Hoardings of women in Uppada saris dot the narrow, spotless streets of Uppada-Kothapalli, twin villages in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district. This is the home of the Uppada Jamdani, or the Andhra Uppada sari. On some streets, every third home is a sari shop.

Uppada is one of the most time- and labour-intensive weaving traditions, woven with tapestry-like patterns of paisleys, flowers, leaves, creepers and geometric designs. It traces the story of the Bengal Jamdani (a Persian term, jam means flower and dani, vase), brought to the south and recreated with a local resonance.

We met Rao, who was dressed in a white lungi and white shirt, at his family house in Uppada. Much has changed since his days as a weaver. A handloom that was once considered too understated for lovers of Tamil Nadu’s glitzy Kanjeevaram is today recognized as a silk weave, locally called the Uppada pattu cheeralu. The Uppada sari even has the protective Geographical Indication (GI) status, which recognizes its origin.

Rao’s 57-year-old son, L.V.V. Satyanarayana, who runs a vast local business, says contemporary wearers looking for a subtler aesthetic have begun preferring the Uppada’s elegance to the heavy and ceremonial Kanjeevaram. His nephews, G.V.V. Satish and L.V.R. G.K. Kumar, handle the marketing in major cities across the country.

The three generations of this family have been witness to the rise, fall and rise of the Uppada and the weaver community.

Uppada, like most handlooms, lost some of its sheen in the 1980s. It was a time when Ikat and Banarasi brocade were better-known weaves. That is when Satyanarayana, then a fresh engineering graduate, was pulled into the family business.

Over the decades, he crafted a revival strategy, forgoing the “new-new" for the “old-new", digging out patterns woven by his father in the 1950s from photo albums, experimenting with lesser used colours and dyeing processes, restrategizing the use of zari.

“A new design vocabulary, modernized colour palette, balance between delicate patterns and zari, and the naturally light drape have made the Uppada a modern treasure," he says.

In all, the area, a 4-hour drive from Visakhapatnam, has around 3,000 looms, with fishery providing the only professional competition. The weavers’ houses are pucca, freshly painted, with small courtyards. Each house has the apparatus for handloom, as well as plastic furniture, a television set, wooden beds, steel utensils and gas stoves. Some have washing machines too. Weavers earn 10,000-25,000 per family depending on the number of saris they can weave in a month.

In the village stores, cotton or silk Uppadas start from 5,500 and go up to 50,000 if the sari is densely patterned. In cities, it is difficult to find a genuine Uppada for less than 10,000, and the best ones cost more than 2 lakh. Retail prices are dependent too on the quantity of silver zari (dipped in gold) used.

The rhetoric around saving handlooms in modern India, and the abject poverty attached to weaving, has no echo here. There are no signs of the havoc supposedly wreaked by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), politically seen as the culprit that diverted skilled rural weavers from handlooms to unskilled work in exchange for regular minimum wages. One weaver’s son we met had just finished a PhD, another had completed a master’s in technology and was scouting for a job abroad. “Fifty per cent of the weavers themselves are graduates," says Satyanarayana.

On the surface, this is rural utopia.

Yet the “Uppada brand", as Satyanarayana refers to it, has been commercialized—and not every trader sells the authentic version. The inauthentic versions use poor-quality silk yarn and inferior zari, and look like cheap imitations of regional sari weaves. It takes anywhere from a week to a fortnight to complete an original sari, depending on yarn, design, and the number of weavers working on a piece. Most weavers prefer simpler patterns, rather than the old intricate designs, so they can complete a sari faster. In the process, intricacy and craftsmanship have suffered.

Forty per cent of all Uppada weavers are women, but in most households every family member (including adolescents and younger children) spins and weaves.

“Child labour" in Uppada has, in fact, become a contentious issue, though it continues to be a disturbing reality across the country’s handloom sector. Senior crafts expert Rta Kapur Chishti, author of Saris: Tradition And Beyond, is categorical. “I do not touch Uppada for my home label Taan Baan because of child labour. There is no justification for it," she says. Delhi-based textile designer Pradeep Pillai, who used to work in the Uppada cluster for Jiyo!, the artisanal label of the Asian Heritage Foundation, before branching out on his own, agrees. The weave greatly interests him, but the truth of child labour keeps him at bay.

Most of the weavers don’t look at it like that. They say they are just imparting traditional hand-skills, and the discipline learnt through focused weaving, to children rather than seeing them “waste time" after school.

Designer Latha Tummuru, who handles design and marketing at the Secunderabad-based Dastkar Andhra, which works on issues faced by the handloom sector in the Andhra and Telangana regions, persuasively argues the other side: “I have a mixed response to this. Uppada weavers involve children but not at the cost of education, and don’t hire child labour from outside the family. Most children go to private schools. Weavers believe in passing skills down generations. We should either be ready to let indigenous crafts die without lamenting or make space for adolescents being taught to weave after school."

Certainly, in skill and design, Uppadas have a strong case against the fashion industry’s disinterest in them. From stunning whites and beiges in Khadi or cotton, slim, raw-silk temple borders, flamboyant, gold-patterned silken ones in neon green, vermilion red and shocking purple, this is design cornucopia. Some saris would rival a diaphanous muslin Jamdani; others are intricate and elaborate enough to rival a Banarasi. Yet the Uppada fabric has never been improvised for salwar-kameez sets (Satyanarayana says they have tried weaving stoles and dress material, but to little commercial gain) or for diffusion garments, like sherwanis, sari blouses and tunics, that have traditionally used Banarasi fabric, or Chanderi now.

The day after we reach the village, there is an idea exchange session, organized by the Vijayawada-based Weavers’ Service Centre (WSC), for Uppada traders and master craftsmen at the local centre, set up in 1938 (the area boasts of a President’s award, and a National Award for master craftsmen). M. Joga Rao, the WSC’s technical superintendent, is joined by designers and research and development experts from southern cities as they discuss customer feedback, new designs and sample patterns that reflect emerging market taste. The meeting is a four-monthly affair, the stencil designs a stunning sight for outsiders. But the weavers are more keen to discuss wages, technical support for better looms, or the quality of silk yarn from mills.

Subsidies and funds for the handloom sector are always a concern. Cotton weaving has few takers; silk is easier to weave, less expensive, and more popular in urban markets, say the experts. “A majority of weavers are not proud of artisanal traditions, they have to be constantly reminded about them over commercial considerations," says A. Ramachandran, a designer from the Chennai centre. He believes handloom policies focus on weaver uplift, not the craft or the product.

In cities, the Uppada is absent in fashion but sells well in stores that stock handloom, in crafts bazaars or Cottage Industries emporia. New Delhi’s L’affaire stores sell a beautifully curated range priced between 9,000 and 2.35 lakh. “We have been stocking Uppadas for the last 35 years but I notice a more discerning demand in the last couple of years," says Krishna Aroop, owner and design director of L’affaire. Aroop collaborates with weavers from Uppada, works on colour charts and designs favoured by his Delhi clientele, and selects what’s finally displayed.

If the fashion industry needs reasons to experiment with the Uppada, here’s one: bringing a flourish to the fascinating cotton Uppada, woven with the world’s most sought after raw material, but becoming rare today.

Click here for the first story in this series.

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