On a humid Sunday afternoon, the lanes of Anakaputhur, an interior suburb of Pallavaram, wear a dim look, with barely any shops open or civilians on the road. But, as one enters Shanmuga Mudaliar Street near the Murugan temple, lively squeaks from the handloom units speak for the glory of this weavers’ town.
The squeaks date back to over half-a-century ago, when the erstwhile village started developing as a handicraft centre, exporting the famous ‘Madras Real Handkerchief’ to Nigeria. An eight yard garment, Madras Real Handkerchief was worn by men and women in the African country, until it was stopped in the late 1970s when military rule was imposed in Nigeria.
Stepmotherly treatment by the state and central governments has rung the death knell for this historically rich locality, where the weaving units hold thousands of stories of national importance. The natural fibre town was granted no major financial support by the government.
The unstoppable weavers who have a natural flair for adaptation and creativity didn’t give up when the exports to Nigeria were banned. They bounced back by creating garments from natural fibres including banana, pineapple, aloe vera and bamboo. The crusader for the natural fabric in Anakaputhur, C Sekar has experimented with more than 25 natural products, which is appreciated in foreign countries including US, Japan and Germany, but it lacks even an acknowledgement from the Tamil Nadu government.
From the fabric to dyes, the making of these garments are completely organic. A magazine article about a saree from banana fabric planted this idea in Sekar’s head and he successfully brought out similar products after a line of trial and errors.
Making of the natural fabric garments
The stem of the raw material (banana, pineapple or kenaf) should be dried and scrapped to remove dust. Each strand of the fibre that is taken out is then made into a yarn by a manual procedure, to weave in the handloom units. K Vijaya, a weaver for two decades, explains: “There are chances that the fibre may be damaged if machines are used, thus making it fit only for the paper industry.”
Dyes are extracted from the natural products, including turmeric and indigo. “Pieces of iron are soaked in a jaggery solution for about 21 days, after which it gives out a black colour. It is poured on the colourless fabric, which sucks it in. A similar procedure is followed with any other natural product to extract the colour,” says Sekar, who is also the president of the Anakaputhur Jute Weavers’ Association.
The woven fabric is again treated in cow dung to strengthen its quality. They also use medicinal herbs like Tulasi and Mint, which is preferred by those with skin allergies and cancer.
One of their products was recently exhibited in a fair in Germany. But, ironically, a majority of Chennaiites are oblivious of the existence of this township and its craft. “The textiles and handlooms ministry should conduct regular training and awareness programmes, in order to connect us to the people,” says D Hema, who does embroidery work on the cloth.
The aftermath of the 2015 floods
A few determined weavers had braved all odds to bring in fibre extraction units to expand the reach of the community. But hope crashed with the 2015 Chennai floods. This time, the losses were grave as their handicraft and fibre extraction units worth Rs 40 lakh went under water, when the locality, which is in the vicinity of the Adyar river, was flooded in December 2015.
Laila, who has been working as a weaver for the past 15 years says,“ We purchased the equipment after taking loans from the government and private sources. Never did we think that such a disaster would strike us. Though many politicians inspected and promised help, nothing fruitful happened.”
Many weavers have lost their homes, which remain irreparable till date. The flood compensation announced by the state government for the victims never reached the weavers. Yet, they haven’t given up.
Need for a common facility
The hopeful weavers have written multiple letters to the state and central government departments, to grant them a place where they can continue their work. “Our work was a source of encouragement for those in the weaving profession, which has seen many abandoning the handloom to embrace better salaried professions. There were 5000 looms in Anakaputhur around 15 years ago. The number has come down to less than 200 now. I am not sure if the next generation is even willing to continue,” rues Sekar.
The members said that they had approached various departments including Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, textiles and handicrafts and Small Industries Development Corporation Limited (SIDCO) to allocate a space or fund the weavers to preserve the traditional weaving of Anakaputhur. “There is scope to develop banana fabric in Tamil Nadu, considering the fact that the state has good banana cultivation. Just like Kerala is famous for clothes made of pineapple fibre,” says an optimistic Sekar.
K Phanindra Reddy, Tamil Nadu’s textiles secretary assured Citizen Matters that the state would be taking effective steps to assist the township and its weaver population. “The Anakaputhur Jute Weavers Society has received assistance for machinery from the MSME department. The society or MSME department should provide space to install the machinery. I have asked the Director of Handlooms to examine if the Anakaputhur Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society can be revived and the natural fibre weavers can also be helped,” the secretary said.