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India’s traditional communities weave new dreams




There are many aspects of India’s traditional life, till the economic reforms of the 90s, that bring together its people as a country, whether they live in cities or in far-flung communities. One is cuisine, the other, places of pilgrimage, and then there is the way we dress, or the cloth we use, how we make these traditional outfits, distinctive and with variations for different regions, and the weather.

 

In traditional homes, cloth and outfits made thereof were also made by the community for their own use, recycled, tailored to different environments reflecting rituals as well as socio-cultural ways of life. And all of these cloths were typically made on traditional hand looms. From the Ringa made by the Bondas of Odisha to the Pashmina blankets of Ladakh, from the Patan Patoli sarees of Gujarat to the silk sarees of Kanchipuram, what brings, rather unites these disparate communities is that the people who make these exquisite outfits used traditional looms, a form of technology that is dying out. It’s only due to the sheer resilience of the people who make them and their love for their craft, that these traditional weaves may yet survive our technologically-advanced times.


It is the lives of these looms-people, their struggles and hopes, and their steadfast belief in their craft that is the essence of the 120 minute film, Life in Loom, that was screened at the 54th International Film Festival of India in Goa. Directed by Edmond Ranson and produced by Francis Markus, the film takes the viewer on the journey to traditional communities all over the land making cloth and clothes via the loom fight a battle with the forces of modernisation.


Ranson’s film starts in Odisha where two charming women of the Bonda tribe, Adhibari and Kinkair, tell us their story of how they wove the colourful Ringa, their lives itself representing a bygone era. They tell their story of lives woven around the Ringa, an occupation that women undertake and pass on through the generations. Life in Loom then takes the viewer to the nomadic Changpas of Ladakh to the Salvies (700 families of whom moved from Southern Maharashtra) of Patan, Gujarat who speak about the delicate art of their sarees made under the patronage of king Kumar Pala. The filmmakers speak to a member of the native families that has been involved in their making for several centuries. The camera then turns to the weavers of the Jamdani muslin sarees (with their flower motifs and other designs), who came in as migrants from Bangladesh, the story told

eloquently by Jyotish Debnath and his son, Rajat who come from a family of these weavers; and then pans down south to the weavers of Kanchipuram and harking back to the beginnings of the cooperative movement in Tamil Nadu; then once panning back north to the Bankuras of Banarsi silk saree fame, the apprenticeship of youngsters and their struggles and hopes.


The film’s script that ably supports the visually told stories had its moments such as when the weaver is compared to a music composer, or the Patola loom that creates the magic of the eponymous saree is compared to a ‘grand piano’. The filmmaker clearly shows his empathy with the loom people who tell their stories – very matter-of-factly- with no attendant drama when the camera focuses on the calloused hands of the weavers, gnarled palms and toes, of the Bonda women to the men such as Jeevananadan, making the Kanchipuram sarees, their hands moving dextrously as they weave out fabrics that many are ready to pay an arm and a leg for such as in the case of the Patola sarees, a minimum of Rs 100,000 and going up 7 times as well.

 

In the movie’s initial moments, by way of introductory remarks, it is mentioned that the movie has a rhythmic and melancholic tone but in this writer’s view, there’s a lot of hope for these traditional loom workers (and that melancholic mood appears to evaporate towards the end), their families and the close-knit sub-culture that the weaving engendered. It’s heartening to note the many reasons for hope for these weaving communities. In Gujarat, the Salvies are setting up a museum that will record their ways of life even as the weavers are re-introducing the use of natural dyes in the making of their exquisite sarees; in Ladakh, back-strap looms help the nomadic tribe ply their tribe as they move from place to place in search of the right kind of vegetation for their Pashmina goats; in the south, the cooperative system offers hope to weavers that they can lead a life with decent income streams, to Sualkuchi, Assam, the sarees made of traditional muga silk face the wrath of climate

change but weavers like Debnath are trying to teach more people the art of muslin weaving even as he tries to marry modern technologies with traditional skills to keep this saree tradition alive. And finally we must end as this amazing film begins- returning to Adibari and Kinkair, contented souls whose matriarchal families are collaborating with an NGO to ensure that the Ringa survives into the future.


Ranson and his team began shooting this film in 2018 and had to pause for the Covid as travel anywhere came to standstill. To film the Bondas, a primitive tribe, they had to get permission from the local collectorate. But as the curfews and restrictions were lifted, they were on the road again. As a result, we can also enjoy the fruit of their labours.


If there’s thread that runs through these weavers’ stories is the lament that the new generation isn’t taking an active interest in their traditional craft. Yet, there is hope that with the initiatives being taken, at the grassroots, these skills will survive, and see the light of many more decades to come.

 

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