The early morning 6.30 am drive from Udhala to Chuliaposi was to ensure that we reach the village before the men and women set out to the farms. The village comprises of about 60 families where most of them work as daily labourers in nearby farms. The mud roads that lead to Chuliaposi had a quaint charm about them. Acres of semi-arid land dotted with sal trees and the first rays of the morning sun seeping in patterns through the landscape. When we reached the village, most households were just waking up to their morning scurry, however they laid out some seating for us and the representatives from each family. Women and men came in and the elders of the village took their places curiously awaiting the agenda we had to unfold. I experienced a sense of anticipation too.
During the initial phases of our research when we had first come across Chuliaposi what registered in my mind was the ‘below poverty line tag’ and its history of ‘suicides’. Destiny playing it out at its worst with a triple effect of ‘poverty’, ‘being born a Dalit’ and ‘loss of access to land or any other means of sustainable livelihood’. This meant that the only dependency was on the daily wages through manual labour in agricultural farms where since the last few years farming was reduced to a ‘one-season’ activity. The phenomenon of ‘desertification’ caused by ground water depletion had a deeper impact on the future of the village than was anticipated or even planned for. However, amidst all this despair came an unexpected finding that was the turning point in the course of events that would follow. We got to know that Chuliaposi had a heritage of weaving. Just about 20 years ago almost all the villagers were skilled and engaged in handloom weaving. This was a craft that was passed on to them from several generations, all of which came to a grinding halt two decades ago. The slow death of the handloom industry coupled with weak co-operative alliances and the lack of access to a marketplace led to insurmountable debts, culminating in the cases of suicide that took place in the village. I must admit it took me some time to fathom why skilled craftsmen producing the most intricate heritage weaves could give up their craft to take up hard manual labour in fields. I understood that….When the beauty of craft gets associated with sheer haplessness, when the joy of creation gets associated with the infinite uncertainty of the future, when the colours of life on inticate weaves get associated with the brutal darkness of death, then the doom of a craft is inevitable. That was Chuliaposi.
And as I sat on the charpoy laid out for us I knew that the first big milestone would be when they would trust us enough to embark on that journey again. The relatives and loved ones of the men who had committed suicide still lived in the village…and the shadows of the past still seemed to loom large over all of us. In the stories, in the contexts that were being described by each one of the erstwhile craftsmen there was a despair …the despair of the past. However in every story I couldn’t help but catch that glimmer of impending resurgence…the now hauntingly familiar sign of hope that one human being gives to another by their sheer presence. Slowly the tempo changed from melancholy to curiosity to debate. The rising energy reflecting in animated voices, some of them beginning to make a lot of sense even in the absence of translation. The voice of hope is truly loud, reverberating and far reaching… The men reminisced their days of weaving with pride. The complex patterns, the ‘one-saree-a-day’ production days, the successful relationship with the co-operative who ensured that all their weaves reached the market place. The women in the weaver families did not play a major role in the core weaving activity but provided any assistance the men needed. The rise in energy during these conversations was the opportunity we needed to pose that one question…the all important…”If given the right support, would you want to go back, one more time…back to weaving”. The moment of truth. There were 10 of them. Our first set of 10 villagers who came ahead. And yes the first five were women. I couldn’t help but smile. The ‘weaker sex’ … could we define that again! I was almost smiling in pride…feeling validated…it was the women here who led the way…they were the ones who chose not to live with the fear of the dark ‘ultimatum’ and at the first sign of that glimmer of light took a determined step. What was fascinating was that while signing up, each one of the women said ..’me and my family’. The decision somehow now seemed like a family commitment. The lead was taken by older women (three out of the five were single having lost their husbands early) living with their extended family, their sons, daughters and daughter-in-laws. This meant that the entire family would be engaged and therefore would be one of the most important considerations to keep in mind as we moved ahead. Revival of weaving so intrinsically linked with the revival of the mind, revival of the strength of connected relationships and in the most beautiful way the revival of belief.
The next step was to create the core group who would provide the local leadership for this project. When we asked for volunteers, the response was quicker than anticipated and we were able to see a good mix of about seven representatives, ranging from the experienced veteran weavers to dynamic educated younger men and women. The final moments of the meeting resulted in an unspoken promise to come back and move this project forward to the next decisive stage.
All of a sudden we heard some loud animated discussions taking place on the village road just outside the courtyard where we were concluding our meeting. A couple of women seemed to be arguing in very loud and high pitched tones. My heart missed a beat. Did we in any way mishandle or misread the sentiment. One of our representatives rushed out to understand what the matter was. After she had her discussion with them she walked to where we were standing. I looked at her in anticipation. She had a threateningly revealing smile…I know I don’t have the adjective right but there is simply no other way to explain it…she said “They were arguing about which weave designs they would like to work on. No more the same old staid designs that were easy to make…they said they wanted to try out something new…new challenges…new designs…new weaves”!
I only heard ‘NEW’……this was my new beginning….
My lesson: Handloom weaving is in its true essence a social, emotional, cultural and economic process that has the ability to create a distinct unique identity for both the community and the weaver. The term that is right now resonating in my mind is ‘artisan weaver’ a unique blend of legacy, art form, design and professional skill.