How weavers are trying to untie the lock-down knot

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Silk saree manufacturers in different states including Tamil Nadu are affected by the lockdown. We look at what they are doing to overcome to the pandemic-hit marketplace.

Chandru Perumal, owner of a silk sari weaving unit in Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu, begins his day by taking count of provisions required in the homes of his 20 employees. He has been buying groceries for them since business ran dry towards the end of March.

“There are no sales. I have been helping my employees in my own way by getting them monthly provisions. We hope that the situation will get better by September,” he says.
All is quiet in the town of weavers of the celebrated Kancheepuram silk sari. With business big and small being affected due to the Covid-induced lockdown. Despite being protected by the Geographical Indicator tag since 2005, the business in on a free fall mode and is looking for a succour “The last sari we purchased was on March 17, we haven’t restocked our shelves,” says textile baron Nalli Kuppusamy Chetty. The retail textile chain which has more than 40 stores, has seen a 70% decline in business this June compared to the previous year. “Sales have further decreased from the 20% decline registered for the year ending March 31,” he says.

Geographical indication (GI) tag is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. In order to function as a GI, a sign must identify a product as originating in a given place. In addition, the qualities, characteristics or reputation of the product should be essentially due to the place of origin. Since the qualities depend on the geographical place of production, there is a clear link between the product and its original place of production.

The main period of business, the marriage season begins from Sankranti (January 15) and lasts till the beginning of Aadi (July 15). This peak business season has taken a blow this year. Stores say footfall is 20% of the usual times. Limited number of weddings taking place with a restricted guest list have meant muted celebrations for many. The wedding budget of garments has reduced from ₹1 lakh to ₹10,000-₹20,000 per family. “People are buying only the wedding sari for the bride, ‘samandhi’ (gifted to the in-laws) saris and veshti/dhoti for the groom. The traditional practice of gifting saris for weddings is not there. With limited ceremonies, brides have also restricted their purchases,” says Chetty.

With rising gold and silver prices, silk sari manufacturers are now adopting new strategies such as reducing the size of the sari border from four inches to two or 1.5 inches. Others like Prakash Sah, owner of Kancheepuram-based Prakash Silks, keeps employees busy by making synthetic zari instead of silver. “One needs to sell silver-based zari within 2-3 months of making the saree. That seems impossible at this point and we are changing our strategy,” he says.

One needs to sell silver-based zari within 2-3 months of making the saree. That seems impossible at this point and we are changing our strategy
- Prakash Sah, owner of Kancheepuram-based Prakash Silks

“Though we want to sell only fresh stocks which are two months old, yet with lockdown that is not possible. We have stock for two months of production,” says Prakash. The shelf-life of a silk sari is five years, and needs to be refolded every week for better longevity.
But it’s an uphill task for the business. The rate of pure silk stands at ₹4,000/kg and is sourced from Bengaluru and this rate could go up if silk import from China gets banned. “We have paid full salary to our staff for March and April, however had to cut 50% of the salary due to fund shortage. We even had to borrow from the bank as we fell short of money to pay wages in April,” says Chetty.

We have paid full salary to our staff for March and April, however had to cut 50% of the salary due to fund shortage. We even had to borrow from the bank as we fell short of money to pay wages in April
 - Nalli Kuppusamy Chetty, textile baron

Prasad Pannerselvam of P S Silk Sarees, who employs 169 weavers, says delayed payment from customers has increased the pressure during this time. “Payments worth ₹20 lakh is held up at textile stores in Odisha,” he says.
In the present situation, the growing concern is that by the time the pandemic ends, there will be no money left with manufacturers. “Only when the fear of coronavirus leaves, will we be able to get back to business,” says Chetty.

Lockdown left skilled weavers jobless in Kancheepuram

The lockdown has left a lot of skilled weavers jobless who make the iconic silk saris of Kancheepuram.

Handloom weaver K Krishnamurthy of Kancheepuram said a weaver gets wages between Rs 15,000 and Rs 25,000 depending on the orders every month. However, sales started dropping from first week of March after the Covid-19 outbreak created a scare among tourists. That was followed by the lockdown, impacting our income, he added.

Krishnamurthy believes it will take at least six months for revival of the industry, once works begins. On an average, weavers make more than one lakh handloom silk sarees every year. These are bought by tourists and marriage shoppers who throng Kancheepuram.


'Thanjavur weavers plan to bring back shine of silk with online sales'

The silk saris created by the weavers in the temple town of Thirubuvanam near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district are famous for the rich zari work and fine silk. But, the lives of the people who make the fabric has worsened with the livelihoods at stake after the Covid-induced lockdown. This has prompted some to look for odds jobs such as catering or cooking.

In March 2019, the unique weaving technique of the region that uses filature silk for warp and weft that results in superior quality fabric, got the GI tag. Adorned with pure zari work, the ‘pallu’ of the sari is continuously woven on the loom and runs on from the body, unlike other saris where the body and ‘pallu’ are woven separately. But before the GI recognition could guarantee it the prized status, the economy has been hit.

The silk saris created by the weavers in Thirubuvanam are famous for the rich zari work and fine silk
N D Nagendran, district president of AITUC for weavers’ wing said, “Every year the society does business to the tune of ₹40 crore. Since this is the marriage season, the society has lost around ₹10 crore revenue during this lockdown period” he said. 

Every year the society does business to the tune of ₹40 crore. Since this is the marriage season, the society has lost around ₹10 crore revenue during this lockdown period
 - N D Nagendran, district president, AITUC

The weaving tradition is tied to the Sourashtra community, who were known for their handloom saris and had settled down in Thirubuvanam during the period of Nayaks and Marathas. More than 1,500 families are engaged in making the handloom sari, for ₹3,000 to ₹6,000 per piece, under the Thirubuvanam Silk Handloom Weavers Cooperative society that distributes raw material to the weavers. Earlier, raw material to make up to 50 saris per month used to be distributed, now they are hardly provided with yarn to make two saris a month.

The road to recovery is a long one for them as fresh orders will take longer to come. “Even if the government lifts the lockdown, weavers will not get work until existing stocks run out,” said V Narayanaswami, 67, a member of the society. Though the weavers are getting ration from the government, but their livelihood has been under threat since March. “We got ₹4,000 from the society. Other than that we have nothing to spend. We don’t know anything other than weaving. Few people are looking for other jobs with catering services,” he said.

We got ₹4,000 from the society. Other than that we have nothing to spend. We don’t know anything other than weaving. Few people are looking for other jobs with catering services
-  V Narayanaswami, member of the weavers society

Since walk-in customers are limited, the society has decided to take their product to the doorstep of people. The society is in the process to begin online sales, weeding out middlemen. Members have decided to form a network to deliver the products.
As gold-coated silver zari is used for weaving, the skyrocketing of gold rates is further adding to production woes. So, the weavers have appealed to the state to offer some subsidies for raw material and also urged the Union government to revoke GST. “After the introduction of GST, our business started to suffer as multiple restrictions, from buying raw material to selling a sari, were put in place. We request the government and public to help revive the trade”, said N S Haridass, another member.

Source: The Times of India

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Indian Weaver Community : How weavers are trying to untie the lock-down knot
How weavers are trying to untie the lock-down knot
Silk saree manufacturers in different states including Tamil Nadu are affected by the lockdown. We look at what they are doing to overcome to the pandemic-hit marketplace.
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