Ramaswamy enjoyed his bath, it was the only time he could call his own, when no one would disturb him or his thoughts. As he poured the sombu of cold water over his head, he dreamt design and colour. He came out smiling with a wet towel round his torso and went straight to the deities on the wall, and lit the camphor his wife kept ready for him in the dhoopakalsa. The ringing of the puja bell told everyone in the household that Ramu was almost ready for his work. Ponni handed him a plate of two dry dosais and yesterday’s chutney. He wolfed it down with indecent haste with a hot cup of coffee. Ponni was a good wife.
He touched the loom and pressed his hands to his forehead. The loom. So sacred to him. Ramaswamy lived in Kancheepuram, the sacred temple city which gave him life and now probably his death. The city of weavers like him who worked so hard that their joints pained with the continuous work. They believed they were descendents of the Sage Markandeya weaver of the Gods. They were told that the first fabric woven was by him out of lotus fibre.
People who visited Kancheepuram were struck at the coloured warp threads stretched across the roads, tied to forked bamboo poles. Early morning weavers could be seen carrying the warp on giant spools and setting them up.
Every home in Kancheepuram the silk city had a loom. The loom was the centre of their daily life, it was like a wooden giant occupying the biggest room in the house. All life flowed round the loom. Adjacent was a backyard leading to the kitchen where he could see Ponni start her daily chores of cooking and cleaning. Children played in the yard, vessels were washed, and Ponni would sit there and spin the yarn and load it on bobbins and sang softly to herself. The loom gave them life, and the children sensing it would toddle across to their father. One of Ramu’s children would sleep under the loom as it was so cool.
Ramu eased himself into his hard stone seat and dangled his aching legs into the pit provided below. Above the jala with its tentacles of threads supervised his every move like a friendly giant spider. When he reached out and touched the heddles, it was taal to every beat. When he stroked the warp threads stretched across the loom, it was like playing a stringed instrument, a raga, it stirred his very soul.
His little son would watch him intently and when he was old enough he would come home from school and help to pass the shuttle, his slim nimble fingers would guide it through the threads. Ramu managed to weave korvai sarees, and hugged the payment of 5,000 rupees for a set of three sarees as just payment. There was money to be made in silk sarees, but cotton saree wages were very low, and weavers like him refused to weave them.
And then, in a well meaning move the Child Labour Act came into existence in the mid 80s. No child under twelve could work, even in their parents’ homes, and the repercussions would be serious. Muthu, Ramu’s son was on an occasion twining the yarn in a spirit of playfulness. The Inspectors, tipped off, marched in and clamped a fine of 500 rupees for breaking the law, and no amount of pleading would make them relent. The oral tradition of weaving handlooms was slowly but surely being broken. Something which was as natural as breathing was taken away from them and that led to the death of the korvai sarees. If a family could not manage it, they could not afford to pay extra for outside labour.
Long hours at the pit loom led to arthritis, straining led to eye problems. Ramu sighed. His children would be educated and they would no longer be slaves to a vocation which killed them sapping them of all energy.
NGOs sympathised, they brought in innovation and high wages for a project, and an exhibition. After that a vaccum. No market visibility.The government offered them support, continuous work if they joined co-operatives. Ramu refused, he had his own reasons.
The wheel of destiny had to come full circle. Suddenly handlooms were celebrated, the weavers venerated, old designs were rehashed by die hard traditionalists, every effort was a giant drop in the ocean. But the damage was done. The young were no longer interested, they drifted off to the corporate world which had the stamp of respectability where they were offered better wages and sustainable livelihoods…
As he wove, Ponni brought him hot pakodas. He refused to touch them as it would dirty the yarn. She fed him one. “What are you weaving?” she asked. “A sari for my queen for Deepavalli,” he said. He placed the mirror under the warp and a beautiful small intricately woven border of deep pink and gold showed itself. “At least this year I can afford it!” he said.
“Yes we will see better times,” said Ponni, chuckling with the typical optimism that she was blessed with, knowing that they would always be mired in the groove of a traditional vocation as they knew no other skill. And once Muthu started earning, they could retire and live in comfort……