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IN TIMES OF NEED
Craft Preservation and Revival

By Meher Castelino
November, 2021

The weavers and crafts persons in South India have been through several climatic and health issues over the years. Floods and the current pandemic have left them in dire straits as far as their professions are concerned. Two wonderful people are doing their best to help those in need of assistance and also keep the beautiful crafts of India alive. Dr Lalitha Regi co-founder of PORGAI is helping the Lambadi women artisans and Shreejith Jeevan has come to aid of the Kasavu sari weavers.

DR LALITHA & Dr REGI – CO FOUNDERS of PORGAI

Dr Lalitha & Dr Regi, trained obstetrician, gynecologist and co-founders, Porgai have been living and working in Sittilingi for the past 29 years. They are practicing doctors in Tribal Hospital in Sittilingi involved with the various community efforts towards health in Sittilingi valley. This includes organic farming, food and nutrition security, local governance, and craft and other livelihoods. All of these are essential determinants for the health of a community.

Porgai, started in 2006, means ‘pride and dignity’ in the Lambadi language. The Porgai Artisans Association is a society of Lambadi women artisans who have revived the rich traditional craft of hand embroidery from the Lambadi community of Tamil Nadu.

“I observed the traditional Lambadi dress and the embroidery from the time we came here in 1993. The very elderly women in the two villages wore the traditional skirt and blouse, some with embroidery, which was recovered from the old pieces and attached to new skirts. But many had only the traditional pieces. The fabric and colours were different, but there was no embroidery, which was a rich traditional craft that had almost gone extinct. Our community health programme, supported by health auxiliaries in the villages, helped me to know the women more and also to delve into the history of the craft. I came across Neela and Gammi who later founded the Porgai Artisans Association. Neither they nor other women of their generation, or their mothers’ generation, wore the traditional dress. But they had the curiosity and interest to learn the craft from their grandmother when they were small girls. Both were very excited about training the younger women in the craft, and that’s how it got revived,” reveals Dr Lalitha.

Covida doll is their response to the pandemic. She is made of up cycled fabric and a symbol of positivity, hope and healing. The cream dress is made of organic cotton, which is grown in their valley by the farmers of Sittilingi organic farmers society. This is a collective of 500 small farmers (with just 1-3acre land holdings). This cotton is then made into hand spun, hand-woven fabric. “But we have fabrics, which are dyed with natural dyes too. Then we have stitched garments and hand embroidered them.”

Lambadi embroidery is very geometrical and in vibrant colours, and the Lambadi embroidery of Sittilingi has its own geographical variation from the Banjara embroidery of other states. “So without Neela and Gammi, it is not only our villages, which would have lost this craft, but it would have meant the death of Tamil Nadu’s unique Lambadi embroidery as a whole.”

Being part of Porgai since it started, Dr Lalitha informs it’s a collective work and an artisan owned society. There are executive members from among the artisans. There are 60 artisans, six tailors, and five others in the administration and production team. Of this, 68 are women and three are men. Over the years Porgai has grown slowly and organically. The artisans are able to live in their own villages, work from their own households and earn an independent livelihood. When the women earn the money they can wisely use it for their needs and family. It also prevents migration to cities in search of work. The artisans also get an opportunity to realize their own self-worth when they create these beautiful pieces. They are able to lead healthier, happier and more dignified lives.

Preservation and Revival When the first wave of the pandemic in 2020 came there were no sales. The orders from regular buyers also stopped. So it was new ways of marketing through online and social media platforms.

“We continued giving work to all artisans since they were the only earning members in the family during the lockdown period of three to four months. Some fairs in Bengaluru in the early 2021 were a boon since we could sell many products, which we made during the lockdown period. During the pandemic we had borrowed money to sustain the society but we managed to pay it back slowly over a period of one and a quarter years.”

Fabrics are not made in Sittilingi. “We stitch garments and home furnishings and embroider them. But we have our own organic cotton fabric, which we use for 20 per cent of our garments.”

The farmers of Sittilingi Organic Farmers Association grow this cotton organically. This is a collective of 500 small Adivasi, Dalit and Lambadi farmers with just one to three acres of land holdings. This cotton is bought by the Porgai society. It is then hand spun and hand woven into fabric in Gandhigram in Tamil Nadu and dyed with natural dyes.

