And now, driven by designers, it is showing signs of a resurgence in the domestic market
Shibnath Basak notices visitors through the warp screen, turning his head for the briefest of moments. It is past dusk and Shibnath, a thinly built man who has been weaving saris for 35 years, is working in a dimly lit room with a tin roof and no fan. His voice is barely audible over the click-clack-click-clack of the loom. Shibnath, 58, has seen better days. “Bhaat jotena aajkal (the money I earn doesn’t even provide for food)," he says. He had to sell the two looms he owned to get his daughter married. These days, he works at a friend’s loom in Phulia’s Basak Para.
In Chatkatala, about 3km from Basak Para and on the other side of National Highway 12, the plight of the Taanti community is no different. Barun Basak, 30, has a master’s in history but weaves scarves for a living. “Ekhane kono kaaj nei (there is no work here)," he says. His father is a weaver, so are his uncles and cousins. There are no government jobs, and the income from agricultural work is meagre. Barun’s options are either taant bona (weaving) or selling tele bhaja (deep-fried snacks). “Men my age are moving to Gujarat or Kerala, even if to work as day labourers. They earn better," says Barun.
Shibnath and Barun symbolize the state of the weaver today in Phulia, which is now spelt more commonly as Fulia. Once the poster village of West Bengal handlooms, life for weavers here is now a constant struggle. Phulia is famous for its Tangail saris, similar to the Dhaka Jamdani in technique but softer in feel, with the motifs spaced out. The Phulia Tangail is woven in silk as well as cotton.
Its sturdy contribution to exports till the early 2000s was derailed by the sluggish economic conditions that led to the slowdown of 2008-09. The continuing conflict with the power-loom industry, which controls a large share of the domestic market, too has taken its toll.
According to the 2011 census, Phulia, a small town in West Bengal’s Nadia district, has a population of 55,653 and a literacy rate of 82%, higher than the state average of 76%. The early weavers here were refugees from East Pakistan who crossed over after Partition in 1947. Others came from Bangladesh after the 1971 war, and trace their lineage to the Tangail weavers near Dhaka.
In the 1970s, three cooperative societies—Fulia Tangail Shari Bayan Silpa Samabay Samity Ltd, Tangail Tantujibi Unnayan Samabay Samity Ltd and Natun Fulia Tantubay Samabay Samity Ltd—were set up under the West Bengal Co-operative Societies Act, 1973. This resulted in a surge in production. In 1985, these societies started diversifying—producing scarves and yardage for the export market and experimenting with yarns. The designs became more subtle and the colour palette, softer. Markets such as Japan, West Asia and Europe became fertile territory.
“At its peak, around the turn of the century, exports accounted for almost 40% of the production in Phulia," says Haripada Basak, 70. Haripada, now a consultant with the Tangail Tantujibi Unnayan Samabay Samity, came to Phulia in 1969, started as a weaver and went on to become a cooperative society office-bearer. “Exports made the weavers technically competitive and taught them quality control. They discovered new patterns, designs, textures and colours," he says.
At its peak in the early 2000s, Phulia had close to 75,000 looms. “There are less than 20,000 looms now," says Haripada. Exports plummeted after the economic slowdown and now account for less than 10% of the overall production; the figures weren’t readily available. Many weavers sold their looms for the price of scrap and left the state in search of better livelihoods.
The government has tried to help, sanctioning grants, but the weaving community and cooperative society officials say the money has not reached those it was intended for.
There are three kinds of weavers in Phulia. The independents, those who are part of a cooperative and those who work for moneylenders. Most of them are disenchanted, overworked and underpaid. Sari prices range from ₹ 600 for the plain Matha—a pure cotton weave with the simplest of motifs—to thousands of rupees for Jamdanis in fine silk. For a sari that sells for ₹ 600, the raw material costs ₹ 200-250. The weaver gets up to ₹ 200, the rest goes to the seller. A weaver produces around five saris a week, working 10-12 hours a day. Depending upon the intricacy of the design, he earns ₹ 100-400 per sari.
Power-looms definitely pose a problem, especially those run in neighbouring Ranaghat, Nabadwip and Shantipur. Each produces around 10 saris daily. Their production costs are lower and, therefore, so is their retail price. It is tough even for the trained eye to differentiate between handloom and power-loom, and the market is flooded with power-loom fabrics parading as handloom.
But all is not lost yet.
A resurgence in domestic demand, driven by designers committed to handloom sustenance, is now being noticed. “Indians love saris. There is a huge potential in domestic markets," says Bappaditya Biswas of bai lou Associates in Kolkata. Kolkata designers like him and Paromita Banerjee, a product of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, have been working with the weavers. Besides saris, Banerjee uses handlooms to make a number of relaxed silhouettes, while bai lou’s Abir sari, a pure cotton weave priced at ₹ 750, is a good example of affordable design. It helps Biswas “go back to the weavers with more work".
“People were so fixated on exports that they forgot the domestic market," says Biswas, who works with over 1,000 weavers in the region. He believes that the credit for the success of Phulia should go to the highly skilled weavers. “Their versatility and adaptability meant that they were suitable for designers. These traits gave them an edge over weavers from different clusters."
Haripada gives credit to the designers too. “It is because of the efforts of the designers that the Tangail is now known beyond West Bengal," he says, adding that exhibitions ensure exposure for their saris. Designers are experimenting with patterns, textures and colours for a contemporary look. Bai lou, for example, has introduced a thicker geecha, a yarn traditionally used for curtains, in the Tangail.
Back in Basak Para, Tarak Baidya, 42, is weaving an intricate Tangail. He works with the patience of a monk and the precision of a surgeon. The click-clack of multiple looms mixing with Bangla songs playing over a speaker and the Hare Krishna chants of fellow weavers reach a mesmerizing crescendo. Baidya wipes the sari on his jacquard with a wet cloth, then beats it with a stick and wipes it again with a dry cloth before rubbing it with atta (dough). He loosens the warp, wets his palm and squeezes the sari between his palms before stretching out the warp again to roll the sari around it. This exercise will keep the sari straight.
Baidya’s 18-year-old son dropped out of school after class VIII and is now doing odd jobs. His 15-year-old daughter, in class XI, hopes to do something else. They’re not interested in weaving. “It is three months before pujo (Durga Puja) and work pressure is high," says Baidya. After that, it will be business as usual. Which means uncertainty.
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