One of the most intricate double ikat weaves, the Telia Rumal, stands at a curious crossroad
The steady clack of the flying shuttle loom greets me at Buggaramulu Jella’s modest home in Koyyalagudem village in Telangana’s Nalgonda district. Jella, a slight, bespectacled man with a ready smile, is bent over the loom, smoothening the swathe of bright red that borders the patterned body of the drape.
Jella is one of the few who weave the Telia Rumal sari. Creating the distinctive red, white and black sari can take close to a month, says the 45-year-old. “Even creating the design is time-consuming," he says, his finger trailing across the graph sheet with the current pattern: a trail of diamonds enclosing a floral motif, a Telia classic.
The Telia Rumal is a double Ikat weave. The word Ikat is derived from the Malay-Indonesian word mang-ikat, which means to bind or knot, as the yarn that goes into the weave is tied and dyed before being woven. Telia comes from tel (oil)—in Chirala, a coastal town in Guntur district where the Telia Rumal was woven in the 19th century, the yarn was treated with a mixture of castor ash and oil to help it retain colour and lend it cooling properties. The word rumal (handkerchief) stuck because this was a square piece of cloth with geometric patterns used as headgear. According to Uzramma, the managing trustee of the Dastkar Andhra Trust, Morinda tinctoria, commonly known as the Indian mulberry or aal, was used for the distinctive red hue.
The properties of tel and the lineage of rumal make the Telia Rumal distinct from, and superior to, the Nalgonda Ikat or Pochampally Ikat saris.
A Telia sari is a coveted piece in the region, or so believes Sudha Rani, chief executive officer of Abhihaara Social Enterprise, a 100% weaver-led social enterprise that uses Ikat weaving techniques. Her stall at a recent crafts council exhibition at Kamma Sangam, in the commercial area of Ameerpet in Hyderabad, was piled with Ikat garments and fabrics—both single and double Ikats. The highlights were three Telia Rumal saris draped tapestry-like on a wall behind her. “Making a Telia sari is a slow process. Unlike single Ikat, a double Ikat weave cannot easily be copied on a power-loom," she says, adding that it is a very complex weave requiring immense skill, patience and time.
To put it simply, the warp or the weft is tied and dyed before weaving in a single Ikat, while both the warp and weft are tied and dyed in the case of the double Ikat. Only three countries now produce double Ikat—India, Japan and Indonesia.
A cotton Telia sari costs around ₹ 8,000 while the price of a silk one can go up to ₹ 20,000. “Mass-market buyers cannot rationalize this price," explains Usha Sarvayalu of the Crafts Council of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which is engaged in building awareness, driving sustainability and promoting the artisans and crafts of this region. “It is the elitist market that has begun to make the difference to Telia," she says.
Currently, while the Telia weave is mostly sold as saris, Sudha says dupattas and stoles too are becoming popular. They’re also being made into table covers or wall hangings. The Telia fabric lends itself well to what is called fusion wear, says Bengaluru-based designer Deepika Govind. “I did a cotton collection with Telia this summer and people responded very favourably to it," she says. “The Telia has evolved so much from what it was originally—a headgear for Arab travellers."
For Chirala’s proximity to the sea enabled exports to Africa and Arabia, where it was used to make keffiyehs and turbans. It’s important to clarify here that Telia Rumal and Madras Checks are not synonymous, as many assume. Madras Check was a lightweight cotton fabric with plaid design, made in the erstwhile Madras Presidency, and was exported to the African market as a headscarf or lower garment. The Telia Rumal, meant for the Middle-Eastern market, was worn primarily around the neck for its tel (oil), to keep dryness at bay. Madras Check was a handwoven product, but not always an Ikat weave. The Telia Rumal is, unambiguously, a form of Ikat.
It was only in 1950 that Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, then the chairperson of the All India Handicrafts Board, convinced the weavers to translate the Telia designs into saris.
It was in 1975, while working for the Weavers’ Service Centre run by the Union textiles ministry, that craftsman Gajam Govardhana visited Chirala. There, he learnt how to make the Telia Rumal. He took the craft back to his village—Puttapaka, about 250km from Chirala—from where it spread to other weaving clusters in Nalgonda district. “1980-90 was the golden age of handlooms," reminisces Govardhana, who has won several honours, including the Padma Shri, the Unesco Award of Excellence and the National Master Weaver Award.
After 1990, things changed. Yarn subsidies were reduced and power-looms proliferated. The economic reforms of 1991 were disastrous for the Indian handloom sector, says a study on the handloom industry in Andhra Pradesh, published in 2013 in the American International Journal Of Research In Humanities, Arts And Social Sciences. “The neo-liberal economic reforms initiated by the government since 1991 have aggravated the crisis in handloom," says the report, adding that many weavers were forced to abandon their profession and seek more lucrative jobs.
The tide may be turning though. “There are enough people willing to buy Telia—but the issue is its supply. Very few weavers make this today," says Sudha, adding that there are less than 50 weavers or so in Nalgonda. And the next generation is eschewing the craft completely. The same argument finds an echo in every weaver’s home here. “The middlemen cheat us," says 55-year-old Sadananda. “I work 8 hours a day and my eyes are failing now—but if I do not concentrate and make even a slight mistake, the middlemen will deduct it from my wages," he says.
Dastkar Andhra workers say the government should have intervened when Telia Rumals were being duplicated on power-looms. “Power-looms and mills get much better subsidies," says Sudha, adding that even the meagre yarn subsidies offered generally benefit only the master-weaver. Weavers do get pensions and artisan cards granting access to schemes for marketing and credit but “it is very piecemeal and not enough", she adds.
Thankfully, a number of individuals and organizations are now rooting for the Telia Rumal. Microsoft, for instance, is planning to feature the Telia Rumal in a coffee-table book on the dying art forms of Telangana, says Sudha. The interest in handloom today is also aided by social media platforms. Last year, for instance, the Telia sari was featured several times over on the #100sareepact blog launched by Ally Matthan and Anju Maudgal Kadam.
Jella is hopeful. “I left weaving and ran an auto instead a few years ago," he says. “But things are looking better now, so I have returned to it."
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