‘A silk weaver can only weave silk, he cannot wear it.’
The Tamil film, Kanchivaram, explores the exploitation of weavers in Tamil Nadu through the story of its protagonist Vengadam, who belongs to the traditional silk weaving community, and is set within a period that saw weavers struggling with economic inequality and rapidly rising suicide rates.
Words by Saachi D'Souza
September 28, 2020
The essay borrows its title from the 2008 Tamil movie, Kanchivaram, which is based in the town of Kanchipuram, in Tamil Nadu, set in Madras Presidency of 1948. The film explores the exploitation of weavers in Tamil Nadu through the story of its protagonist Vengadam, who belongs to the traditional silk weaving community, and is set within a period that saw weavers struggling with economic inequality and rapidly rising suicide rates. Through flashback sequences that go back-and-forth, Kanchipuram visually engages with the confines within which weavers are forced to make ends meet, and is also a tragic, bittersweet story of dreams unfulfilled.
The film symbolically plays with memory by presenting the present-day scenario where Vengadam is under arrest but out on a two-day parole, and is, throughout the film, recalling moments in his life that led to this arrest. In an early scene of the film, as Vengadam is guided home by a policeman, we are introduced to his marriage through one flashback, that we are redirected to from a moment wherein Vengadam is filled with grief and sorrow. In this memory, as he marches through his village with his new bride, it is immediately established that this moment is remembered as happy, despite the economic upheavals, and is a time in Vengadam’s life that is celebrated for its ability to heal wounds caused by an unequal society. Here the viewer is invited to bear witness to what he has spent most of his life fighting for - his family.
A bystanding woman, during this flashback, who is one of the older women of the village, upon noticing the bride mocks them because the bride is wearing a cotton sari, and we are told at that moment that a younger Vengadam would boast about how his future bride would adorn a silk sari – and not just any silk sari, but the meticulously crafted Kanjeevaram, a sari he weaves for a living. The woman then laughs at them and exclaims, ‘a silk weaver can only weave silk, he cannot wear it.’ The line sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The film captures moments in Vengadam’s life that mark his struggle with caste with great sensitivity and detail. The socio-political context here informs us that the traditional silk weaving community in Tamil Nadu is lower-caste and predominantly Hindu. Kanchivaram carefully places the narrative in this framework through scenes that symbolise the plight of weavers and their lives, from birth to death, which are determined by their caste identity. In a flashback sequence that follows Vengadam’s memory of his wedding day, we are taken to Vengadam's father's funeral, where the priest asks Vengadam for a silk cloth to cover his father’s body. In the practice of Hinduism observed in the town of Kanchipuram, silk (pattu) symbolises purity, and to be adorned in silk at the time of death ensures the purity of the soul. But since weavers can rarely afford silk, Vengadam has a simple silk thread instead, which he ties to his father’s feet. It is perhaps here that the aspiration for owning silk becomes an aggressive need to fight the system, as Vengadam grieves a father's body bereft of the cloth that he has spent his whole life weaving.
From his father to his wife, and eventually, to his daughter, Vengadam passes on the desire for a silk sari like passing on the desire for freedom from one generation to the next. After failing to save enough money for his bride, Annam, and then again his daughter, Thamarai, he is driven to steal silk threads from the factory and weave a sari in private. He weaves at night, away from the eyes of anyone including his family. These scenes are powerful portrayals of a quiet revolution. They also underline the remarkable irony of the handloom industry: weavers who weave the saris worn by upper-caste women cannot afford their own creations.
The film further demonstrates the rise of communism in the country, that follows the growing disrespect towards weavers, through the introduction of a writer who visits the village with the wish to write about weavers. He introduces Vengadam and his friend to communist texts, and shortly after, the weavers, aggrieved by labour conditions, are brought together and mobilised. They protest the toxic environments that they are placed in, the violence they face and the meagre wages that do not support their labour and craftsmanship. The film at the end explains how in 1949, the communist movement spread across the country and in the town of Kanchipuram formed the first co-operative society of weavers under Mr K.S. Parthasarathy, a communist leader. The society, called Kamatchi Amman Society, then had 79 members and grew to include 2000 members with 50,000 weavers working under the co-operative sector. As perhaps one of the earliest examples of a platform that allowed weavers to exercise control, this battle laid the foundation for what has been a history of struggle and assertion in the handloom industry.
