Image: Ikat weave silks, Srinvasi Silks, Yelahanka.
Bangalore (Bengalaru) used to be known as the Garden City, its streets shaded by a canopy of huge rain trees, Samanea saman, with parks and a huge Botanic Garden. A generation ago, ceiling fans were unknown, now you need them even in spring. In April it was already hot, hotter than years before as vast tracts of vegetation have been removed for ‘development’. Negotiating this often featureless urban sprawl by taxi, it might take a two or three hour drive across town through epic traffic jams to find a small weaving venture, even the drivers are lost in this new world without Google maps.
Master Weaver Chandrasekhar kindly takes me to visit the silk weaving colony in Yelahanka, on the northern edge of Bangalore, a maze of narrow lanes somewhere near a railway line. Dogs and cows wander about; it looks like a suburb of two and three story houses until you hear the sound of the looms. The ‘factories’ are a series of ground floor rooms, mostly with powered Jacquard looms, the odd hand loom, strings and pulleys, empty water bottles used as counterweights, garlanded shrines. It’s cramped and noisy. Hard to imagine weaving with this mechanical clattering going on all day; no quiet craftsmanship here. Buyers are choosing saris for their shop. Taste is fickle, says Mr Chandra, the latest Bollywood movie will fleetingly set a fashion, it is hard to predict trends. There are many problems: insufficient water and electricity, volatile demand. This is becoming a hard life, even before Covid.
Image: Working the handlooms at Khaloom
Two and a half hours by taxi later, I step into the ground floor of a nondescript building on the other side of the city; sandals are parked by the entrance to Khaloom. Inside the two rooms, sacks of recycled yarn, bales of fabric, another small shrine. Women reel yarn, thread the warp or work the handlooms. They sit on the ground and drink tea together. It’s not glamorous but the 18 or so workers here are well paid and supported by an international organisation. It’s a lot quieter than Yelahanka.
Next day, forty five kilometres from the centre of Bangalore, my taxi swerves off the main road and drives up an unlikely lane. We pull up before a long white building surrounded by greenery. This is Himatsingka Seide’s smaller factory. Where am I? How on earth will I get back? The driver says he will wait, and he does. Inside it is light and vast. I look into huge hangars where rows of immaculate machines spin, reel, weave and even embroider, apparently all by themselves. It’s a million miles from the modest worlds of Khaloom, or Yelahanka, hypnotic, robotic, but rather beautiful. The model Himatsingka factories produce tens of millions of metres of high quality fabric a year. I find it hard to envisage this. Behind me is a large, bright studio where designers, surrounded by objects that inspire them, are playing on paper, drawing on screens, turning their inspiration into instructions for the machines. There is a little patio garden. It is quiet and thoughtful, two worlds in one place. Here is one future.
Image: Himatsingka Campus
That evening I am invited to the Bangalore Club, once a British preserve, but now the domain of an Indian elite, a colonnaded Colonial era building in ample grounds with stags’ heads on the walls and a stuffed cheetah. The charismatic fashion entrepreneur Prasad Bidapa is hosting a fashion event devoted to khadi. There are cups of tea and snacks. After the show he persuades the assembled ladies to walk the catwalk in the beautiful khadi saris they have worn for the occasion. This is part of a growing movement to support hand loomed cloth. And there is still more to the surprising fabric of Bangalore to discover another day.
Image: Selvedge/ Yali website
Since Loom Large was written (Selvedge Issue 100 Anniversary), the Registry of Sarees has embarked on a commercial collaboration with Yali and Mysore Saree Udyog, a textile retailer. The aim is to use ‘textiles as a pathway to change’, with a transparent supply chain and close collaboration with handloom weavers. So far, two revival projects are underway in Karnataka, north and east of Mysore. Hosa Arambha (New Beginnings) aims to ensure a long term future for the declining Kodiyala hand weaving community by developing a strong, local textile identity. To date, cotton saris using traditional motifs in the borders and pallu (loose ends) have been produced. Another project, Selvedge, works with naturally ‘brown’ cotton, an indigenous variety that is drought and pest resistant. This aims to repair the broken ‘land to loom’ system and link handloom weaving with sustainable local cotton growing in Melkote. Slowly, seeds like this are being sown across India.
Written by Sonia Ashmore.
Read Sonia's article Loom Large in the latest issue of Selvedge, Issue 100 Anniversary.