Reviving the centuries-old Udupi sari

Sumangala, a weaver from Kinnigoli
Sumangala, a weaver from Kinnigoli

Summary

How a non-profit is trying to revive a 170-year-old handloom sari in Karnataka

Sharadha (who goes by one name), 50, was about 12 years old when she first wove a sari. It was a cut-border Udupi sari, a unique technique used to weave contrasting solid colours in the border.

The Udupi sari, which got the geographical indication (GI) tag in 2016, is exclusive to Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts of Karnataka and the craft goes back 170 years. Sharadha is among the 100-odd weavers, from about 5,000 in the 1980s, who still practise the craft. Woven using the all-wood Malabar frame loom introduced by the Basel Mission, a Christian missionary society, in 1844, the sari usually has a plain or chequered body with contrasting colours on the pallu and border. While weaving, rice starch is applied to the yarn using a brush made from the fishtail palm tree to prevent yarn breakage.

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The Udupi sari started fading away in the 1980s with the introduction of power looms—much like in the case of other handloom saris. Finding weaving unsustainable, weavers stopped making them. “My family had been weaving the Udupi sari since my great-grandfather’s generation, but in my 20s, I saw the decline. We would get about 60 for one sari. So, my family members started working as labourers," says Sharadha, who quit weaving after getting married in 2000. “No one practised at my in-laws’ place."

The dwindling numbers almost went unnoticed until 2015 when Mamatha Rai, a former college lecturer in Mangaluru and a long-time Udupi sari loyalist, was gifted one by her businessman husband B.C. Shetty. While buying the sari, Shetty was informed by the seller that it was from the last batch by the last weaver of Mangalore Weavers’ Society. The society stopped manufacturing Udupi saris around 2015 as it was no longer financially viable.

Realising that the unique textile would disappear without intervention, Rai and Shetty initiated the Udupi Saree Revival Project in 2018. The project was the first initiative of Kadike Trust, a non-profit organisation the couple co-founded earlier that year with a group of friends to support sustainable rural livelihoods.

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“Udupi saris are not just culturally important but also the need of the hour," says Rai. “They are handcrafted and made without using electricity. In a world that’s struggling with the consequences of climate change, this process brings focus on a traditional art that doesn’t deplete resources."

As they started working on the Udupi Saree Revival Project and visiting the remaining weavers, a grim picture emerged. The number of weavers had decreased to 42 in 2018 from about 5,000 in the 1980s. Until the 1990s, there were eight handloom cooperative societies in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts and more than 500 weavers in each society. In 2018, there were only five active cooperative societies and one Karnataka Handloom Development Corporation (KHDC) unit. All the 42 weavers were aged above 50.

The revival effort needed not just the former weavers back at the loom but also youngsters who could continue the tradition, else the craft would disappear. Rai and Shetty, along with Madhava Shettigar of Talipady Weavers Society (TWS) Kinnigoli, started visiting weavers and requesting them to return with a promise of fairer wages.

The Kadike Trust self-funded the awareness campaigns and contributed to workers’ compensation during their training period. “It was mostly our funds and those received through voluntary donations," Rai says.

Sharadha was among the first to join the revival movement. “When I heard about the programme and the pay, I decided to start weaving again," says Sharadha, who lives in Kinnigoli. “I grew up (in Haleyangadi) watching my family make these saris, so it felt like I didn’t even have to learn," she recalls.

Then there is Sumangala (who goes by one name), 50, from Kinnigoli, who had been rolling beedis for about two decades to sustain herself when Rai approached her in 2019. “I made my first Udupi sari when I was in class IX. It’s a skill I grew up honing so coming back to it is like homecoming," she says. Today, she makes enough to keep her from having to roll beedis.

Weavers, who were earning about 250 a day earlier, now get 400-600 per regular sari and 850-1,000 for each naturally dyed one. On average, it takes two to three days to make a sari; weavers make 10-15 saris a month. The retail price ranges from 1,300 for a simple sari with no design to 6,000 for a naturally dyed sari with motifs.

As for marketing and selling the saris, Rai depends mostly on social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. The customers are spread across Bengaluru, Mysuru, Chennai, Gurugram and Kolkata as well as the UK, US and Canada.

The Kadike Trust also organises training and workshops to recruit younger weavers through financial assistance provided by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard). To recognise the contribution of weavers, the trust honours weavers through awards as well.

Currently, there are about 100 weavers in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts, including many aged under 50. “When reviving an art, it’s not just about awareness. It’s more about addressing the deep-rooted issues," says Rai. “By making fair pay a focus and bringing dignity to the profession, we have been able to get more younger weavers on loom."

One of them is Surathkal resident Harshita (she uses only one name). The 32-year-old has a diploma in electronics and communications. She couldn’t find a job during covid-19, so decided to give weaving Udupi saris a shot in 2020. “I had heard that my grandparents used to weave Udupi saris but by the time I was born, they had left the profession. I’m continuing the tradition now," she says.

In the past five years, the trust has also introduced natural dyes to make it more eco-friendly. This includes chogaru, a reddish-brown liquid made by processing areca nut. “It takes a longer time and includes various processes to make the natural dyes so we don’t make it as often but there is a high demand from buyers, especially youngsters," says Rai.

 Soumya Uppinangadi in an Udupi sari on her wedding day
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Soumya Uppinangadi in an Udupi sari on her wedding day

Like Soumya Uppinangadi, 30, an artist from Kumta, who wore a naturally dyed Udupi sari for her wedding in December 2023. “I wanted to wear something that I can wear again," says Uppinangadi. “Also, it’s from my region, so, of course, I feel extra proud of it."

Aisiri Amin is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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