The afternoon rays of the sun stream through the windows of the small warehouse in Baharpet, Narayanpet mandal, where Shambu Krishna and Ramchander are discussing a purple-hued saree which has just been finished.
The weavers are debating whether the colour combination has come out the way it was supposed to. Holding up the material in the sunlight, the dull shade suddenly transforms into a beauty. With their discussion at an end, Ramchander starts working on yet another Narayanpet cotton saree, loading up a bright golden yarn on the pit loom. The golden yarn will make up the border, while the rest of the saree will be blue.
“Narayanpet sarees are characterised by a broad zari border with temple motifs, while the surface design is woven in a contrasting shade with light or big checks. Sometimes, the body may have flower motifs or bootis woven with golden threads,” explains Shambu Krishna.
The Narayanpet style of weaving goes back to the time of Chhatrapati Shivaji, who travelled through the small town while on a campaign. The few weavers in the travelling party chose to stay back and continue their work here, which is how the textured Narayanpet sarees got their distinct Maharashtrian influence. The artisans came from all types of backgrounds; there were Marathis, Muslims and Kannadigas, besides the local Telugus. The total number of weavers back in the day was close to 2,000, but now, it’s a different story.
No longer a hub
Once the quaint town of Narayanpet had a flourishing trade selling cotton and silk sarees; but with the number of weavers down to 500, it is no longer a bustling hub. Back in the day, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited the town to buy some of these elegant sarees.
Shambu Krishna, a third generation weaver, has witnessed the changes firsthand. Despite holding a bachelor’s degree in economics, politics and public administration, the 45-year-old chose to return to his roots rather than move to the city. “Weaving was ingrained in me from childhood.
My father used to make chemical dyes, while my mother was a weaver. The whole process fascinated me and I decided that I would do the same once I grew up,” he tells us. Seven weavers work under him turning out close to 30 Narayanpet cotton sarees a month. Yarns of different shades sourced from Vijayawada and Chirala hang outside in the backyard of the warehouse. These will be loaded on to a beam warping machine to produce 55 cotton sarees.
It takes a day to make one cotton saree and four for silk. It may take even longer if it’s a jacquard silk saree. “That takes 8-10 days to finish. The method to make them is complicated and requires jacquard looms,” pipes in Ramchander. The colour pallete is a rich one with royal blues, reds, yellows, greens among the more popular colours.
With efforts of fashion designers like Shravan Kumar and social enterprises like Abhihaara, there is an infusion of contemporary patterns in the style. “Narayanpet sarees are a perfect combination of grandeur and tradition. They have survived the test of times because their biggest strength is affordability.
There is a huge potential for their revival if we make them more contemporary by bringing out a product range that is more charming to the next generation,” says M. Sudha Rani, founder and CEO, Abhihaara Social Enterprise. A revamped style may find the zari pallu being done away with for an ikat or a large block printed booti on the pallu.
However, there is no denying that influx of Narayanpet sarees made on powerlooms has greatly affected the fortunes of the weavers here. “Sarees made on dobby or pit looms are highly durable and resilient. If one looks at the silk sarees made on powerlooms, you will find them very weak since the material is very thin but they are cheaper.
The reduced cost is due to manufacturers mixing rayon with silk. On the other hand, we use high quality silk from Bengaluru which is expensive to source. That affects our profits considerably. How do we compete with that,” rues Shambu.
Despite the best efforts, Narayanpet weavers are finding it difficult to sustain themselves due to the high cost of silk yarn and low wages despite the government giving a Geographical Indication (GI) tag to Narayanpet sarees. What can help these weavers is subsidy on the yarn and government supporting them for at least three weaving cycles. But with the rapidly declining numbers of the artisans, it will take more than just financial support to keep the weaving style alive.