BHUTTICO, HIMACHAL PRADESH, INDIA.
Veteran weaver Mahender.
In the modern world, while earning a living remains a core to survival, new age thinking and a dearth of avenues make it possible for men and women to browse and pick their area of interest and then make the most of it. Yet a majority of the world’s populace still have little choice in the matter. Like in 1987, Mahender, an unskilled youth of sixteen, in desperate need of an income, realized. So he build his life with what fate first handed out to him.
On a late summer evening the roomy Bhuttico workroom is ripe with a trotting sound that closely resembles a pair of horses walking up and down a cobblestone lane as if on guard duty. But the sound is not made by equines with hooves nailed to iron horseshoes.
Almost orchestrated, it comes from old wooden looms operated by weavers eager to finish up garments ranging from shawls, stoles and the local Himachali pattu. Necessary items that will bring in their wages and help put food on the table, pay bills and send kids to school.
In this world, bereft of English speakers, quick emails, chats on social sites, and the luxury of monthly paycheques with fixed amounts, there is a hard and fast rule: Work more, get more. Work less, get less. Skip work, forget the pay. It is a simple system that keeps productivity up, inspires the sincere and separates them from the slackers.
Enter this sphere with its unadorned walls and you’ll find there is hardly any string of conversation, jokes or idle chatter that floats around for long. Not when livelihoods are at stake, and every weaver paid only for finished products that make it through the quality checks.
Somewhere in the middle of this reality, Mahender, stripped down to trousers and a vest pours over his unfinished garment. A veteran weaver, his mind and fingers work with the same spontaneity as one takes to unconsciously turning on and off a water tap without thinking once of the brain-hand coordination that makes it possible.
Seven years of weaving the Kinnauri, considered a difficult piece of woolen within the Himachal weaver community, has drilled into his subconscious, every pattern and every measurement given in the book. He doesn’t need to glance into what he calls the ‘graph’ to remember designs and colors. Place in the order and the blueprint materializes in his mind.
The frame loom at his disposal, a complex machine assembled in pieces and weighing over a ton is a confusion of needles, threads and wooden frames. Written on its surface in invisible ink is the guarantee to befuddle the mind of anyone trying to fathom its workings.
Anyone except the weaver who sometimes in deep reflection fondly caresses its rough surface, acknowledging its role as a vital tool of his trade. And if one is capable of appreciating the potency of this wooden juggernaut more than others, it is Mahender, the man it has helped built his life.
“Once a raw, unskilled youth in desperate need of employment, Mahender had found a warm welcome at Bhuttico. The co-operative society had taken him into its folds, trained him and turned him into a skilled weaver, just like it had done for scores of others”.
At sixteen when the modest farmstead owned by his forefathers – immigrants from the Lug Valley, a densely forested region neighboring Kullu with timber trade constituting the primary occupation since the time of the British – had proved to be inadequate, Mahender, then a mere boy, had opted out of school in search of employment to support his family.
In a country where the population soars over 1.2 billion, an unskilled youth can quickly learn his chances of finding employment depends more on the whims of the universe than his own power of persuasion or human kindness.
Opportunities can not only be scarce but limited to mostly manual labor with no scope of future prospects, unless one is very, very fortunate. Presently, this affliction has extended to include even well educated kids from affluent households with degrees from high ranking universities.
The year 1987 wasn’t any better. In the valley, tourism was just picking up, and opportunities didn’t exist other than working as hired hands on farms, orchards, animal husbandry, travel outfits and a handful of hotels.
However, fate had not been that cruel to him. While a majority of the unskilled end up doing menial jobs barely enough to scratch a living with weavers and artisans, across India, faring no better.
“Mahender, inspite a lack of skills and a meager semblance of an education received from a government school had struck gold on the advice of a well wisher. Bhuttico, presently the largest weaving organization in the valley, had accepted him into the ranks, without much debate or preponderance”.
The co-operative society had put into his hand a thread of an opportunity and left him free to make the best of it. Mahender not hesitating, had grabbed it eagerly and invested 27 years of his life.
Now touching 43, he is an active member on the panel of directors successfully negotiating with the management a rise in increments and wages for his fellow craftsmen, and he is not the only one associated with the society – his wife, brother and other members of his family are tied to the weaving organization.
“Bhuttico typically graduates artisans from smaller and simpler garments to more complex ones as skills develop and confidence sets in. Novices are put under the care of expert weavers who guide them in the art”.
Growing-up in a family of weavers can have its advantages. You get to learn techniques early simply by hanging around your parents. Mahender, on the other hand had to learn the art from scratch.
Put under the tutelage of one Bahadur Singh, an expert weaver of his time, an unskilled Mahender had fumbled with his first weaving project – a simple muffler that had taken him four frustrating days to put together and continued to develop his skills on a variety of garments till after roughly twenty years he had acquired what it takes to put together the fabled Kinnauri Shawl, requiring the absolute dedication of an expert weaver.
Sitting on his loom from 8:30 am in the morning till 6:30 pm in the evening with an odd one or two hours included as overtime, Mahender completes up to 4 to 5 Kinnauri Shawls in a month – a single one taking up six days of meticulous attention and coordinated loom and hand weaving.
Each finished product earns him a sum of Rs. 1800 to keep his household going. While a combined family earning and the farmstead of his forefathers has let him built his own house and provide his kids with the chance to pick and choose their own path.
His kids, like many of their age, are not in the least interested in the occupation of the father. In fact as Mahender sees it, Himachali weaving is witnessing a gradual decline in male participants.
Women still opt for the art that has a deep historical significance in the Himachali culture. But the men have begun favoring more lucrative professions – this inspite a rise in demand for Himachali garments since the 80s. Things have definitely changed much since he was a boy.
Of the customers who buy his weaved garments, Mahender has never met a single one. Working as he does behind the scenes, unseen and unheard. A far cry from self managed weavers who interact with customers over the counter.
“Finished products are marketed by Bhuttico in different parts of the country and some foreign shores. On counters, buyers haggle and bargain over his masterfully done garments without thinking once of the man who has toiled to put it together”.
The thought does not faze him in the least and his long association with the weaving society that helped him in his time of need isn’t one he wants to break. With no plans to start his own independent weaving outfit anytime in the near or far future, Mahender when not weaving up a Kinnauri looks after the interests of the society that once embraced him as one of its own.