At first sight, Olasingh, a hamlet of 120 people, 48km from Bhubaneswar looks like any other village in Odisha: unassuming and unadorned, except for a plaque commemorating the inauguration by a politician of development works that never took off. But once you walk in through a door in one of the modest homes, you realize why this place is special. A steady clickety-clack fills the bare brick rooms, punctuated by sounds of tuning before the almost hypnotic rhythm resumes. Almost all the men and women of the village work as mulberry silk handloom weavers. Right from the extraction of silk fibre from cocoons to the production of intricate saris, this tiny community does it all.
Silk handloom weaving is a labour intensive activity, with a sari taking nearly five times the time taken for one made on a machinated loom.
Though he lost an eye to a childhood disease, Babuli, 44, has an extraordinary sensibility for colour and design. As a fourth generation weaver he has a natural acumen for designing and producing elaborate silk saris. "I never went to school," he says as he pedals at his handloom machine. "My mother often caught me drawing patterns on her plain cotton saris. She used to scold me a lot and call me useless." He pauses his pedalling and smiles, "My father was the one who saw potential in me. Though he could hardly afford it, he bought yards of plain cloth and simply asked me to have fun."
The wages are so low that men and women who have traditionally been weavers are now forced to labour in other's farmlands to make ends meet.
For a long time, the Olasingh community relied on traditional designs handed over by buyers. But when the state weaving cooperative took over the running of the village's cottage industry, Babuli's designs were accepted and became part of the template. Coming under the protection of a cooperative had its advantages but it has also limited the income of the community. Though a beautiful art form, silk handloom weaving is a labour intensive activity, with a sari taking nearly five times the time taken for one made on a machinated loom. "The beauty lies in the imperfection," says Babuli's wife looking up from above her thick spectacles. "Every time one wears a handwoven silk sari, every time one turns, the sun hits it differently and it glitters like a new river." She points the spinning wheel of raw silk thread in the sun and twirls it like a magic wand to demonstrate its dynamic shimmering properties. The glitter is now in her eyes when she says, "Sometimes you can see the cosmos in it." Babuli rebukes her, "But who cares about that or us these days. All they want is cheap machine-made ones."
Boyanika, the Odisha government's department of handloom, came into being more than 50 years ago to protect the craft and its weavers. It buys directly from cooperatives like that of Babuli's and resells them at exclusive outlets and more recently on the internet. Started with great enthusiasm, over the years the organization had become oversized, inefficient and unviable. Some changes have taken place recently, including cutting the number of staff from 606 to 197, the closure of unprofitable stores, computerization, better inventory control and the successful Yarn Bank project funded by the World Bank, which buys yarn from the international and local markets and supplies it to its member weavers at subsidized rates. Though the Boyanika brand, to be on par with contemporary times, has reinvented itself with advertising and a presence on social media, it is the core production force of weavers like Babuli who have been left with earnings that belong to an earlier era.
If the Prime Ministers' Make in India watchword and spirit has to have some credence than it cannot only focus on large manufacturers. It must also defend and nourish traditional production elements.
The Odisha government has started the Baristha Bunakar Sahayata Yojana to pay an allowance to elderly weavers. Babuli's father who is 72 is yet to see anything come out of it, and says that the ₹500 a month being offered is next to nothing.
If the Prime Ministers' Make in India watchword and spirit has to have some credence than it cannot only focus on attracting new large manufacturers, purportedly bringing in big money. It must also defend and nourish traditional production elements, however small they may be, like that of Babuli's. After all, it is these that have actually made India.