To bring this in a contemporary context, on July 27, 2020, the government of India abolished the All India Handloom Board, and subsequently the almost 70-year-old All India Handicrafts Board, with no prior warning given to the public. Established in 1992 and 1952, respectively, the boards had been functioning under the Ministry of Textiles with the authority to advise the government on formulating policies that would protect the rights and interests of the weavers. The boards consisted of official members from the central and state governments, and 88 non-institutional members – weavers and artisans from all over India – and were among many advisory bodies all working under the Ministry.
They were platforms for weavers to directly engage with the government on issues concerning their livelihoods and were also the only mediums from where the government could get feedback on policies and the implementations of them. While the reason stated by the government on the abolishment of the boards was that it was ‘In consonance with the Government of India vision of ''Minimum Government and Maximum Governance’, many have argued this claiming that there is no judicious explanation for why two boards as pivotal as these would be abolished, considering that we are in the midst of a global pandemic, one that is disproportionately affecting marginalised communities.
‘Expenditure on this (handloom) Board is hardly Rs 1,00,000 per year. One would wonder what made the managers of ‘Minimum Government and Maximum Governance’ programme to pick up to reduce their expenditure, where no expenditure has been happening’, questioned public policy expert Dr D. Narasimha Reddy. He further states that the Aatma Nirbhar package, introduced during the nationwide lockdown by the government to support small businesses and marginalised groups, did not include weavers.
The move came days before National Handloom Day; a day that is observed on August 07 to celebrate India's craft heritage. This day in the country's history marks the establishment of the Swadeshi movement, founded on August 07, 1905, as part of the Indian Independence Movement. It was a period of nationwide reform when citizens were encouraged to burn all British-manufactured goods and support goods produced in India.
August 07 is a gesture in remembrance of the movement that revolutionized the country's handloom tradition, with ministers and celebrities championing for weavers on social media. But every year as we come closer to the day, it is also a reminder of the reality of weavers, that has largely remained unchanged on a state level, barring a few organisations (such as Dastkar, co-founded by Laila Tyabji) that support artisans on a local level. Social media remains as a space dominated by upper-caste aesthetics, leaving little to no room for lower-caste communities to make visible their positions as labourers behind ‘rich’ traditions that are often romanticised.
India’s history has several, notable mentions of clothing as a means to determine caste. The Mahad Satyagraha of March 1927, which was pioneered by Dr B.R. Ambedkar was a revolution led by Dalits to assert their right to access drinking water from public places. During this time, Ambedkar urged Dalit women to abandon clothing that marked their status as lower caste women in society, asking them to drape saris like upper-caste women. The evolution of the sari was influenced by the British, who brought with them European propriety, and hence, the sari blouse. According to one report, it was Jnanadanandini Devi, social reformer and writer, and sister-in-law of the famous Bengali poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore, who promoted the sari blouse after she was refused entry in clubs under the British Raj because she covered her breasts only with the sari fabric. Until then, the sari was merely a cloth draped in many ways, depending on community and identity, and was worn without blouses; just cloth covering the breasts. This was entirely too provocative for the conservative sentiment of the British, as was the general idea of showing skin. The blouse was quickly blazoned as a sign of dignity and respect but its manifestation in different communities was subject to caste, like in the case of the Channar revolt.
In late nineteenth century Kerala, the advent of a 'modern society' along with the British brought with it the introduction of new dress codes, that had much to do with conforming to a 'national look' and emerging as a part of the new elite. In this society, the clothing of an individual was an important marker of their caste. Signifiers such as jewellery and the draping of the waist-cloth distinguished a community; for example, lower-caste women were prohibited from wearing gold jewellery.
The disregard for 'caste-based' norms was received as a challenge to upper-caste power, wrote J. Devika in 'The Aesthetic Woman: Re-Forming Female Bodies and Minds in Early Twentieth-Century Keralam' (2005).
The case of the Channar revolt in Travancore is an example of lower-caste women (Nadars) fighting to exercise their freedom of choice. Nadar women were not allowed to cover their breasts in the way that Nairs (upper-caste women) were, and dissented to this order by covering their breasts in public. The response was the imposition of ‘mulakaram’ (breast tax) whose amount depended on the size of the woman's breast.
After struggling with the system for long, in 1813, an order was issued allowing Nadar women to cover their breasts if they converted to Christianity, which would allow them to wear a type of jacket that was worn by Syrian Christians. But still, the fight was for clothing that would place the lower-caste women on the same level as the Nairs, through clothing that would not determine a woman's caste, since Nadar women advocated for covering their breasts in the same way as the Nair women did. This movement was long and arduous, that placed many Nadar women on the receiving end of violence, and eventually resulted in them adopting a way to cover their breasts that was similar to the clothing of the Nairs.
