There is something simple yet beautiful in the making of a silk saree. There is magic in the fingers as the silk threads come together to create an elegant motif. And, watching a weaver at work as he conjures up a colourful design by spinning yards of silk, is like watching a magician hypnotizing you with his craft. I am in Narayanpet, a town that once resonated with the clack of looms that have fallen silent over the years.
Narayanpet is not really a tourist destination; it is just a small town with a population of 50,000 people that lies on the border of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. I walk around the main street where jewelers have set up shop. It is afternoon and the market is silent. The silence gets pronounced as I walk around the narrow lanes.
I see small shops with white mattresses laid out where the jewelers are sitting beside their desks, speaking on their phones or negotiating with a lone customer. Old exquisite houses with some jaali work lie faded in a corner. The lanes lead you to huddled houses decorated with rangoli. All of a sudden, there is a burst of colour everywhere. The doors are bright and painted with bold strokes and they open into the homes of the weavers, where a handful of looms are creating music. Bundles of colourful threads lie everywhere. Kids play in the narrow alleys while smelly pigs grunt in the drains.
I walk inside one of the homes to see a family at work. Ramchander sits in the corner of his small room, his face framed by his loom as he mechanically sets it in motion. The afternoon sun from a tiny window falls on him as a door opens and a couple of curious kids enter. The room is otherwise dark and dusty, but for the larger-than-life collage of bright yellow and orange threads that has wrapped him in a web. They surround him everywhere, stretching from one end of the room to the other and are held in place by weights. Thin asbestos sheets cover the roof of the room, while threads dangle from the wooden planks supporting them. Old faded photographs of gods and goddesses adorn the walls. As I photograph the weaver at work, the kids watch me in fascination. No visitor, I am told, has walked into their homes for years. Ramachander and his daughters have been weaving sarees since they were born and all that they own is their craft.
This town was once famous for its cotton and silk sarees, but today the weavers have hardly any buyers. Ramchander speaks about the days when the streets were draped with sarees. The houses used to echo with the rhythm of the handlooms and almost everyone was a skilled artisan. But today, there are barely 2,000 looms in the entire town. And most of the younger generation have left Narayanpet to pursue their fortunes elsewhere.
We walk along and enter an ancient house with an open courtyard, cheerfully painted in shades of yellow and red. It belongs to a family from Maharashtra who had moved in here almost a century ago and is one of the few today that runs a wholesale shop in the town. They manage to support weavers like Ramchander but the numbers seem to be dwindling by the minute. A trader from Hyderabad buys sarees in bulk from them as we wait for our turn to do some shopping.
We sit down as the white mattress gets covered by a riot of colours. The sarees are spread out before us, the silk caressing our skin, as we drape it around us. Reds and blues brighten up the mood, traditional motifs and rich designs come alive as bright gold borders adorn the rich tapestry of patterns. The rainbow is in front of us, soft and silky, in a myriad shades and designs. I am lost in the many pinks and purples and as the silk rustles in my hands, I hear the “clickety click” of another handloom at work. As I feel the beautiful piece of fabric in my hands, I realize why Narayanpet should be a destination for all travelers - just to showcase the skills of these weavers.