Gamcha - a word that conjures up images of hard working men and women, sons of the soil, toiling away, and rightly so. The trusty gamcha has been the working class man’s essential companion through the ages. A basic break down of the word gives us a clear understanding of where the name comes from. “Ga” means “body” and “mocha” means “to wipe roughly”.
This cloth is known for its super absorbent powers making it perfect for use as a towel. Not as thick as its western variant, gamchas are more suited for use in India’s tropical and humid climate. There are however a number of other ways this cloth has graced the simple lives of weavers. In Assam, a decorated version of it is given as a token of honour and respect to esteemed guests. In Orissa, young boys wear the gamcha as a garment, and once they reach adolescence, shift to dhotis. But perhaps the most unique use is by villagers who use it as a slingshot to fight wild dogs, wolves and even leopards that have strayed into settlements or fields.
The traditional gamcha is most commonly seen in checks and stripes of red, orange or green. Weaves of cotton or acrylic make up the most popular variants with thread counts going up to 470. However, for the more detailed and ornamental pieces, weavers have been known to even use variations of silk and wool. The more elaborate pieces deviate from the traditional checkered model and display intricate patterns of flowers. These are not easy to create and take a lot of painstaking labor and precision on the part of the weaver. The artisans take great pride in their work and they normally never put them up for sale unless under duress.
Even simple and basic pieces require the weaver to spend hours, toiling away on the loom. The machinery is such that the weaver needs both his arms and legs to operate it, hence little to no wiggle room for a break. It is due to this laborious and time-consuming process that most weavers create multiple gamchas at one go and then separate them once done.
The weaving industry is the oldest and largest in the state of Bengal. Their tradition of weaving was ubiquitous and earlier every family had more than one weaver in it. Traditional techniques and weaving secrets were sacred and passed down over generations. So much so, that the skill to weave used to be a primary criteria for a young girl’s eligibility in marriage.
In spite of this, the younger generation today is attracted to greener pastures and is moving out of villages in search of alternate employment opportunities. This is leading to the slow and steady decline of the manufacturing of this garment. Weaver settlements are usually in rural areas that provide few other career opportunities. This unidirectional nature is one of the major reasons why the small industry is suffering.
An increase in awareness about the state of the weavers today and the difficulty incurred in making this fabric will make all the difference. In a bid to make this fabric more popular, a 1455.3 meter long gamcha was produced that broke the world record for the longest piece of handwoven cloth. New generations are getting designers involved who don’t shy away from experimenting with the traditional weave and one can now see the iconic print on a variety of items like book covers, scarves/caps, kurtis and on accessories like bags, wallets and cushions. The latest trend to get a really positive response is the gamcha sari. This simple twist in the approach is increasing the weaver’s meager earnings and helping the weave gain traction in the fashion world. At the same time, it ensures that this glorious tradition is maintained for generations to come.