Kerala handloom makes last-ditch effort to knit fortunes

Written by M Sarita Varma | Thiruvananthapuram | Updated: Aug 23 2010, 07:08am hrs
This Onam, Kerala handloom is making a fresh attempt to revive itself. The Kerala government has introduced a new silk brand called Thiruvananthapuram Silks, which industry watchers say is a last-ditch effort to save the once dominant handloom sector. Of late, competition from large private textile mills has eroded the competitive edge of the handloom sector in Kerala.

With fortunes plunging, the handloom sector in the state has been facing a mass exodus of trained weavers. Only a couple of private players are making sustainable profits through seasonal sale of jari-edged traditional handloom products. In fact, at one point a handloom firm in Kannur had even undertaken curtains and furnishings in the White House, under Hilary Clintons patronage.

However, in the last decade the number of handloom workers in Kerala has come down from 5 lakh to a mere 2 lakh. Last year, the Kerala handloom sector made profits of just Rs 2 crore, even after appointing actor Mohanlal as its brand ambassador. The launch of Thiruvananthapuram silk brand is an effort to harness the idling capacities in over 100 handloom units in south Kerala, says state industry minister Elamaram Karim.

Besides low productivity, most handloom co-operatives are heaved down by low working capital, huge bank liabilities and inadequate marketing skills. During its heyday, Kerala used to export materials to Europe, apart from states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.

For all my optimism, I fail to see sunny days for Kerala handloom, Captain Krishnan Nair, chairman of the Leela Group of Hotels told FE. He himself had started his career as a handloom entrepreneur in Kerala. Both the export and domestic markets have shrunk, says the 86-year old Nair.

But despite the prevailing pessimism, the 100-odd handloom units in south Kerala are not ready to give up. Thiruvananthapuram silk gives top priority to design exclusivity. The silk sarees will not be replicated either on power-looms or in any other part of the country. The finishing details, including, embellishments and other value- addition will come solely from the hands of the local weavers, says VR Panicker, Textile and Traditional Industries Protection Council (TIPCO) Chairman.

TIPCO has roped in some star textile designers to supply novel designs, including actor-turned-designer Poornima Bhagyaraj, Namrita Bhatia, Mausmi Chatterjee, Anju Nair and Kala Thampi.

Although there is an array of fresh designs in the new brand, we are aware of the big platter of choices that Onam seasonal sales offer to the consumer, says EP Suresh, who runs a handloom co-operative.

In Kerala, a handloom weaver earns about Rs 100 per day, against Rs 200 in agriculture wage. To improve the local demand, the state government had set in a motion a campaign to spur use of handloom in school uniforms, jails and government offices.

This has kindled some interest to the effect that people want to wear handloom, says Vatsamma Mathew, a co-operative inspector. But stocks pile up because we are not able to be price-competitive with the big mills, she adds.

According to a study by SITRA (South India Textile Research Association), in the 1990s Kerala topped the countrys per capita textile consumption.

Even today during the Onam season, when consumer hands are enriched by revival of price margins in rubber and hill produce like cardamom, Kerala witnesses the mushrooming of new textile showrooms, sporting wide choices in price and quality.

But unless efforts to churn out fresh designs are matched by adequate marketing skills, even the Onam high may give a bumpy ride to handlooms silk journey in Kerala.