Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
WOVEN ART : June 20, 1999
A work community
Weavers have so far been defined in terms of two divergent perspectives. On the one hand, there is the orientalist representation of India as a museum within which weavers are bearers of "traditions of craftsmanship." On the other hand, the modernist project for economic upliftment, through technical and organisational reform, sees them as "skilled labour" that can be tapped for its potential in nation building. In either case, the regeneration of society through hard-work via key institutional interventions like the small factory, co-operative society, technical school and design centre - have disassociated weavers from the community context of their work both in theory and in practice. Even the existing literature on handloom weaving, as embodying a distinct community context has tended to subordinate occupational specialisation to other identities, be it religious, economic or political. Distinguishing artisans from agricultural and other groups in society, while pointing to a supra-local identity, nevertheless, continue to neglect "work" - in this case, weaving - as a basis for community identity.
Instead of focussing on a single village or institution, for an exhaustive account of the handloom industry in Tamil Nadu, the ethnography for this article is based upon more than one weaving centre and the relations between them. Extracted from original research conducted among the Telugu speaking Padma Saliyars in Swamimalai, Kumbakonam, Kanchipuram and Chennai, it concentrates on a specific case - that of the Padma Saliyar community in the region - to highlight more general issues pertaining to work and identity.
A section of the Padma Saliyar community migrated south some time during the Chola period, roughly between the 10th and the 14th centuries from present day Andhra Pradesh. Even today they have marriage links there and continue to speak their mother tongue, Telugu. Historians confirm that the rise of "temple-towns" in medieval south India was in fact associated with the growing economic prosperity and social mobility of weavers. The presence of Padma Saliyars in medieval urban centres like Kanchipuram and Thanjavur and their continued links with temples in these areas even today, is strongly suggestive of their earlier role and status as artisans in the region.
The largest silk businesses in Tamil Nadu are in the hands of members of this community. Even the important silk weaving centres in the State correspond with major concentrations of the Padma Saliyars. Indeed, members of the community are involved at every level of production and distribution of the sari, so that division of labour and exchange is a lot limited to the confines of the household and the village. Not only have the Padma Saliyars long been associated with the weaving profession (they are believed to be the descendants of a mythic weaver of lotus - padma - fibre cloth for the gods), they are also seen to provide their customers with a very specialised service. The respective patrons of Radha Silks, Nalli Chinnaswami Chetti and Kumarans - the three major Padma Saliyar owned concerns in Chennai - believe that buying the muhurtham (bridal) sari from them is raasi or auspicious.
The production of these saris is organised through a network of kin, affinal, neighbourhood, and other caste-based relations which are flexible and not inherently rigid. These relations, obtained in what I have called "community-based production," differ from those obtained in the capitalist mode where there is a distinct separation and inequality between those who own the means of production and those who merely sell their labour-power. Nor do relations of production in the community context represent a collection of individuals with impersonal bureaucratic organisation and control similar to modern cooperatives and caste associations where hierarchical allegiance is enforced vis-a-vis an officially designated post and set of rules. Instead, the distinctive feature of a supra-local community network of production and exchange is leadership at every level of organisation in the region. More specifically, each spatially determined level - the household, town and large city - is characterised by domains of leadership established on the basis of professional skill and competence.
At the micro-level there is the weaving household engaged in weaving silk saris on one or more looms (usually between two and four). There are numerous such weaving households in a single village which are in a position to compete for weaving orders and contracts from silk wholesalers in larger towns. In towns like Kanchipuram and Kumbakonam, several middle-level producers control the organisation of production and wholesale trade of silk saris. The number of looms weaving for them varies from 30 to more than 500, usually located in weaving villages forming a cluster around a 30 km radius. Such producers, in turn, contend with their fellows in the same town for sari orders from large cities. At the macro-level there are the very large and dominant regional businesses, with outlets in major cities in the country as well as abroad, associated with a few key leaders. Retailers at this level procure their goods from middle producers in a number of small towns across the State and over time, gain control of over 1000 looms that regularly supply them with fresh stock.
These relations - whether of procurement of bulk goods by retailers in cities from middle level producers in towns, or of collection of warps by middle level organisers once they have been woven into saris from weavers, or the disbursement of a new warp to weave a fresh batch of saris by the middle level organiser to the weaver in his home - are characterised by a system of rotating credit where the promise of payment is tied-in with the promise of a fresh order. Retailers at the city level do not like to keep stock for longer than 60 to 90 days as the shelf life of silk saris is limited, not only because of wear and tear, but also because of rapidly changing fashions. Retailers, therefore, constantly need to renew their stock. There are virtually no immediate cash transfers at this level and payments are made in instalments as stocks exhaust. Incentives of discount are built into the ongoing relationship between retailers and wholesalers which enhance profit from sales for the retailer in the city and in turn ensures fresh bulk orders for the wholesaler in the town. At the micro level too, credit is rotated between large sums of money advanced to weavers in exchange for a commitment to weave a certain number of saris. Wages are adjusted as saris are completed and another advance is made for the weaving of a new warp of three to six saris.
Such a system of credit is possible only if production occurs within a context that ensures continuity of ties which have been established on stronger footings than those based on impersonal contracts. "Being of the same community people are interested in doing business with us. We prefer to do business with those whom we already know" are comments frequently made in this regard. It is hardly surprising that marriage among the Padma Saliyars, is not merely a means of social reproduction but the broadening of one's work related ties. A daughter-in-law is seen to bring access to the outputs of additional looms (rather than the actual looms themselves) as part of her dowry from her natal home. Her parental family's control over the products of a number of looms, either in their home or in surrounding villages is transferable and weavers can be asked to weave for an affine if so desired. In the selection of wives and daughters-in-law, therefore, care is taken to see that they belong to weaving households, are skilled in the various weaving processes and preferably, come from potentially resourceful backgrounds. Indeed, marrying outside of one's community is not a personal matter and is seen as a social violation requiring the consent of community elders. The community context also provides the occasion for cooperation within and in spite of conflict so that business rivalries may be resolved through marriage alliances between competitors at all three levels of silk sari production.
Not only is there the possibility of amity between conflicting domains within levels, but flexibility between levels in the social relations of production comes from the fact that the transition from being a weaver of silk saris to being responsible for their sale in expansive markets is a prospect not restricted to a select few. As a means of social mobility, it is potentially available to anyone in the community who wishes to take it. Yet it is not a guiding ideology because every level of production is characterised by its specific basis of leadership which is the primary aspiration and indeed, source of competition. Exchange within and between levels in community based production occurs in a context of overall co-operation, code of conduct and ethics that sees conflict and competition as being within the community rather than outside of it. It functions within the framework of shared values and the common goal of attaining the status of one worthy of respect (yokkiyamaana) in his/ her own domain of work. Indeed, leadership on the basis of achieved mastery in one's profession is recognised and honoured as a common ideal for the Padma Saliyars. It is this shared community, identity encoded in an ethic that values competence in one's work at every level of leadership, that lies at the core of the silk handloom weaving industry in Tamil Nadu today.
The author is a social anthropologist teaching at NIFT, Chennai.
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