Keshaviah, a weaver for 40 years, had high hopes that his expertise in the Ikat art would fetch him a better income. But the lack of adequate infrastructure and finances is not making his dreams come true. Pochampally weaves are tie-and-die designs, popularly known as Ikat. They are a century-old tradition and on par with well-known weaving centres in the south such as Kancheepuram, Dharmavaram, Venkatagiri and Gadwal.
Pochampally handloom products are well-known in India as well as in the export markets. Ikat is a process of tie-and-dye applied to the yarn, giving it different shades before it is woven into fabric. The uniqueness lies in the transfer of design and colouring into the warp and weft threads first. The fabric can be cotton, silk or sico (a mix of silk and cotton). Ikat is the first Indian textile process to obtain IPR protection under the Geographical Indications (GI) Act. It is ironic that this art is in deep trouble.
Bhoodan Pochampally, a mandal in Nalgonda district in Telangana, was once popularly known as the silk city of India. In a cluster of over 80 villages, it was buzzing with skilful weavers.
To benefit the weavers, the Pochampally Handloom Park Ltd was set up by 35-odd entrepreneurial master weavers. It is an integrated textile park that houses design, dyeing and weaving facilities for textiles under a single roof. It was inaugurated in 2008 and has been in operation for the last three years. Located in Kanumukkala in Pochampally mandal, the textile park is spread over 24 acres.
“We started the park with 550 looms but due to lack of working capital only 150 looms are currently in operation,” says Damodar, the director and CEO of the park. It has over 16 global customers and earned R3 crore last year and is hopeful of getting R5 crore this year. “This is just a beginning in exports. We are seeing huge demand for this weave but are unable to fulfil the requirements as we need additional finances,” he says. The park is in talks with the state government for infrastructural support, and with banks and private equity players for financial support. He says he needs at least R5 crore to revive this craft. The price of raw material has increased by 45% in the last few years.
The park was expected to produce niche high-end products, to conform to quality standards, and be flexible in manufacturing new products through product diversification and continuous innovation. It was also expected to produce custom-made designs, and stick to timely delivery. All this is difficult without proper investment coming in.
The GI mark, which was received in 2005, is yet to give a fresh lease of life to the handloom weavers of Pochampally. “Though there is a clear shift in the customer preference over the years, there is still a huge demand for the traditional and exquisite Pochampally handloom weaves among high-end customers and exporters. They have to reach the right market. The weavers are not properly paid for their back-breaking work. A weaver gets only R4,500-R8,000 a month.
The irony is that the world’s top 10 fashionable brands are now selling Pochampally products. The weave has attracted fashion players such as Reef, Loft, Calypso, Joie, Ann Taylor for stoles, shoes, women wear, scarves, even suitcase covers. The weavers are in the learning mode for newer designs rather than holding on to conventional designs because of the change in market dynamics. “There is a lot of interest from American and European retailers for genuine handloom weaves in both fabric and finished products,” Damodar says. But he hastens to add that there is need for marketing support. Brand value is diminishing due to spiralling prices in the local market. “There was huge demand for Pochampally sarees, both cotton and silk, and we used to sell over 100 sarees a month 5 years ago. Though there is still a lot of consumer interest, prices have pushed down sales,” says a saree retailer.
According to representatives from the weavers community, the domestic market for Pochampally silk sarees used to be R200 crore a few years ago. “The market for Pochampally sarees has been coming down gradually. In the last two years, we have witnessed a clear change in the customer’s choice. They opt for synthetic and embroidery sarees over these traditional Ikat tie-and-dye sarees, except on certain special occasions. Unsold stock is increasing in the looms,” the representatives said.
Several representations were made to the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh State Handloom Weavers’ Cooperative Society (APCO) to purchase the stock for the benefit of the weavers. But they are not willing to purchase stock from weavers who are not members of the cooperative society. “This stand of the APCO is not helping the weaving community, as nearly 90% of the weavers are not part of the cooperative society and only 10% are members. We have made representations to the state government but nothing has happened so far,” they said.
If the government does not come to the rescue of the weavers, the situation would worsen. Already, some traders operating in Pochampally have downed their shutters and have turned to other businesses for their livelihood. Weavers have also started shifting their base to the cities to find jobs in agencies which offer security services to corporates.
Ikat needs immediate support from the government in the form of assistance in marketing, branding and insurance to the weavers. There is a real danger of Pochampally weaves fading away in the near future.