26 April 2015

Living by the loom

My column in Mumbai Mirror today: 

Shyam Benegal's Susman offers a portrait of the handloom weaver's predicament, sadly relevant even today.

Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, in Susman (1987)
At one point in Shyam Benegal's Susman (1987), two ikat weavers are walking back from a meeting with an agent and a city-based buyer. “Why didn't you ask the buyer for an advance?” says the younger brother Laxmayya (Annu Kapoor). “Apne munh se paisa maang ke kaahe apne ko chhota banayein? (Should I have demeaned myself by asking for money with my own mouth?)” responds the elder brother Ramulu (Om Puri). “Would have been better not to take the order.”

Susman is one of Shyam Benegal's less-watched films. It is part of his clutch of issue-defined films commissioned by government bodies or cooperatives. It has its limitations: Benegal's regular stable of 'alternative' actors can feel a little too starry. Watching Shabana Azmi and Om Puri and Pankaj Kapur play impoverished Pochampally weavers speaking in Dakkhani, can feel like a stretch – Azmi, in particular, looks and acts far too urbane. But Benegal has always had the ability to craft fictions that offer a nuanced, thoughtful picture of the situation he has chosen to depict, and Susman is a good example.

It is a film that deserves to be watched this week, as the central government contemplates a policy shift that might endanger the very existence of the handloom weaving sector. Scroll.in reported on Friday that “the Ministry of Textiles is looking into a memorandum submitted by power loom owners to ease provisions in the Handloom Reservation Act of 1985 that allow only handloom weavers to make certain textile products.” Over the years, the 22 handloom-only items originally listed by the Act has already been reduced to 11. Also, it is well-known that power loom weavers manufacture these reserved products, passing them off as handloom. Further de-reservation is likely to price handloom goods out of the market, and threaten the survival of what is the world's most stunningly diverse, skilled range of hand-crafted textiles.

Benegal seeks to draw in the middle class viewer with a display of handloom weaves, each sari covering the screen as we hear the unmistakeable voice of Neena Gupta applaud the particular finesse of each to a less-knowledgeable but terribly opinionated man. When we finally cut away from the saris to Gupta, she turns out to be a designer called Mandira: the handloom sari-wearing, big-bindi-ed figure we all know, directing some sort of sari-based fashion show.

Mandira is hard to please, and when she clicks her tongue at some of the work that master weaver Narasimha (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) brings her from Pochampally, Narasimha suggests that she explain her demands to the weavers herself. So it is that our English-speaking designer, accompanied by her even more English-speaking boyfriend, Jayant Kripalani, encounters Ramulu and his household.

It is after this slightly ham-handed beginning that the film comes into its own. Benegal cleverly uses the household's particular situation as illustrative of a larger socio-economic reality. In Ramulu's perfectionism as a craftsman, in his inability to bargain with agents, in his silent resentment of his situation but his fatalistic approach to dealing with it, we see the tragic predicament of the handloom weaver who doesn't have a head for the market. And while Ramulu is profoundly attached to the work he does, he displays what little realism he has in refusing to let his little son sit at the loom.

Because the financial pressures upon him are such that Ramulu has begun to see his attachment to his work as a form of bondage. “Ukhaad ke phenk doonga isko ek din. Yeh kargha nahi jail hai jail. Ismein bandh karke daal diya hum ko,” shouts Om Puri in one moving scene. And as we watch him, framed behind the long horizontal bar of his loom, it feels as if he is indeed boxed into a corner of the world. 

Roti deti so cheez ko aisa nahi bolte (Don't say such things about the thing that feeds you),” says his wife Gouramma (Azmi) worriedly. But the film makes clear that weaving is failing to fill stomachs. The cooperative societies set up to save weavers from the clutches of agents and touts have quickly been corrupted from within, beholden to the powerful. Big orders don't come to the co-op because they require deposition of advance monies, funds the co-op can't risk. The co-op secretary loans the Society's supply of silk thread to Narasimha on the sly, and is bribed to sell off discounted saris in bulk to Laxmayya, who intends to resell them in Hyderabad and set up as an agent.

Through Ramulu's prospective son-in-law Nageshwar, we also see the new workspaces created by the powerloom. The village of individual homes in which weavers work at their own pace, often in conjunction with other family members, is replaced by a cramped all-male factory space, and the regular thak-thak of the handloom by the raging sound of the powerloom. In the factory, warns Nageshwar, a man cannot leave his machine. Benegal doesn't say it, but it's clear why: because the machine isn't his any more. It owns him, rather than the other way around.

But while Benegal's leanings are apparent, he is clear-eyed about how unsustainable handloom has become for even its most skilled practitioners. The tragic irony of a weaver having to steal thread in order to weave a silk sari for a daughter's wedding is a powerful one, one which recurs in Priyadarshan's Tamil film Kanchivaram (2008). Kripalani's computer-type boyfriend also represents the view against handloom, demanding of Mandira how long the artificial “sahara” of government loans and the “sentimentality” of people like her will keep it alive.

The film manages to end on an upbeat note. But the government's answers to these questions, asked nearly twenty years ago, remain as tragically short-sighted as ever. Handloom can thrive and grow, if we only do right by it. As Ashoke Chatterjee, ex-head of the Crafts Council of India, asked recently: “Why are powerloom lobbyists so eager for their fabric to appear handmade if demand is falling?”

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