As I planned my trip to Nagpur, I realised I had a day all to myself when my husband was at work. Hence, as a handloom and textile aficionado, the first thing I wanted to research on was the textiles and the handloom of the region of Vidarbha.
I got in contact with a young architect, Ar. Mandira Neware who has co-founded Orange Odyssey with Ar. Amol Wanjari to create an awareness about the heritage and cultural traditions of Vidarbha and Nagpur in particular. A telephonic exchange and we decided to visit the ‘Weavers of Mominpura’, who weave the nine-yard long saree or the Kashta as it is called traditionally.
I took a taxi from my hotel towards Mominpura, a neighbourhood which has largely Muslim families and where the weavers live and work too. I met Mandira near the Jamma Masjid/ Muslim Library at 11 am, just before the weavers start their work. The name Mominpura is believed to be derived from the weavers residing here who were called as Momins; the other meaning being true believers in Allah.
The best way (and perhaps the only way) is to explore the area is on foot. We go through lanes that are famous for bangles and through narrow alleys we reach the ‘karkhana‘ or the loom of Mohammad Hifzur Rehman Saab, a 4th generation ‘bunkar’ or weaver. He is also the General Secretary of the Powerloom Weavers Association. The loom is dark and pretty cramped, but nearly four power looms are busy weaving and being attended to by weavers. Rehman Saab along with Mandira tells me how the looms function and then we go up to his house where he tells me the history of the weavers in Nagpur.
Over a cup of tea, Mr. Rehman tells me about the history of handloom weaving in Nagpur. The city has weavers from two communities, the Hindu weavers are known as Koshti bunkar and the Muslim weavers are called the Momin bunkar. The weavers are from generations of weavers who have been in the business of weaving for 300 years. The Koshti weavers were brought from Kolhapur during the rule of Bhonsle I, and they started to weave sarees on handlooms.
After 1857, the Momin weavers migrated from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh and they started weaving handloom sarees that were 5 yards (Panch vari), 6 yards (che vaari), and 9 yards (nauvari). They are also known as Janata Dhoti and Janata Saree (the apparel for the common people). The 5 yards and 6 yards were made for women in the tribal area of Berar area, and in the Chattisgarh area the 9 yards were made for Maharashtrian women who worked in the agricultural fields. These weavers came by foot on roads constructed by Sher Shah Suri and settled wherever there were rivers and water bodies. They settled at Jabalpur, where the River Narmada was flowing, then at Kamti Village where the Kanhan River flows, then at Nagpur where the Nag river flows. They continued their migration to Balapur, Burhanpur by the Tapti river, to Nasik, Dhulia and then Malegaon. A final batch of weavers settled at Bhiwandi where they met the sea.
Around 1874, another development was taking place, when the iconic industrialist Jamsetji Tata established the Empress Mills in Nagpur. Jamsetji’s genius took him to Nagpur because, he felt that a cotton textile mill could be successful if he factored three crucial points into his plans: proximity to cotton-growing areas, easy access to a railway junction, and plentiful supplies of water and fuel. He named the Mills ‘Empress Mills’, when Queen Victoria was coronated, and despite several hits and misses, the mill became a laboratory, where Jamsetji Tata tried out his experiments in technology and labour welfare. In 1886, he instituted a Pension Fund, and in 1895, he began to pay accident compensation. Truly, a man beyond his times.
With weaving expert and General Secretary Weavers association Mohammad Hifzur Rehman Ansari Saab at his loom and residence
Back to the weavers’ story, till 1970, in Nagpur, there were over 3 lakh (3,00,000) handloom weavers. However, after 1970, with the advent of the New National Textile Policy, the handloom suffered greatly and not even 100 handloom weavers can be found now. Some of the Momin weavers converted their handloom units to power-looms, and Nagpur city saw 1500 power-loom units being established in the 1980s.
Sadly, these loom owners are not making a profit and subsequent generations are moving away from the vocation of their ancestors. Now the industry is slowly dying and there are less than 300 units now. Mr. Rehman’s great-grandfather had come to Nagpur looking for a vocation. His grandfather and great-grandfather worked at the Empress Mills and also kept a handloom unit at home. He is a 3rd generation weaver and he had to convert his unit to a power loom . His son has taken up the vocation, but there is still a lot of manual work involved in getting one saree ready.
The market for these sarees had dipped and with the pandemic, the last two years, their pool of customers had taken a beating. There were no celebrations, no weddings, nor any other ceremonies which gave the people an opportunity to buy the sarees. Rehman Saab laments that the lack of working capital had kept two looms in his unit idle. The two years that went by was in distress.
“The governments in power did absolutely nothing other than impose lockdowns and it is just God’s Grace that we crossed that phase”, says Rahman Saab. Indeed, nothing much has changed even after that in terms of assistance for the weavers.
I was shown how the sarees were made. Indeed, despite power-looms, there is a lot of human intervention and the ‘finishing’ of the saree that involves the cutting of the gold thread that makes ‘buttas‘. It is finally given the final finish by a ‘calendering machine’. The fabric is pressed in between calender rollers at high temperature and pressure, folded and is then ready for the market. They use both cotton and synthetic yarn, as the cost of cotton is quite prohibitive. I went to a second ‘karkhana‘ and was told that the type of sarees that was worn by the singer and Padma Vibhushan Teejan Bai was woven there.
Mandira and myself left this locality to cross over to the area where the Hindu weavers lived and worked. While the lanes looked similar, the torans and use of flowers indicate the presence of koshti bunkars.
A house of a koshti bunkar
We enter the ‘Digambar Textiles’ loom and see several looms at work. I leave you with the images at the loom that will give you an idea of how tedious the process can be, and how beautiful a simple saree looks.
The Warping machine
The threads for the border
With Architect Mandira Neware, of Orange Odyssey. Thank you so much for this enlightening walk!
Every time I meet a community of weavers, it is astounding to learn about their skills, their uniqueness and the wearable art they create. It’s high time we consciously buy from them, rather than the mass produced ‘fast fashion’ industry that creates imaginary trends rather than lasting beauty. Fast fashion is also one the largest contributors to global carbon emissions and is exploitative. What are your views? Would love to hear from you.