There aren’t many ways to reach Anakaputhur. Then again, there aren’t too many people who want to go to Anakaputhur.
The erstwhile handloom weavers’ village is a 40-minute rickshaw ride from the suburbs of Chennai. Temple bells pierce the air, dogs sleep curled up under the sun, and the roads are like the community’s remaining artisanal weavers — worn out and neglected.
Bijendra checks if the spooled thread matches with the yarn before handing it to his granduncle. All images by the author
Less than 20 years ago, every house in the village had its own handloom mill. There were about 5,000 such mills in all. Today, the number has shrunk to some 200.
These squeak woodenly for 14 hours every day, from which the operators earn Rs 125 for their work — barely half the fare for a rickshaw ride into the city, just 24 kilometers away.
“Show me one handloom weaver who says they are doing well,” demands Sekhar, 52, who works out of a small, dimly-lit room punctuated by warm, amber sunlight that flows in through a lone window. The lower half of the window is covered in equal parts by cobwebs and old yarn.
Sekhar’s mill houses four dusty handlooms, each paused in mid-construction of a delicate, half-woven banana cotton thread saree (spun from the fibre of a banana bark). Sekhar’s spinning wheel sits in front of them all, and a dustless spot behind it marks the old man’s work station.
Chenchiya, artisanal weaver and Sekhar's 90-year-old father, spins yarn outside his mill-cum-house.
Anakaputhur used to be famous for its ‘Madras Handkerchief’, a traditional, nine-yard-long, checkered, cotton fabric. They almost exclusively catered to customers in Nigeria, where it was commonly worn by the members of the Kalabari tribe. A 1966 coup and its accompanying civil war ruined that trade, and along with it, Anakaputhur weavers’ livelihoods.
These struggling weavers looked towards the state government for help, and that was the beginning of a long series of let-downs.
“The state government does nothing for its weavers,” Sekhar says, ticking off a long and demoralising list of blows that his ancient art form has suffered.
Chenchiya spins yarn as his great-grandson Bijendra peeks into the handloom mill.
The historic Chennai floods of 2015 destroyed the weavers’ hamlet. Fifty lakh worth of material and equipment, purchased with the help of loans, was destroyed. The families that didn’t quit weaving in the 60s left the village’s legacy in the hands of the few remaining weavers after this year.
Government relief experts visited Anakaputhur briefly and left with promises that still remain unfulfilled three years later. The biggest was the promise of a Common Facilities Centre, a cohesive hub to fulfill all the needs of the weavers, from training to sales.
Two sarees in Sekhar's mill are paused mid-weave, as their weavers break for lunch.
“They give acres of land to industries. Why can’t they make a village for weavers?” asks Sekhar, sitting gloomily in his mill. His lungi is greasy and the parting in his hair is streaked with grey. Like most people in town, he only goes by his first name. “Handloom weavers can’t even get an identity card for themselves, such a shameful situation to live in," he says, pointing at the government’s incompetency. His complaints are well polished; after all, this isn’t his first interview. Sekhar is well known in the local media for his weaving innovations. After the village's weavers lost their African market, he contrived to make handloom sarees using yarn from bamboo, banana, aloe vera and other organic alternatives.
An artisanal weaver pedals her loom to weave a cotton saree.
“Ravanan from Lanka kidnapped Sita and she needed a saree to change into. He spun her a saree from bamboo shoots,” Shekar says. It's a story he tells to show how deeply ingrained textile weaving is in Indian culture, and how it cannot fade away. But others in the village aren’t so sure.
“This is a profession that is going to be in ruins soon,” says Kumar, 42, a fourth-generation lungi weaver and owner of a mill. Kumar’s office is next to his mill. Wearing a purple shirt, he sits in sharp contrast to its pink walls. His folded legs slot perfectly between the legs of his short work table, which he uses to rest his accounts books and money box. To his right is a four racked shelf nesting yarns of indigo and white.
Srinivasalu helps his co-worker adjust the thread while weaving a lungi.
Tall and balding, Kumar is no fan of the government. “If not for this tax, we would be doing fairly well,” he says, referring to the infamous GST which is levied at the rate of five percent on his weaves. The weavers have done their fair share of lobbying with the powers-that-be. “Writing letter after letter, we’ve only lost money,” chimes in 48-year-old Padma, Sekhar’s wife, who also accounts the logistics to get till Secretariat.
Kumar’s mill is bustling; 12 machines squeak relentlessly here. Old Tamil songs and theatrical anecdotes of chatty weavers add to this merry chaos. He employs 13 breadwinners.
Janaki, an artisanal weaver and Sekhar's sister, is the last to practise the profession in her family.
“If one street is selling carrots for Rs 20 and the next one is selling them for Rs 10, which one will you go to? The only selling it for less, right? That's the thing, no one looks at quality,” argues 55-year-old Srinivasalu. It essentially boils down to time and money.
In a world where products are made quickly and abundantly and fast fashion is the norm, communities like the Anakaputhur weavers’ are the collateral damage.
A power loom produces 14 sarees in the time a handloom weaves one. The former is also significantly cheaper. "There is no profession worse than this,” mutters Sri Natarajar, 75; the weavers’ anger is evident.
70-year-old Pavanamma is the sole yarn spinner in Kumar's mill.
Unnamalai, 49, is the only female weaver in Kumar’s mill. Her entire house fits into a camera frame. “We don’t have anyone looking out for us,” the widow says morosely. Her son’s future is all she cares about. Her voice trembles slightly when she says, “I really don’t know what I’ll do when they shut down the loom."
Less than a kilometer outside of Anakaputhur, Sekhar is building a new loom. “The loom will be on the ground floor and our house will be on the first,” Karthik, Sekhar’s 23-year-old son, informs me. The loom will house 12 mills and is three times the size of the one his father presently runs. It is imperative to Sekhar and Padma that this tradition is carried forward. “Not just our kids, our grandchildren should also do this. This runs in our family. We can’t let it go so easily,” Padma asserts.
Unnamalai enters her house, which was given to her parents by a temple close by.
But not everyone shares this sentiment — not even in Sekhar's own family. His older sister Janaki has spent more than a third of her 64-year-long life inside the first loom on the left side of his mill. The saree she’s weaving is a deep crimson red shade with a complementing tangerine border. She talks about her son, a married electrician in his thirties. When questioned about why he didn’t take up the art of weaving, she wistfully says, “This should die with us."