Begumpur, in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, is not far from Kolkata but as your car drives slowly through narrow alleys, and besides small pukurs (ponds), it is a world, miles away from the bustling city. Children all in neatly pressed school uniforms, ride in a single file on their bicycles. A little village wedding band plays to its own tune as it winds through the village. As you enter the Begumpur Handloom cluster, you can see cotton yarn being dyed red and green in the rich colours that their sarees are so famous for, and the handlooms keeping up their gentle clacking giving a rhythm to the village life.
As we sip minute cups of lebu-cha (lemon tea), you can see the traditional Begumpur border take shape on one loom, and you can see fuchsia pink colour weave in seamlessly with black and orange on another. Designs have been sketched and tacked on their soft board, and saris in red, yellow, blue and pink lie strewn about ready to be folded and packed. There is a bustle of activity, the heady purpose of business in the air.
But this wasn’t always so. Famed for its handlooms, Begumpur weavers had for decades woven their cotton saris with Mathaparh (plain border) – a solid coloured sari with no ornamentation, with a checkered or striped pattern, and an occasional nakshaparh design on the border.
However repetitive designs, a lack of interest in the saris in both the local and urban markets and weavers being paid less than Rs.100 for their work was taking its toll. Weavers were seduced by knitting machines that could produce collars and cuffs for the export market, and the entire weaving community from about 4000 weaver societies, was reduced to a cluster of 400 registered handloom weavers.
This is when the State Government decided to get in on the act. According to Mr. Saila Kumar Kundu of the Begumpur Handloom Cluster development society “the main difference was the introduction of jacquard looms, extra weft in the weave and design aesthetics that were reminiscent of the Assamese and Manipuri traditions from the North-East.” The Weavers’ Service Centre (WSC) in Kolkata, imparted soft skills to enhance production, weavers were trained in designing, dyeing, and in dobby and jacquard weaving. A sample development programme, of which Mr. Kundu’s Begumpur handloom Cluster Development Society was a part, was carried out in 2012. It engaged frame looms for saris, and narrow width looms for stoles, steel reeds for better texture and finer cotton yarn, and most importantly – new designs in unique colour combinations. The result was the Begumpur sari’s new look- better in quality, colour fast, with finer yarn, one that had the all the design tradition of the classical Begumpur sarees, but with a completely wearable, contemporary feel.
“When we started the cluster, we had one loom and today, we have over 70 looms running” says Mr. Kundu. Their cluster totaled more than Rs.70 lakhs in sales this year .Weaver’s wages have now gone up from Rs.2500 to Rs.7, 000 – 10,000. Weavers who had deserted this occupation have started coming back to it. There are plans to broaden the product range and to experiment with newer fabrics like tussar and silk to expand their reach in new markets.
As we drive back on the highway with our batch of sarees, I realize that the Begumpur success story is not only about a beautiful hand woven garment, it’s also about hope. It’s about preserving livelihoods, of preserving talent and an inspiring story of revival of a rich weaving heritage.