A small hilly hamlet near the historical city of Thiruvananthapuram boasts of a tradition that rejuvenated the lives of 1800 tribal women over 38 years ago.
An exemplary Master Weaver, Padma Shri Padmanabham Gopinathan has single-handedly changed the lives of many in Balarampuram, making it one of the most historically important places for weaving of fine cotton sarees and fabrics in India.
At a tender age of 10, Padnanabham assisted his father in odd jobs at his loom before moving to Salem in Tamil Nadu for honing his own skills. When he returned to his village at 30 years of age, the plight of tribal women drove him to establish the Mahila Samajam to engage and train them in the art of weaving. By then, he already had a small piece of land with a shed that housed his own loom. By 1978, this humble venture had grown to span 10 acres and 26 such Samajams were established, providing regular daily wages for these tribal women.
But because of market pressures, today each worker earns less than half of the woven piece’s price and balancing family with weaving at the looms has translated to diminishing wages for these women in current times. The increasing pressure of labor crunch combined with tiny margins has increased debts for Padmanabham and his family. In addition, mechanized looms are selling far inferior products labeling them as handloom pieces at lower prices, often punching a big hole in already small pockets.
With continued grit and unrelenting commitment, a 75-year-old Padmanabham has held this small weaving community together. He shares that government intervention through subsidies to promote sales in the sector can bring about a shift in the plight of these workers. Unless minimum wages are substantially increased, the profession and its timeless history shall die a painful death. A clear trend has already emerged for this National Awardee, too close to home. None of his four children chose to take the weaves forward and are instead educated and employed elsewhere.
His needs are meagre, he exclaims, and what he earns suffices for him and his wife. However, the families that handcraft these finest Balarampuram Handlooms are in deep danger.
The weaving activities in this cluster were initiated in the beginning of the nineteenth century during the reign of the Maharaja of Travancore, His Highness Maharaja Balarama Varma. It was his efforts that brought weaving families from Tamil Nadu and settled them in separate streets in Balarampuram, providing the initial financial assistance to these weavers to start a business.
The Balarampuram handloom sarees are renowned for their simplicity, exquisite handwoven designs and beauty. The traditional handloom grey sarees are made out of the finest cotton yarn with intricate and unique designs of zari or dyed yarn. Balarampuram is also famous for its fine cotton Dhothis and traditional Neriyathu and the Set Mundu.
With the right support, there is a promising future for these fine handlooms. The signature Balarampuram weave in gold and kora can be woven into fabrics for exports and used in designer clothing. This consortium is in urgent need of design intervention and orders. With a little support, weavers can claim their worth and earn a dignified living.
Isha Life is honored to host fine Balarampuram Handloom pieces available for you to drape yourselves in weaves worthy of gold. You can also reach out to Padmanabham directly to help support the lives of tribal communities.
Padma Shri Padmanabha Gopinathan