This is the story of a weaving cluster where the weavers work only as labourers, living in complete exclusion from the mainstream. They know nothing about who buys their products, who sells it, where the raw material comes from, what are the trading rates and who makes what money from the products that they so exquisitely make.
I was driving to Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu to explore the famous weaving cluster of Trichy. This famous city on the banks of the Kaveri river actually has no weaving cluster. The handloom-weaving cluster that the world knows as Trichy cluster is actually located in Woraiyur, Musiri, Manamedu, Nataraja Nagar, Thuraiyur and Thathaiyangarpet, all of which are in the district of Tiruchirappalli.
Trichy is one of the 20 clusters that the central government has identified across the country to revive them in mission mode. Trichy is also one of the eight clusters that we have identified, where we are working to bring in digital technology, tools and media to relate to the need of the modern times and help regain the value for the traditional skills and its practitioners.
In the past couple of weeks, we visited all these locations to discover the ground realities. The story in each of the locations is dismal. In Woraiyur, for example, there are almost no weavers left. Through discussions with local communities, we got to know that only 25 weavers are registered with the weaving society. And out of that, only one actually practises it, that too for his passion and not for the need.
Incidentally, it is the Woraiyur silk saree technique that the Trichy cluster is famous for. However, the base of the very cluster is now deserted by the traditional weavers and their families. So, even if one would like to revive the silk sarees of Woraiyur, we may not get anyone to leave their harsh lives in towns and cities and come back to Woraiyur to lay their hands on the hundreds of looms that are gathering dust in various households.
Come to Manamedu, right on the banks of the Kaveri, 25km from Trichy, and located in the middle of Musiri town panchayat. There are more than 5,000 families still busy in weaving in this location, but the noise in the village is too loud. More than half the weavers have shifted to power looms. Those who could not afford power looms are struggling, witnessing a slow death of their skills. While a power loom costs around ₹ 1 lakh, a handloom costs one-third of that. Enter any of the houses; if it is a handloom, then the weaver is in the late 50s or 60s, and if it is a power loom, then the weaver could be much younger. For example, Muruthappam and Gajalaxmi are a couple in their mid-30s with a small child, and they have two power looms. They earn ₹ 65 per saree and make no more than five sarees a day. However, the weavers who make sarees on handlooms earn anywhere between ₹ 700 to ₹ 900 per saree and it takes one person about three days to weave a saree.
My favourite location turned out to be Thathaiyangarpet. It is a panchayat village that is also famous for its three colonies of weavers located close to the bus stand. The place is beautifully laid out and constructed, with 171 families and households of weavers living here, divided into three colonies. Houses are almost similar because it is a part of the weavers’ society. Each house is a one-room dwelling with a kitchen, bed, toilet and the handloom.
Thathaiyangarpet is famous because M.G. Ramachandaran (MGR), the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, used to get his dhotis made in this cluster. I visited five houses there, and the only people I could meet were those who were aged above 50. All the young people have migrated to towns, where they work as masons, peons, construction workers, waiters in hotels and so on. Some lucky ones are also engineers, teachers and office assistants.
While I was talking to a family, Rajagopal, 58, comes to me and shows a magazine with his photo and his story. He quit weaving several years ago and works in a restaurant near the bus stand. But he proudly says that he had weaved a dhoti for MGR when he was young.
Thathaiyangarpet’s weavers and all the others that I met taught me the following: they cannot earn more than ₹ 10,000 a month; belonging to the most backward class, they are not treated well; they have no knowledge of design, cost, market and the buyers market; they are merely skilled labourers; they have no alternative; they do not know any technology, not even mobile phones. Not a single house had a smartphone, and the only technology and medium they use is one phone per household with no more than ₹ 50 bill per month. The weavers in various clusters of Trichy can be well classified as living in exclusion of media, technology, market and knowledge. Even a trade and business building that was made by the government for the weavers’ society is left dilapidated.
Yet, each and every weaver that we talked to said with conviction that they would like to continue weaving if they are linked directly to the market, to the customers, to the possibility of digital design, if trained on computers, and the romance of tradition, skill and modernity is woven together.
In the next few months, we are going to work with members of the local community, reignite their spark, take the government’s help to integrate their will, and bring in professional and technological tools to the doorsteps of the weavers.
Above all, as we did in the Chanderi silk cluster of Madhya Pradesh, in Thathaiyangarpet also, we will integrate digital tools not only into their mainstream weaving business but also in each and every part of their lives such as education, health, civic amenities and governance. It will be interesting to see how communities move from digital exclusion to integrated digital inclusion.
Osama Manzar is the founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan & mBillionth awards. He is co-author of NetCh@kra-15 Years of Internet in India & Internet Economy of India. He is creating a model Digital Smart Clusters with CSR funding. His Twitter handle is @osamamanzar