The Padmashali community of weavers from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka has fascinating and intersecting origin stories. While the most prominent one, from the Markandeya Purana, traces their origin to Markandeya Maharishi, whose son Bhavana Rishi is supposed to have had 101 Padmashali children, another interpretation of the story suggests that when Markandeya performed a yagna, Bhavana came out of the holy fire, holding a lotus (padma) in his hand. He eventually married two daughters of the sun god and had 101 sons, all of whom took to weaving cloth out of the fibre of the lotus flower.
Yet another version suggests that when the weavers realised that the cloth woven out of the lotus fibre was too diaphanous and flimsy, they prayed to Lord Vishnu. He then blessed 101 lotus seeds, which, when planted, became the cotton plant.
These stories and their variations find their way into the cloth woven by members of the Padmashali community even today. And they have more recent legends related to their origin and migrations—the Padmashali weavers of Karnataka, who are mostly concentrated in the village of Kodiyala in Mandya district, say their ancestors were brought from Andhra Pradesh by Tipu Sultan and settled near his capital of Srirangapatna, about 30km from Kodiyala.
Yet, despite their obvious pride in their community, its backstory and its traditional skills, only around 10 families of weavers remained in Kodiyala. Most had migrated to cities, working either on power-looms in the cloth mills surrounding Bengaluru or as other skilled and unskilled labour.
Gradually, though, there has been a slow trickle of weavers back to the ancestral homes and looms they left behind. And strangely, this has become one of those stories that start with “the pandemic made this happen”. In late 2019, The Registry of Sarees, a Bengaluru-based research and study centre in the field of handspun and handwoven textiles, decided to start a project that would inject new energy into handloom weaving in Kodiyala by commissioning saris that would be sold via the Registry’s retail platform, Yali. It came together organically—initially as a research project by architect and designer Kshitija Mruthyunjaya, who was working on a master’s in design in Milan, and slowly taking on a life of its own through the involvement of the Shreni Community Trust, a non-profit that was already working with weavers in Kodiyala, trying to support power-loom weavers who aspire to transition back to handloom.
“The pandemic and lockdown actually gave the project a push as power-looms wound down and many of the weavers from Kodiyala lost their jobs in the Bengaluru mills,” says Mruthyunjaya. Since March-April 2020, several weavers have taken the plunge, giving up salaried jobs in the city and returning to their “native” to start handloom weaving again. Hosa Arambha, the name of the project, means “new beginnings” in Kannada, and is an apt and succinct description of the fresh activity Kodiyala is seeing after decades.
“Khushi aagutte (I feel joyful),” says weaver K. Shridhar, when asked how it feels to make the switch. Shridhar had been working in the power-loom sector in Bengaluru’s Bapuji Nagar for five years till he snapped up the opportunity to work on handlooms again. Although Shridhar’s father was not a weaver and ran a tailoring shop in Mandya, he remembers his grandparents working on the family loom. His 90-year-old aunt, who lives in the village, still works the loom, and he picked up the skill by watching them.
“If there is proper marketing and selling of handloom products, there is no reason that more weavers can’t get back to this. They can earn as much as ₹50,000 a month, which is like a software engineer’s salary,” says Shridhar, grinning widely, on a video call from Kodiyala. His daughter is a software engineer in Bengaluru. Apart from the financial aspect, he says, the weaver is more “dedicated” when he is working on the handloom. “We feel more connected to the work. We also work longer hours and can make better money,” says Shridhar, explaining that in the power-loom sector, you are always working for someone else.
It also helps that the Hosa Arambha saris’ connection to the Kodiyala community is woven into the design itself. The weavers are involved in every step of the process, says Mruthyunjaya. “Right from sketching the initial design to selecting the colours and dyes, we collaborate with the weavers. The motifs you see in the sari borders and pallu represent the mythological stories related to their origin, while there are also accents from the ancient Telugu script, which is still the main language of the Padmashalis,” says Mruthyunjaya.
In the second, ongoing phase of the project, they are asking questions like “how can we improve the material?”, “where is the cotton growing?”, and “are jacquard and dobby (types of weaves) the right choices?”, says the designer. They are also looking at how they can switch from mill-spun yarn to hand-spun cotton to weave the saris, and are training the weavers and their families to use the ambar charkha (a four- or eight-spindle spinning wheel) to make the yarn. Eventually, the project aims to become completely self-sufficient, be it growing cotton for the yarn, spinning it, dyeing it, or weaving the motifs into a sari: “From seed to sari,” as Mruthyunjaya puts it.