Probably stories of agrarian distress will start traversing from one corner of the brain to another when one travels through a nearly deserted farmland navigating the many tiny lanes to meet Paithani saree weavers in Yeola, 83 kms from Nashik. Only that this story is not about distress, but progress. Though Paithan village in Pune is believed to be the centre for Paithani sarees, Yeola got its prominence in the Peshwa period in the late 19th century. Today, the weavers in Yeola outnumber those in Paithan with a little over 2,200 looms. Almost every house has a loom for weaving the saree, which every Maharashtrian girl wants for her trousseau. With a few startups besides traditional stores selling the rich traditional saree online, its popularity and reach has now crossed pan-India.
At the end of a dry stretch of land after crossing a narrow bylane stands a tiled house which stands out among the thatched roof houses in the area. It is where one meets with 31-year-old Santosh S Satalkar, who lives here with his mother, wife and two children. Satalkar has 10 looms in his house where he has employed 8 men and boys from the village. His wife and he himself work on the looms daily.
He does not come from a family of weavers, a clan that form the large majority of people in this village in Yeola. Giving up his studies after failing Class X, Satalkar made a conscious decision to learn weaving from the weavers in the village. He says he did not have any dreams of going to the city or to any other place in search of a job for a better livelihood. "Do I look unhappy to you?" he asks on being asked why he chose not to study or go to the city in search of a job. "After having lived here in Yeola all my life I have no regrets about not leaving my village in search of a job. The weather, the fields and my family has sustained and nourished me. Yes, by city standards, I may appear to have far less in terms of money but I am happy," he says slashing the air with his arms for added emphasis. "I have also provided jobs to people and stopped migration to the cities," he says.
After learning the ropes of Paithani weaving for over two years, Satalkar saved enough to be able to buy a loom and get independent himself. "It meant I could deal with the traders, work at my free will," he said.
Paithani saree weavers work for one or two wholesale saree traders who give them the order. Weaving a Paithani is time-consuming. The simplest variety of the saree -- with minimum design and the famous Paithani border costs Rs 5,000 and above. Weaving a Paithani saree in this price tag takes around three months. As the design gets intricate, threads get more fine and sophisticated, the time spent on weaving can stretch to a year and more. Of course, for that long work and craft involved, the saree comes at a hefty price of Rs 1 lakh or more.
Bringing together the raw materials for the saree involves many people. Mulberry silk is used to make the sarees which come from Bangalore while zari used in the sarees is largely procured from Surat in Gujarat. Earlier, gold threads were used. The design for the saree is made by a designer, hired by the weaver. The design has to be approved by the trader/dealer before it can be woven into a saree. The most sought-after motifs are peacock, parrot, vines and flowers, and the lotus.
After the yarn is dyed, it is fixed to the loom by a group of people whose job is to string the yarn through the loom which is placed in a three by four deep pit. The weaver sits on the bench and works on it by moving the shuttle back and forth while at the same time pedaling the lower frame.
Satalkar earned enough to increase the number of looms to 10 over the years and ensured in his own way to pass on the ancient craft to a number of people, some of whom also have their own independent looms in their homes. The weaver is given one saree to work on and the minimum wages are Rs 1,800 a week. The weaver can choose to work at whatever hours he wants to but has to adhere to the deadline set by the owner/weaver for whom he works.
There are families in Yeola who are into the Paithani saree weaving trade for generations but Firstpost met up with first generation weavers who learnt the art through apprenticeship, and then started their own small saree weaving factories employing others like them. Intensely focussed on the border pattern, 28-year-old Dagu Kale works two shifts. He works at Satalkar's house and also has a few looms at his home where he and his family work. "I like to work here not just for the extra money I earn but I get to spend time with other men and boys of the village." Like Satalkar, he says that he and a few like him are 'entrepreneurs' who have never lost focus of their village and its art in traditional weaving.
"We want to make more people and especially the youth learn this art so that they don't have to go to the cities in search of a job," he said, adding that the common sight of youngsters gambling or drinking and creating issues for the family and the village is not a phenomenon here. "Everyone is busy working at their looms," he says.
The weavers do not sell sarees as they are weaving it based on orders. But they rue the fact that their handiwork gets paid four times the price at which they are sold. "We do not have the money to rent a shop. But we do have work throughout the year," says Kale.
The youngest weaver at Satalkar's was 16-year-old Mayur Teke who learnt the ropes by hanging in the neighbourhood where people worked at looms. A weaver let him sit and watch him work and before he knew it, he could weave and what's more, is quicker than many with his nimble fingers. The shy, smiling boy says he is "very happy to be able to give money to my parents. They are farmers and the farm has not been doing well for some now." But should he be not studying? "I am attending class. I will finish school soon and then I will do this full time," he says.
The town square
A little further off from the village lies Yeola city where the rich woven Paithanis are sold in shops. The area is a sharp contrast to the village with wide streets bustling with activity and taxis and cars crisscrossing ferrying people and dropping them off at the many stores in the town square. Stepping into the oldest store in the area, the 160-year-old shop called Soni, one is surprised by the heap of shoes and slippers in the verandah almost akin to those left outside by devotees at a temple.
At Sonis, the shop is choc-a-bloc with customers and families travelling from distant Pune, Mumbai, Aurangabad and other cities to buy Paithani sarees for the wedding trousseau. The Dixits from Mumbai were here to buy a saree for their prospective daughter-in-law. "We travel to Yeola whenever we want to buy a Paithani. We know we won't be cheated and the price is far less than what we would pay in Mumbai," says Amita Dixit, the homemaker from Kurla.
Soni sells sarees ranging from 15,000 to Rs 2.5 lakh. What makes the Paithani exclusive are the designs which are usually not seen on another saree. For those who cannot afford to buy the traditional silk Paithanis, there are semi-silks sarees too that sell between 1,000 and Rs 5,000.
At the nearby Vaibhav Paithani store, the proprietor Chhaya Nagpure is the lady in charge. Her late father had a family business of furniture which was passed on to her brother. "As I chose not to marry, I asked my father to give me a store to retail Paithanis. The Paithani is the pride of Yeola and I love the silks," she says. The indulgent father gave her a shop 30 years ago which now has her brother's children helping her out as well. Yogini, her niece, navigating her way through the crowd of customers sitting cross-legged on the floor shopping for sarees in Yeola talks about the unceasing charm of the traditional Paithani.
"Look at how many young women are here at the shop wanting to buy a Paithani. This is the marriage season and we have many customers who throng the shop from across the state and some come from other parts of India," she says. Though the traditional dark colors are still in vogue, Yogini says some youngsters come asking for pastel shades and geometric shapes as designs. "We are happy to note this as then we can ask our weavers to make the sarees for these customers," she says.
The Nagpures have a factory where weavers work exclusively for them. "We are happy that more and more youth in the area want to work in the weaving unit or work independently at Yeola village. This alone makes us believe that the tradition of Paithani will flourish for many years like it has been since the past to now," Yogini said.
A quiet Make in India revolution has been going on here paying rich dividends for the traditional craft, the rich silks and importantly, providing steady jobs in the comfort of homes of the weavers.
(The article is part of OneWord-Dream Media Fellowships on Life Skills-2018)