Kancheepuram's silk industry is adapting to competition and changing customer preferences by modernising operations.
JUST like Darjeeling in West Bengal is known the world over for its tea, Scotland for Scotch whisky and Champagne in France for its wine, Kancheepuram, in Tamil Nadu, is known for its silk saris. Silk weaving in Kancheepuram is a centuries-old tradition.
The town today has over 60,000 silk looms and 22 weaver cooperative societies (nine societies with a turnover of over Rs.10 crores; four with Rs.5-10 crores; and the rest less than Rs.5 crores). The town's annual turnover exceeds Rs.200 crores with exports worth nearly Rs.3 crores. According to S. Nagaraj, Joint Director, Anna Silk Weaving Cooperative Society and Special Officer of Tan Silk, the potential for exports has not risen sharply primarily because the product range is limited to saris and there is hardly any demand for them abroad. But he is confident that with product diversification, which the industry is contemplating, exports will rise.
The traditional Kancheepuram silk saris are hand-woven in two parts (the pitni technique). The pallu and the border are woven in one colour as one unit and attached to the body of the sari, which is woven separately and in another colour. The sari is woven with dyed silk yarn, which is interleaved with design made with zari - silk thread twisted with a thin silver wire and then gilded with pure gold. Technically, the silk thread used in Kancheepuram is made of three threads twisted together. Woven from pure mulberry silk, the Kancheepuram silk enjoys a reputation for texture, lustre, durability and finish. Thus, the Kancheepuram silk saris are usually stronger (and more expensive) than those woven elsewhere in the State. While 75 per cent of the zari comes from Gujarat where its production is a cottage industry, the rest comes from Tamil Nadu Zari, the government-owned factory, which is one of its kind in the country. The silk comes primarily from Karnataka.
A unique feature of the Kancheepuram silk sari is its strength, which is made possible by the twisted yarn - double warp and double weft, that gives it the weight; its elaborate border designs usually of temples, peacocks and yali (a horse-like motif) and body patterns of floral dots, stripes and checks; its vibrant colour contrasts that are combinations of traditionally bright, earthy-scarlet, emerald green, black, ochre, purple, steel blue, peacock blue or turquoise; and its exquisite design (korvai saris) beautifully integrating the different colours of the body and the border and pallu.
According to Nagaraj, over the centuries, several weaving traditions have been lost. However, with the setting up of weaving centres by the government, the traditions are being carefully studied, researched and revived. With technological development, computer-aided designs that are easily replicated are becoming popular.
Says Nagaraj: "Over the years, with changing consumer tastes and preferences, the Kancheepuram silk sari has undergone some changes." Consumers are now concerned about the price and the weight and prefer pastel shades and simple designs.
TO beat the competition, the silk industry came out with three types of saris to reduce weight, and, thereby, the price. These are: the contrast variety (the traditional variety in which the border and body are interlocked), the semi-contrast variety (in which there is a warp and weft with different colours in the border and warp runs from the body into the border thus avoiding interlocking of the body with the border) and the plain variety (in which the body and border are of one colour).
For a contrast sari, the weaver needs a helper (usually a child) to throw the shuttle across the sari but the semi-contrast and plain saris are produced without this help. This change led to the important social change of doing away with child labour, a practice quite common in the making of contrast saris. For the weaver it meant a fall in the wage cost and an end to child labour. But on the flip side, the plain silk saris are being duplicated by the powerlooms, which are able to sell them at a third of the cost of a Kancheepuram silk sari.
Taking advantage of the change in consumer preferences, a section of weavers, both from within and outside Kancheepuram, are also cutting corners. For instance, while in a traditional Kancheepuram silk sari the norm is to have 0.6 per cent of its zari weight in gold and 57 per cent in silver, in most saris now, according to Nagaraj, the gold content is less than 0.2 per cent and the silver content less than 40 per cent. Moreover, the border is also being woven using a mixture of silk and polyester. While one mark (242 gms) of pure zari costs Rs.3,150, the duplicate costs Rs.250-300, thus bringing down substantially the cost of the duplicate silk sari. This has affected adversely the sale of the pure Kancheepuram silk saris.
