India: Periya Negamam from Tamil Nadu – wrapped in tradition

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Bangalore: Whether you call it fast fashion, mass production or machine weaving, textile industrialization has come a long way and taken root, but that does not mean that slow, refined and custom has run out.

Although the power loom has taken over most of the textile industry in India, there are still a few clusters of hand looms in rural India that hang by the thread, preserving their ancestral heritage in through their sweat and blood.

The state of Tamil Nadu is known for its long tradition of hand weaving, with several clusters spread across the southern state producing cotton and silk sarees, sheets, towels, lungs and other fabrics.

One such group is Periya Negamam hamlet which has been involved in weaving looms for several centuries.

The tradition is so deeply rooted in this village that the weaving pits and all the other accessories that accompany them are carefully integrated into the small houses which serve as both homes and workshops for the inhabitants.

Deserted but not empty

Located about 15 kilometers north of Pollachi in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu, the quaint little hamlet greets visitors with deserted streets.

At first glance, a visitor might assume it is haunted or abandoned, but before any conclusions can be drawn, a rhythmic din indicates there is more to this village than meets the eye.

The handloom pits are neatly integrated into the tiny cottages of Periya Negamam, serving as homes and workshops.
Image credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

The click-clack of the hand weaving pits immediately draws you to the nearest of the neatly curated townhouses. You walk into any house and you will find its members, down through the generations, busy with an activity related to the weaving of a sari.

With three generations of each family busy spinning, dyeing, weaving or warping, this is a village that knows no other trade.

Periya Negamam’s nearly 300 families start their day as early as 5 a.m., working on their looms known to weave some of the region’s most sought-after cotton saris.

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Negamam cotton sarees are among the most sought after drapes in South India.
Image credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

But, more than its exquisite hand-woven saris, Negamam stands out as the torchbearer of an ancient craft that is gradually wearing down in history.

“I come from a long line of hand weavers. My parents, my uncle, my brother and my wife are all weavers. I have been working as a weaver for almost 28 years now. We work on the basis of an employment contract. We receive orders with the raw material. We weave the saris according to the order,” Nagaraja, 45, said.

It takes up to two days for Nagaraja to finish a sari, but he doesn’t do it alone, the process also involves his wife.

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Master weaver Nagaraja has been practicing his family tradition for nearly three decades, with all generations of his family involved in the business.
Image credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

“Making a sari involves different steps which we complete together as a family. My wife and I together earn 1,100 per sari. My daughter is also learning this craft, she learns a bit every day after school. My wife balancing weaving and household chores well, we complement each other as a family,” added Nagaraja, who took over as master weaver from his father Dandapani.

Too old now to go through the rigors of handling a loom, the septuagenarian Dandapani now takes care, with his wife Savitri, of spinning the freshly arrived cotton fiber into fine threads on motorized spinning wheels.

The elderly couple wove saris for 30 years before switching to spinning nine years ago.

Fading Fortunes

But not all the families in the village have the same luck as Dandapani and Savitri to see their children and grandchildren carry on their ancestral tradition.

In the neighboring cottage, a giant winding wheel is the first thing that catches your eye when entering the gate.

However, the weft wheel came to a screeching halt as its last follower died recently, leaving only his elderly widow to practice the craft whenever she could.

Armugam and his wife Manonmaniam have been spinning the wheel together for three decades, specializing in the weft process. Not anymore.

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Manonmaniam with her late husband Armugam who passed away recently, leaving her alone to continue the tradition.
Image credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

“We did this together for 27 years. But, just now. Our only son is educated. He studied chemistry and works in Coimbatore as a medical representative. This work enabled us to meet our needs, we earned around 10,000 rupees per month, it was our only source of income. Now that my husband is gone, I can barely manage on my own,” Manonmaniam said.

The widow’s story echoes through the deserted streets of Periya Negamam, with all the other households struggling with the challenges of modernity.

New shades

However, all is not lost, with each young man setting off in search of greener pastures, ancient weavers find new ways to weave the fabric of their lives in new colors and patterns.

Besides warping and weft, dyeing plays an important role in the production of a saree, and a family in the village has mastered the art of giving sarees new shades.

“Our ancestors were actually weavers. But, our father started this dye business and now we are continuing this tradition. My brother and I work together as dyers. We dye around 20 sarees per day and earn Rs100 per saree. Our collective monthly income is around 60,000 rupees, which we have to support our big joint family,” said Kamachi Sundaram, who has been working as a dry cleaner for more than two decades.

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Kamachi Sundaram, among the torchbearers of Periya Negamam dyeing heritage.
Image credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

Negamam dyers used natural colors until recently, but Sundaram says the high cost of resources and low profit margins have forced them to opt for artificial dyes.

Although the power loom has taken over most of the textile industry in India, there are still a few connoisseurs who appreciate the fineness of handcrafted fabrics.

This is where distributors like Laxmi Textiles come into the picture.

Working exclusively with the weavers of Negamam, the local company forms a vital link between the weavers and their few customers.

However, neither this link nor the generous patronage of a few connoisseurs would perhaps be enough to keep the looms running for long.

– Shafaat Shahbandari is a journalist based in Bengaluru.

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