During the British Raj, covering the upper-body was the order for women who were employed by the British, and lower-caste men were made to wear an anglicized version of the dhoti, or suits, depending on the profession. The dress was a way to ascertain modernity in an individual, and the lack thereof. Through employment under the British, lower-caste communities were allowed the ‘civility’ of the modern dress.
The assertion of identity through clothing is significant for communities that have been rendered undeserving of dignity. Ambedkar donning the suit, at a time when Dalits were forced to wear soiled and messy clothing, was a revolutionary act. The norm of 'soiled and messy clothing' as a means to maintain caste was attributed to the position of Dalits as 'polluted' and 'dirty' in society, and therefore strict codes of conduct have been imposed on their identity, disabling them to 'evolve' through clothing. This manifestation of caste also allows upper-caste Hindus to maintain sartorial superiority over Dalits.
Thus the suit has symbolised education and reform for Dalits since Ambedkar. When the band The Casteless Collective takes to the stage with identical grey-coloured suits, for instance, they challenge the history that denied them that very right. It is also important to reiterate here that the sari, after the British, was reimagined through conservative additions like the blouse and petticoat, and was so a signifier of a 'moral position' in society.
Dalit and Bahujan people across the country have long used clothing as political and social resistance. Kallumala Samaram, or the Stone Necklace Protest, was a social revolution by the Puliyar community – a lower-caste – in south Travancore in 1915. This was a response to upper-caste groups controlling their right to education, access to public spaces, entry into temples, and determining what the women could or could not wear. In a meeting chaired by Ayyankali – a social former – Puliyar women were encouraged to throw away their Kallumala necklaces – made of stone – that were symbols of caste slavery and to wear clothing that covered their upper-bodies.
In contemporary times, there is a slow but sure radical change in the access to clothing and the assertion of the self. Dalit children are fashioning t-shirts and jeans, and men are wearing suits, as ways to challenge caste-based clothing that is practised even today. Through the ‘Mummy Ki Sari’ project started by the independent political researcher and queer activist Vqueeram Aditya Sahai, trans women have reimagined the sari by distributing old saris from mothers and grandmothers to transgender and gender non-conforming identities, breaking barriers of untouchability that isolate the community on grounds of both caste and gender; sharing with one another the many histories that saris carry within them. There is a sense of pride, belonging and shared vulnerability in the sari.
For upper-caste, Hindu, cisgender folks, in most regions of India, the sari is a totemic symbol of Hinduism. For the women, the nine-yards are drapes of femininity, of freedom and identity. The women behind the ikat and Chanderi saris are not just weavers, they are toddy tappers, sanitation workers and fisherwomen; occupations that, to the upper-caste Hindus, are unimaginable, in that they would not access these occupations for themselves.
The impoverishment of lower-caste communities forces them into modes of work that require great physical burden; with Dalit women facing not only a casteist system but a patriarchal system that bounds them to many other modes of labour. Yet, the labour of these women is, on a fundamental level, either reduced to their fate as lower-caste women or is romanticised through a celebration of their artisanship as patriotism and tradition. The fact that we don't see handloom and crafts as products of labour exploitation, but just as aesthetics, is enabled by our caste privilege. The sari has been woven through many systems of oppression and its 'beauty' continues to distract from the conditions of its artists.
We are a society unbothered by the structures of cruelty that operate behind the sari. The communist uprising in the film Kanchivaram illustrates this well; in a scene that follows the month-long protest of the weavers, Vengadam presents the list of demands to the employer, (also referred to as ‘master’) the middleman between the weaver and the customer, who acquires enormous wealth from exploiting the weavers. The demands ask that current wages for weavers be increased, weavers who weave saris in their homes be allowed to sell directly to traders and that weavers above the age of 60 be allowed certain benefits of prices. Without reading the entire list, the master crumples the paper and argues that he doesn't need these weavers; he can find weavers in Mysore.
This scene appropriately demonstrates how our society and government treat labourers: as discardable, temporary and unworthy. Whether it is the abolishing of the All India Handloom Board and the All India Handicrafts Board, or the massive 97 lakh debt left unpaid to weavers of The Charaka society in Karnataka, there is a consistent commodification of weavers and policing of lower-caste lives to maintain the imagination of a democratic treatment of these communities. When the Minister of Textiles, Smriti Irani, tweets a picture of herself in a sari from the All India Handloom Board, just days after its abolishment, the portrayal is not of patriotism or tradition, but it is that of caste; it distracts from, and invisiblises the livelihoods of weavers, already threatened and minoritised by a pandemic, now entirely detached from a craft that they have built through oppression.