To get over this problem, the government, in collaboration with the Technology Information, Forecasting & Assessment Council, (TIFAC) and Tamil Nadu Zari has set up a zari testing unit in Kancheepuram that measures the weight of gold and silver in a sari. Cooperatives can use this facility by paying a fee of Rs.30 a sari, it is Rs.40 for individuals.
Nagaraj said: "The cooperatives use only pure zari and silk. We make sure of the quality, weight and gold-silver norms. This makes their saris costlier than the duplicate ones." While the larger cooperative societies such as Anna Society, which has an annual turnover of Rs.20 crores, have managed to survive the competition, smaller societies are finding it hard to survive. Many private master weavers and loom owners are also affected by the unfair competition. This affects the weavers as stock accumulation results in societies and private master weavers not being able to give sustained work to people.
But how are the cooperative societies managing to cater to the changing tastes and preferences? Nagaraj said: "Earlier there was, for instance, only one designer for the 1,550 looms of Anna Society. But now we get designs from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai, the Co-optex design wing and several private designers." Also, according to him, the unique selling point of cooperative societies is the quality, the weight and the pureness of silk. The societies ensure the quality of the silk yarn by purchasing it from Tan Silk, the government's shop, through the centralised purchase committee of the government. The government-run dye house ensures the quality of the colours.
Several cooperative societies are now gearing themselves to meet the demands of changing consumer preferences. For instance, the Thiruvallur Silk Weaving Society, which operates with 1,000 looms and has an annual turnover of Rs.10 crores, has collaborated with several design centres in India, including the NID and Kalakshetra in Chennai, to cater to the changing design needs. Set up in 1963, the Thiruvalluvar Society also trains its members to improve their skills to meet the changing needs of the market. Along with the other silk weaving societies, it has begun to sell under a brand name - the Loom World.
To cater to the changing preferences of consumers, the traditional silk units, according to Nagaraj, have begun weaving churidar sets. It will not be long before they start making furnishings. There is also a move to blend silk with cotton in the body of the sari or make the body with cotton and the border in silk.
According to Nagaraj, the past two to three years have been particularly bad for the traditional silk weavers. Stocks have accumulated, working capital has dipped and several weavers are unable to get continuous work. In order to avoid losing customers to poor-quality silk saris and cut losses owing to accumulation of stocks, the societies now offer a discount on sari prices, ranging from 35 to 55 per cent. Throughout the year the government gives a rebate of 20 per cent or Rs.200 (whichever is higher) on all saris. This has helped considerably in clearing stocks. Apart from this, the Central government also gives cash credit to the societies.
In a modernisation drive, the societies are beginning to advertise (something unheard of in the past), apart from giving customers the option of design and colour.
Two months ago, the Kancheepuram sari was registered under the Geographical Indication Act. According to Nagaraj, under the Act, any sari sold as `Kancheepuram sari' should follow the weight, quality and zari norms. The sari should also be woven in the region. Any duplicate sari-maker selling his product as `Kancheepuram sari' can be booked under the Act.
According to Nagaraj, the district administration has launched a drive to abolish child and bonded labour from the silk industry. As the first step, committees have been formed and units monitored; and 100 loom owners have been booked. The government has also developed a simple device that does the work of a helper (usually a child). While this device, which cost Rs.500, has been developed only for a single-side border sari, soon there will be one for double-side border as well.
The zari is made in the government-run Tamil Nadu Zari factory in Kancheepuram, but the silver wire needed for its production comes from Surat because the technique is a closely held secret of a few families there. The NFDDC, a unit of the Defence Research and Development Organisation in Hyderabad, is now working on how to draw wire from silver. Nagaraj said: "If this project is successful, we will not have to depend on Surat for silver wire. This will bring down costs."
According to Nagaraj, the future of the silk industry is not clear. It is certain that it cannot continue the same way. It has to adapt to the changing consumer preferences and attitudes. The industry, he says, has to diversify and move to value-added products, particularly as the use of silk sari is falling. Until now the silk sari has not been duplicated by the powerlooms due to its uniqueness, but soon that may also happen and the industry should be geared to take on the powerlooms as well.