Reviving Udupi Sarees Helps Preserve a Unique Karnataka Weaving Tradition

Being the second largest industry in the country whilst providing employment to over 4 million citizens, the weaving sector is a crown jewel of the nation. India has had a 2000 year old textile tradition with the mention of fabrics such as cotton and pashmina in the Puranas. Each state of the country produces a multitude of fabrics of the finest quality. The present day fashion has imposed modernity in it that has led us to drift from our culture and tradition. International brands such as Chanel, Valentino, Zara, Mango have invested in India due to its rich tradition of hand weaves.

India’s weaves held a significant place in the royal households for centuries. With power-looms and contemporary fashion taking over, these weaves and their weavers are suffering a blow. Among the many weaves of India, Karnataka weaves are one of the finest traditional weaves and they include a variety such as Ilkal, Patteda Anchu, Mysore Silk, Molakalmuru, Bagalkots, Guledgudd and the lesser known Udupi sarees. Kadike Trust, a group of like-minded people, inspired by Shri Prasanna Heggodu of Charaka Institute, came together in early 2018 to nurture eco-friendly rural livelihood practices, document indigenous knowledges and work towards the revival of Udupi Sarees.

CSP was in conversation with the Kadike Trust President, Smt Mamata Rai who gave us a detailed picture of the Udupi saree revival project.

Can you give us a brief history of the Udupi sarees?

The present major weaving community here is believed to have come from Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu. Here in Udupi they are known as ‘Padmashali’ community or ‘Shettigars’. Until the 19th century, pit looms were used for weaving. In 1844, Basel Mission introduced frame-looms in this region. The introduction of Malabar frame-looms with comfortable bench like weaving position attracted many people from other communities to weaving.

As a part of the freedom movement headed by Mahatma Gandhiji, 8 co-operative handloom societies were formed in undivided Dakshina Kannada. More than 5000 families  from different communities were engaged in weaving at the time. There was a great demand for Udupi sarees from all over Karnataka. Since Udupi Weavers Society was representing all the Weavers Societies, people began calling these sarees “Udupi Sarees”. At present production of Udupi sarees are carried out at five cooperative societies and one KHDC unit.

 

What material is used to make the Udupi sarees? What are the unique features of Udupi Sarees ?

The Udupi saree is woven using the best quality single ply combed cotton yarns for both warp and weft. Sarees are woven using yarns in counts 120” ,100”, 80", 60" and 40” for both warp and weft.  Nowadays,  100 and 120 counts are not used.  Artificial Zari or cotton yarns are used to create design in body, border and pallu portion .

The saree has plain or checkered design on the body and dobby or plain design in the border.  Light shades are used for the body, and bright and contrast colours for the border and pallu. The body of the saree is a simple plain weave.  Extra  patterns are woven on the border and pallu using the dobby mechanism by few weavers. In some sarees, small butta (motifs) designs are created on the pallu and body of the saree with/without dobby mechanism.  The yarns (used for the body of the saree) are dyed in the desired colour before the pre-loom process (like bobbin winding) begins. The pallu portion of the saree yarns are dyed in dark shade after the warp stage (before weaving) using tie and dye technique. This gives bright contrast colour to the pallu portion.

Unique method of sizing known as ‘loom sizing’ is practiced by Udupi saree weavers. The sizing material is applied directly to the yarn while the weaving is in progress. A special brush with bristles made from the parts of ‘Fish tail Palm tree’ (which is under threat now) is used to brush the yarn during the process of sizing. The sizing reduces the yarn breakage and improves the quality and efficiency of weaving. The on-loom sizing provides good stiffness and a shine finishes to the woven Saree.

Renuka Prakash, Bangalore in Udupi Saree

Renuka Prakash from Bangalore draped in an Udupi Saree.

Why did the production of the Udupi sarees decline?

There are multiple reasons for the fall of Udupi Saree weaving. Onslaught of  power loom clothes and its cheap “use and throw” products and fake handloom products  flooded  the market.  Heavy demand for unskilled labour with very good wages compared to weaving, resulted in weavers shifting to other high paying unskilled jobs. Youngsters hesitate to enter the field due to low remuneration. There are plenty of job opportunities in this region due to good education system and economic boom.

Problems in supply of raw materials , shortage of support in households (for pre-loom works) due to nuclear family system, lack of space in households due to changed pattern of living condition, non-supportive departmental policies, and failure of implementation of favourable policies are few other causes.

Change in fashion trend and preference  given to  comfortable salwar like dresses as work ware , negligence and lack of awareness among locals about thousands of year old unique tradition of Udupi Saree weaving added to the misery.

 How did the Kadike trust begin the revival project?

When we started the project in 2018, we didn’t know warp and weft of the udupi saree weaving. To gather  first-hand information, we visited different Weavers Societies and individual weavers. There wasn’t enough information  on Udupi Saree weaving. No one knew about the actual figure of the active Udupi Saree weavers. Few aged weavers were working under 5 weavers societies and some under  KHDC unit .

Above all what surprised us is the ignorance of the locals. People who live in the vicinity of Weavers Societies were  also  not aware of these sarees. And most of  the locals  who knew,  were under the impression that these magga sarees are only for daily labourers  and ajjis (grandmothers)

Finally we figured out that only 42 Udupi saree weavers and 5 other product weavers are active . There were no weavers below age 50. Handmade industries have the potential to provide jobs to many without harming the environment. So we decided to work towards the revival of our own Udupi  Sarees which are produced sustainably.

