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Why are Bengal's tant weavers quitting their looms?

Poverty and despair have forced these artisans to shift to farming or migrate to cities

The weavers were forced to leave tant for they failed to earn the bare minimum required to provide a square meal to their family. (Kelly Lacy, Pexels)
The weavers were forced to leave tant for they failed to earn the bare minimum required to provide a square meal to their family. (Kelly Lacy, Pexels)

At a distance of 47 kilometers from West Bengal's Bankura town, 66- year-old Bhanupada Nandi is the only tant weaver left to continue this tradition. He lives in Bonkata village with his family.

Nandi, who has three tants (handlooms), stopped weaving sarees because of advancing age. However, he weaves gamcha (local handloom towel) on a daily basis to support the family and continue with the art form.

He earns 1600 for 100 pieces of gamcha that he sells to a wholesale dealer every two months. It takes a minimum of two hours to weave two pieces of gamcha. None of his sons wants to learn this tradition due to extremely low income.

A little ahead from Bonkata is a village named Nobanda. Its weavers stopped working on the loom five years ago. Today, the wooden machines in every household lie dismantle,d gathering dust and cobwebs.

The weavers of say that they were forced to leave tant solely because they failed to earn the bare minimum required to provide a square meal to their family.

Mritunjay Das, who left weaving seven years ago, says, "I came into farming and managed to earn enough to provide food to my family. However, the pain of not weaving still lingers."

Sitting beside Mritunjay Das, Tarani Das -- another weaver who left weaving five years ago says, "Since power loom products came in the market, our condition worsened. A gamcha made in power loom costs 30 and our cost was at least 80 to 90 because we had to do everything by hand and it requires time."

Bowing down to poverty, each and every earning member of this village shifted to other trade such as daily labour, ice-cream seller and farming while others shifted to bigger cities in order to try their luck.

Kenjakura village in Bankura -- a block which had more than 300 tants in the past-- now has only 60 wooden machines, with only seven tant artists weaving sarees. Others have resorted to gamcha.

Buddhadev Bit, 55, is one of the last seven saree weavers in this village. He says, "Let me share the story of today's hurdles. I had to go to Sonamukhi today (a city and a municipality in the Bishnupur subdivision of the Bankura district) for which I had to wait one and a half hours for transportation before I reached Bankura. After work, while coming back, the 10th vehicle stopped and took me to Belatur. From Belatur I waited for another 40 minutes and thereafter reached Bankura. From Bankura to Kenjakura is another hassle. And this story is a routine in my life. There is no end to this, because neither do I have the capital, nor farming land to do better."

"Products made in power looms are fast and easy. Who will wait for us? We are slipping further into darkness with each passing day," Bit added.

However, young Rahul Das, 28, is determined to bring back the bygone glory of tant in his village. With the help of, he has started reviving the trade.

A total of 10 tant machines were set up in the village in which around 150 to 200 weavers started working.

"Designers said that not only gamcha, but also stoles, bedcovers and innovative items that have better demand should be made. We are working on this because only weaving gamcha won't fetch them money for food; forget about sending children to school. Government intervention is required immediately, otherwise the trade will soon be extinct. More than monetary help, the weavers need planned marketing support from the government for the survival of tant," said Das.

A weaver can work on a maximum of 10 pieces of gamcha per day with the help of three to four family members. The time required is at least 14 hours.

Villages in Bankura, such as Jamtora that had 30 to 40 tant weavers, is now left with only 10. Gopinathpur village has barely two to three weavers. Another village named Rajogram, that had 600 tant weavers, now has only 10. Kalapathor village that had 50 to 70 weavers, now has only 15 to 20.

In Kenjakura village, old women earn 6 for a fistful of the yarn which is required to weave. Their maximum daily earnings are pegged at Rs. 20.

The low numbers reflect how the age-old traditional art of tant in the Bankura district is eroding away, due to poverty and despair. Most weavers have similar questions—"No matter which government comes, do you think anyone will think about us? Has it made any difference? Don't you think the government should have done at least something, if not for us, but for this art form? "

The story has been lightly edited for style.

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