Saturday, January 11, 2003
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Kanjeevarams lose sheen
Priya Pandey

Cooperatives are unable to compete with showrooms, which offer attractive displays & resort to sale gimmicks
Cooperatives are unable to compete with showrooms, which offer attractive displays & resort to sale gimmicks

THE world-famous Kanjeevaram silk saree may soon be a thing of the past. Like all traditional crafts, the weaving of this drape is in danger of being extinct, thanks to over-exploitation, poor marketing strategies and the influx of fakes.

Originating from the temple town 75 km from Chennai, the Kanjeevaram saree represents the very best of the Indian textiles’ heritage. Its unmatched craftsmanship, the beauty and grandeur of the gold thread work, quaint motifs and association with ceremonial occasions have been glorified since time immemorial.

Sadly though, all the glitter and gold is no longer visible in Pillayar Palayam, the village on the outskirts of the temple town where the weavers reside. Thousands of looms have been rendered silent due to a moribund cooperative society that does nothing to improve the lot of weavers.


"This is my life, my breath, my bread," says Pitchumani, a weaver holding a yarn of red silk close to his chest. "I have just enough to weave three sarees, for which my family will have to work for 45 days. In return, we will get Rs 1,700 only — just enough to feed us for a month. What do we do after that?"

Pitchumani’s plight represents the hopeless bind Kanjeevaram weavers are caught in today. On the one hand, they remain fiercely proud of their profession and skills they have inherited from their forefathers. On the other, they realise there is no way out of the distressing situation they are sinking into.

Sivaraman, another weaver, who has put over 50 years into the profession, says: "We did not anticipate that cheaper silks from Dharamavaram and Salem would capture the market. These sarees are being sold as Kanjeevaram silks. And our cooperatives are doing nothing about."

As on date, 22 silk cooperatives in Kanjeevaram supply raw material such as silk yarn and zari (gold thread) to weavers owning looms. The finished product is then returned for sale. It is at this point that the problem arises, as the cooperatives are unable to market the product at a good price.

According to recent estimates, the 22 cooperatives are cumulatively holding on to stocks worth Rs 860 million lying unsold in the godowns. Their main fear is repeating the same mistake they committed in the mid-nineties. In their bid to encash the stocks, they got cheated.

"The weavers have only themselves to blame," says Arun Ram, a researcher who has investigated the problem in detail. "Till about 1996, every Kanjeevaram saree woven here was sold, raking a turnover of Rs 100 million a month and a profit of 15 to 20 per cent for the weavers."

Things changed soon after. "With the market opening up, instead of improving upon their marketing strategies, the cooperatives chose the easy way out — increasing the rebate from 10 per cent to 55 per cent on sarees lying in the store for more than one year. They were selling for less than the cost of production."

Where the weavers’ cooperatives lost out, according to Ram, was at competing with private showrooms and emporiums, which could lure customers with an attractive display and sales gimmicks. Not being marketing professionals, the weavers were at their wits’ end.

To add to their woes, were the fakes competing with the originals. Outwardly, they look the same, but the manufacturers of fake sarees use less zari and two-ply silk instead of three-ply for weaving, thus bringing down the costs drastically.

"Since the patterns are the same, unsuspecting buyers cannot make out the difference," says Sivaraman. "The zari used for a Kanjeevaram saree is a silk thread covered with flattened silver in the centre and gold on the outer surface and costs around Rs 2,500 for a marc (240gm). In the fakes, the precious metals are substituted by white metal or impure silver, available for just Rs 90 per marc."

Weavers are now talking of tests to identify fakes. "The border and pallu of a genuine Kanjeevaram are usually not of the same colour," Pitchumani points out. "Moreover, they are made of yarns different from those used in the body of the saree. Besides, the seams are clearly visible in single-side sarees."

There are other give-aways for fakes. For instance, when the zari is scratched or scraped, if red silk does not emerge from the core, the saree is not Kanjeevaram. Also, when burnt, the silk of an original would smell pungent and leave no residue. If it emits the odour of burnt plastic and leaves fibrous remnants, be sure, it is a fake. (MF)