Monday, April 27, 2009


Sarojini Naidu wrote a poem titled "Indian Weavers":

WEAVERS, weaving at break of day,
Why do you weave a garment so gay? . . .
Blue as the wing of a halcyon wild,
We weave the robes of a new-born child.

Weavers, weaving at fall of night,
Why do you weave a garment so bright? . . .
Like the plumes of a peacock, purple and green,
We weave the marriage-veils of a queen.

Weavers, weaving solemn and still,
What do you weave in the moonlight chill? . . .
White as a feather and white as a cloud,
We weave a dead man's funeral shroud.

Weaving is an age old tradition in India. Weavers making textiles in their homes and open spaces around them used to be a common sight just decades ago. Hand looms are now falling silent. The lucky few are shifted to living cultural museums. Dakshinachitra on ECR, near Chennai, has on display two hand looms on which weavers make a few sarees every month. A few pictures of the weaving equipment:

It is surprising that some say there is "no proof" for hand loom weaving traditions in India because, while, bits of fabric from ancient Egypt and China have survived, not even a shred has been found from India so far! Want to see some real proof that hand looms have existed for long in India? The weaver's feet have a story to tell:

The feet are used to 'power' the hand loom. The space between the big toe (hallux) and the index toe is large enough to accommodate another toe. The weaver's feet have for too long been operating the foot treadle and the space taken by the rope on the treadle has left a permanent mark on their feet. The "Book of Looms" by Eric Broudy documents other distinguishing features of the weavers: they have hands so sensitive to touch, that they cannot do other hard labour. The human genetic map would have the "weaver's patch" that could distinguish traditional weavers from the rest.

Hand loom equipment were upgraded by Jacquard, a French weaver, in 1801. His loom could be controlled by punch cards. This was a huge step in automating the weaving process. In due course, it inspired Charles Babbage to come up with the Analytical Engine, using punch cards to store programs. There has been no looking back since then.

By 2009, the fully automatic looms have almost totally replaced hand looms in India. The weavers in Tamil Nadu have been forced to find other jobs not their vocation - ending up mostly as construction workers. The shrouds for them would be woven by power looms now.

Mahatma Gandhi used weaving for political freedom. Thiruvalluvar, a law giver of the ancient Tamils, is believed to have been a weaver. Hailing from the weaving community, Sir P.T. Thiagaraya Chettiar created political currents in Tamil Nadu. The innovation by Jaquard led to automation of the loom, and the hardware of Babbage have now matured. Will the electronic networks that weave connections between all men mean the end of representatives and pave way for direct democracy? Time will tell - keep reading :)

[5] "The Book of Looms", Eric Broudy,