also share a similar fate seeing how this beautiful skill is declining as the new generation is not learning it. As the owner of the handloom family business where Murugesan works, Anbu, says, "Not many people are doing it now.  Every kid goes to school and they are totally uninterested in learning the weaving." There are not many people coming to learn the technique and the ones who do come are all above 35 years old.

Anbu's anxiety resonates with my mother's words that I heard last year when I visited home. "I learned weaving from my mother. I wish I could transfer that to you," she had said wistfully. She had sighed, smiled and added, "But, what would you do by learning. Education is much more important. Of course, it is."  Here too, whoever comes to learn weaving are also women in their 30's, with their children studying in schools.

[During Covering Deprivation tour to Vellore, I met Murugesan, a handloom weaver, and got chance to see the handloom industry which reminded me of my mother, in Rukum. --- two women making threads in Rukum, Nepal. Photo courtesy - www.jvf-nepal.org]