The non-organic cotton ladies kurtas with embroidery cost between Rs 1,000 – 1,500, organic cotton ones between Rs 1,500 – 2,000. But with more intricate embroidery it will become more expensive.

“Most of our cushion covers are between Rs 350 – 500. There are other products like saris, sari blouses, stoles, bags, etc. Our markup is very limited. A major share of the cost of each product goes directly to the artisans. We haven’t made profits yet, but we break even and remain sustainable. In retail our customers have always found our products reasonably priced and worthy of the money they spend.”

Other than the goodwill and the word of mouth promotion, they don’t have many marketing promotions. They have used Facebook and Instagram, on and off, for the promotion of specific products which are all volunteer run.

The main markets are the craft fairs in Chennai and Bengaluru, while main customers are middle-middle-class and upper-middle-class. “People who have bought from us once are satisfied with the products and we also contact them through social media. Few bulk orders come from Trifed, Titan, FabIndia etc. We also have our sales through websites like Okhai, India Handmade Collective, etc. We also get orders from a few retailers who work on a smaller scale, again mostly in South India.”

Several sets of collections are created around April-May, with the August-September season in mind, and another for the November-December season.

“We don’t sell Sittilingi organic cotton fabric in meter range. We always value-add to them and sell them as stitched and embroidered garments. We have done innovations in product and embroidery design to keep up with the trends in contemporary markets, but at the same time keeping the tradition in mind. We are open to new design development relevant to any new market when necessary.”

The future, at least this year, is uncertain due to the pandemic. But even during the pandemic when some doors closed, newer ones have opened. There seems to be a new awakening towards handicrafts. “We hope that more people will realize the value of artisan-owned, women-centred, fair, sustainable, small, rural enterprises.”

The younger women are willing to learn and do the craft. Even the high school educated or graduate women in the villages don’t have access to other employment opportunities. So, they are happy to practice the craft as long as there is work and income throughout the year. The contacts/retail customers come through craft fairs and some B2B exhibitions.

As far as handicrafts are concerned how South Indian handicrafts are represented in international fairs is unfairly limited. “I stand for handloom weavers and hand spinners in the country. So, I think that more than foreign goods, it is Indian power-looms that are killing handloom and Khadi. The government must in all possible ways support and promote handloom weavers.”

SHREEJITH JEEVAN – DESIGNER

Shreejith Jeevan a NID graduate started his label ROUKA in 2013 from Kochi, Kerala and has been instrumental in promoting the textiles of the state for several years.

“We have been working with the weavers since the floods of 2018. They are handloom Kasavu sari weavers. We’re trying to give a modern look to Kasavu saris to make sure it finds more market opportunities.  There are 13 weavers who are working with us on the Care4Chendamangalam project.

Sreejith also collaborates and works on his fabrics with different weaving societies like the Chendamangalam weaving society and with organisations like Aranya Natural in Munnar, which empowers and trains differently abled artisans to create beautiful Shibori. “We have been sourcing fabrics from weavers in Kerala since 2014 but when the floods of August 2018, happened, we rushed to rebuild the cluster that was affected in the waters. What it did was to give them their two minutes of fame across the world since all the attention was on Kerala. Not only did it make Chendamangalam popular, it also got people to taste the feel of their fabric. Now since we have been able to convince the weavers that their products have fans all over the world, we have started making more modern saris with them.”

It is a pity that weavers across the country are only getting attention locally. Designers are working with them to help them sell nationally and internationally. But the Kasavu sari has not received much design intervention and we are working towards making it more relevant. Lockdowns and pandemic have reduced their customers locally and brought down the demand for products they sell locally.

“We are working with them to create more up-scaled products that will find takers even during these times. About 50-60 saris are produced in a month priced between Rs 3,500-12,000 and the marketing and promotions are at the moment primarily online. We don’t create collections. They’re weaving all-round the year and we sell them throughout the year. We contemporaries the whole look so that a modern customer will love them.”

Sreejith doesn’t have an exact count of how many weavers are following the trade but he works with a society of 45 weavers whose future is affected because of the lockdown but hopefully they will be back soon. The younger generation prefers to go for other professions because the wages are better. “But we hope new hands come into it when the wages improve. At the moment, we retail for them through our online platforms. The weaving industry of South India must be as big, if not bigger than the north. Chinese textiles are not our competition but hand woven goods have to be up scaled, which cannot be compared to the cheap machine made ones.”

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