Reviving was a challenging task. The remaining weavers are aged and at any time they would retire from the profession. Their children are already well-settled in different jobs. So there were no youngsters to take it forward. Most of the Weavers Societies and weavers had no hope in revival.

The  “Talipady Weavers  Cooperative Society”  at Kinnigoli readily agreed to work towards revival along with us. Thus our revival in association with Talipady Weavers Society initiated.

Senior weaver Shri Sanjeeva Shettigar teaching Trainees

What does the revival work constitute of?

Kadike Trust started revival work  in association with Talipady Weavers Society with  following goals: to increase the number of weavers, to bring dignity to the profession, to create awareness about Udupi Saree, and to create better market with better price to Udupi Saree. When we first went to the Talipady Weavers Society in 2018 there were only  8 aged weavers. Two of them were working in the society premises and one of them was about to discontinue the profession. The existing weavers weaved only 60 count sarees and receive very low remuneration.

Via our Facebook page “Udupi Saree Revival” and via other social media platforms like Instagram  and Twitter, we provided information about Udupi Sarees. We participated in various events and exhibitions to create awareness about them. We  also encouraged Weavers Society to participate in exhibitions. Kadike Trust is a charitable trust and does not involve in business. On behalf of the Talipady Weavers Society, I volunteered and created a WhatsApp group to market Udupi Sarees online. We helped customers to buy authentic handloom sarees at an affordable price keeping profit margin minimal and the weavers received better remuneration.  Along with Talipady Weavers Society ,we created market for sarees of Padupanamboor and yasksha sarees of Shivalli Society also. A small margin obtained by selling sarees to distant customers was used for revival related activities, to provide yearly incentives and to help during medical emergencies to the weavers

The brand “Udupi Saree” was created with an attractive label designed by reputed designer Sachidananda Mysuru with weavers’ names and photos, which received an overwhelming response by customers with “Know your Weaver” theme.

Trust regularly honours weavers with “Uttama Nekara” awards which has given a boost to the morale of weavers by recognition in their social circles. It has also regularly recommended weavers’ names for awards conferred by other NGOs and departments as per the merits of weavers of different societies. It ensures that focussed media attention is given to weavers and Udupi sarees whenever there is any news.

The first weaving training was conducted by the Trust for new and comeback weavers with own funds.  Some very talented artisans returned to weaving, with a minimum wage assurance by the Trust and Talipady Weavers Society  as per their specialisation.  Subsequently, the Trust received  NABARD grant  for training which is ongoing. Trainees in the age group 20 to 55 are undergoing training.

Due to growing awareness about sustainable products in the present times, the Trust initiated the production of naturally dyed Udupi Sarees, which became an immediate hit in the market. It arranged a natural dyeing training program at Talipady Society by experts. It coordinated with the concerned departments in getting the G I “Authorised User Registration” for Talipady Weavers Society from the GI Registry, Govt. of India. It also conducts awareness programs in the Society for weavers on matters related to health, alcoholism and other social issues. The trust has helped many individual weavers including weavers from other societies too in health related issues.  It has arranged a small fund for unexpected needs of weavers and staff of Talipady Weavers Society. It has contributed looms to Talipady Society and helped weavers in time of natural calamity and pandemics and has helped some weavers in building a loom shed at their residence.

The trust invites people from different walks of life to get hands on experience of handloom and to interact with weavers.  This has resulted in creating local market and increased  spirit of individual weavers. These efforts are already showing results; sales have increased in many societies, weavers have come back, young weavers are trained and appointed after two decades, the number of weavers increased to 35 at Talipady Weavers Society and to 74 in two districts. Udupi saree brand has been created afresh with a totally new approach and most importantly weavers are happy now because of the recognition and increased wages.

 How did the pandemic affect the weavers?

Most of the  weavers who have a loom shed at home continued to work during the lockdown. All the weavers’ societies delivered yarns to weavers at their door and also gave them incentives. Support was provided to weavers who did not have a loom at home.  Kadike trust also supported few weavers during pandemic. The demand for the sarees was also good and many customers supported by pre-booking sarees.

 Where do societies procure the raw materials from?

Padupanamboor Weavers Society has a yarn bank. All the Weavers Societies procure yarns from NHDC through Padupanamboor Weavers Society, Haleyangdi.

How does the Kadike trust wish to improve the promotion of the Udupi Sarees?

Promotion and Branding is already done by Kadike Trust . Now there is a good demand for Udupi Sarees from all over India and abroad.

After the continuous effort by  Kadike Trust, young weavers are trained and are joining the weaving profession after almost 20 years.  We  are planning to build a strong support system so that these young weavers attain all the skills and continue the profession with dignity and satisfaction. We are also  planning to support Talipady Weavers Society in building a natural dye unit and thereafter convert it to a heritage centre. People can visit Talipady Weavers Society to experience various processes involved , understand eco system  and buy the product happily.

After the timely intervention by Kadike Trust, Udupi Saree weaving which was on the verge of extinction is  on its revival path. Now it is in the hands of people of this region, Departments, and Weavers Societies to carry forward the momentum. We wish to express our heartfelt gratitude to all the patrons who supported the Udupi Saree revival efforts.