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A Tamil Nadu town fights to save the 'jamakkalam' carpet

The carpet was once a ubiquitous part of Tamil culture and celebration. Weavers in Bhavani are now trying to reinvent it

Shades of scarlet, navy and emerald are typical of a traditional 'jamakkalam'. (Photographs courtesy Studio A)

P.A. Raju raises his voice to be heard over the clickety-clack of the spinning looms. A master weaver who owns 10 looms, he walks over to one to show me how the Bhavani jamakkalam—a thick, varicoloured carpet—is made. Two weavers operate the pit loom treadle to control the thick, white threads of the warp while their hands shuttle the bright weft threads across, interlacing the two. Brilliant shades of scarlet, navy and emerald emerge on the just-woven fabric, the design typical of a traditional jamakkalam.

“Our family has been in this business for over 70 years,” says Raju, in a video call from his weaving unit in Periyamolapalayam, in Tamil Nadu’s Erode district. But like many others, he is worried about the future of the bright, sturdy carpets, which got GI, or geographical indication, protection in 2005.

B. Poongodi, a professor of marketing at the Coimbatore-based Kumaraguru College of Technology’s (KCT’s) business school, says around 20,000 people are directly or indirectly involved in the profession. Though there is no unanimity on the figure, Raju says “many of the weavers are too old to work, and youngsters do not want to do this work any more”. Not even his son. The jamakkalam now faces the very real danger of extinction.

Most narratives seem to agree that the carpet originated in Bhavani, in Erode district, in the 19th century among the jangamars, a community of weavers. Over time, Bhavani earned its “carpet city” sobriquet as this bright, durable carpet became a ubiquitous part of Tamil culture and celebration. Weddings, picnics, festivals, concerts, prayers—any occasion that saw people congregating—was reason enough to spread out the jamakkalam.

Not any more, however. “It is becoming a product of the past,” says Poongodi, who is in charge of business development at the newly-opened Centre for Weavers at Appakudal, in the Bhavani taluk. She remembers a time when a wedding would be incomplete without a jamakkalam.

The pervasiveness of the power loom has taken a toll. Gopinath, who works at the Appakudal Weavers Cooperative Society, tells me, over a video call, that this poses one of the biggest problems. According to the Handloom (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act of 1985, the jamakkalam is reserved for handloom production. The ground, reality, however, is different. And while a handloom jamakkalam costs 22-25 per sq. ft, a power- loom one is around 15-16.

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Most weavers source yarn from cooperative societies in the region (the government offers a yarn subsidy). After weaving, the carpets are usually given back to these societies, which sell the finished product. A few weavers also sell their products independently. Wages depend on the woven length.

The money, however, is never enough. Subhash M.N., 22, one of Bhavani’s youngest weavers, says most do not earn enough to make ends meet. “Even if we weave for the entire week, we make only 1,500-2,000,” he says, pointing out that an unskilled worker earns double that. Subhash, however, is determined to follow in the footsteps of his father, Nagarajan, a master weaver. “It is a tradition for us,” he says.

Dileep Rangan, the director of a recent six-minute film on the jamakkalam, remembers his first glimpse of the looms. “They were just lying there empty and wasted,” he says, adding that he can still visualise the hopelessness on the faces of some of the weavers. “It was a world we didn’t expect.”

The carpet is said to have originated in Bhavani, in Erode district, in the 19th century among the 'jangamars', a community of weavers
The carpet is said to have originated in Bhavani, in Erode district, in the 19th century among the 'jangamars', a community of weavers (Amar Ramesh)

The documentary was produced by the Chennai-based Studio A. “I am on the journey of doing something towards the culture and heritage of Tamil Nadu,” says Amar Ramesh, the man behind Studio A. “I thought if it could be reimagined and reinvented, it could be an amazing thing.” He reached out to his friend Shankar Vanavarayar of the KCT. Vanavarayar had been thinking on the same lines, says Ramesh. Saravanan Chandrasekaran of the Kumaraguru Institute of Agriculture recalls how it all began. Vanavarayar was crossing the board outside Bhavani that says “Welcome to Carpet City”, en route to a meeting, when the realisation that the craft was struggling hit home. A week or so later, Ramesh happened to text him, and they decided to work together on the project.

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It started with research, brainstorming sessions and phone conversations with the weavers. In December, the Big Short Films team, including Ramesh and Rangan, travelled to Erode. “Our first thought was to make a movie about it,” says Rangan. But “it isn’t just about making the film and getting out of there. We wanted to build awareness and bring some change to people’s lives”, he says, adding that Vanavarayar suggested something tangible was needed.

Most weavers source yarn from cooperative societies in the region.
Most weavers source yarn from cooperative societies in the region.

The Centre for Weavers was set up in January. Chandrasekaran, who manages it on behalf of Kumaraguru Institutions, which has funded the centre, calls it a lab-like set-up where improvisation and experimentation can make the jamakkalam more marketable. “We decided there were four areas we could work on,” he says. “Material, process, design and product range.”

Sakthivel P., 64, who has been weaving the jamakkalam for almost 50 years, is now a full-time employee. “My entire family is into weaving,” says Sakthivel, who comes from Periamolapalayam village. He has always enjoyed trying out new things with the jamakkalam, and he wants to pass on these skills to anyone willing to learn.

The team hopes to upskill weavers, introduce innovative designs, work with different fabrics. They are currently working on installing a jacquard box, says Poongodi. A new product range is on the cards. “Why don’t we make a sofa cover or tablecloth out of the jamakkalam? Or even a handbag?” she says.

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It’s an uphill battle but the project could play a small part in preserving a 200-year-old tradition. “It is still a craft; there’s love and passion for it,” says Rangan, pointing out that many weavers in Bhavani still champion the jamakkalam. “When someone is willing to fight, all we need to do is to offer support.”

Preeti Zachariah is a Chennai-based educator and storyteller.

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