The rhythmic beats of handloom pedals reverberate through the afternoon air in Onnupuram. “Come at 5 a.m. to see us start working on the silk threads,” 67-year-old M. K. Godhandabani tells me. The bundles of raw and colourless silk larvae thread that enter Onnupuram, which Godhandabani and other weavers here work on, leave as rich, colourful six-yard sarees for high-end showrooms in Chennai, around 150 kilometres away, and other markets.

Most of the weaving families in Onnupuram village, in West Arani block of Tiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu, are related directly or through marriage. Almost every house has at least one loom, passed on from generations. “Our children go out and study but also learn the art of weaving, it is our tradition,” says 57-year-old Devasenathipathy Rajagopal, as he helps his 16-year-old son finish weaving a bright pink silk saree.

Various cooperative societies or small scale manufacturing units, most of them set up by established weaving families in Arni block, purchase the sarees from the weavers and distribute them to branded companies and showrooms. These clients provide designs to the weavers based on popular demand, and often modern motifs replace traditional designs.

In return, the weavers earn modest amounts. Saraswathi Eswarayan fixes the paavu punaithal. This is usually done by women, who twist 4,500-4,800 individual yarn strands on the loom for the weft of the saree to be woven into. For each such warp, she is paid Rs. 250 by the cooperative societies or families who hire her, and she gets six to eight such jobs in a month.

Weavers here usually earn Rs. 2,500 for weaving four sarees with simple designs. “We work all seven days of the week. Our only off is on the Full Moon day, once a month,” says Saraswathi Gangadharan, without taking her eyes off the handloom. “It is the day we pay our respects to the god who has blessed us with good fortune.”  Saraswathi, like the other weavers, get saree orders from the cooperatives. She weaves 15 to 20 sarees a month, and earns around Rs. 10,000. 

“This is what feeds us and we do not want to let it go. If we rest, it is a loss of pay,” says Jagadesan Gopal as he weaves a heavy saree of golden zari.

A different version of this photo story was published in The Punch Magazine on February 28, 2018.

Balakrishna Kuppuswamy spinning cotton thread on a charkha
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Balakrishna Kuppuswamy spinning cotton thread on a charkha

Venkatesan Perumal is among the few artisans in Oonupuram who still makes the design templates – passed on to him by his father – for the handloom weave.  He makes the designs by drawing and punching holes on graph sheet. In many other instances, this has been replaced by computer software and printing
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar
Many among the younger generation in the weavers’ community start learning at an early age
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Left: Venkatesan Perumal is among the few artisans in Oonupuram who still  creates design templates – passed on to him by his father – for the handloom weave, by drawing and punching holes on graph sheet. In many other instances, this has been replaced by computer software and printing. Right: Many among the younger generation in the Oonupuram weavers’ community start learning at an early age 

Shakuntala, 90 years old, spins the cotton thread using the charkha; she has been doing from the age of 20
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar
Shakuntala, 90 years old, spins the cotton thread using the charkha; she has been doing from the age of 20
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Shakuntala, who is at least 80 years old, spins the cotton thread using the charkha; she has been doing for over 60 years

Shanthi Duraiswamy, a worker in a small yarn-making unit, where the machines produce around 90 decibels of noise
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar
Another worker in the yarn factory changes the spinning wheel
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Left: Shanthi Duraiswamy, a worker in a small yarn-making unit, where the machines produce around 90 decibels of noise. Right: Another worker in the yarn factory refilling the spinning wheel

A worker soaking the yarn in water before dyeing it.
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar
The spun yarn is separated to the length of the sarees and dyed in bright colours-- cotton candy pink, parrot green. It takes 2-3 days to prepare the dyed yarn. The labourers who dye the yarn are usually hired as a team of three persons, and each dyer earns Rs. 200 a day on the days they are called in to work. Arunachalam Perumal, 58, drying the yarn. He has been in this industry since he was 12 years old
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Right: A worker soaking the yarn in water before dyeing it. The spun yarn is separated to the length of the sarees and dyed in bright colours cotton candy pink, parrot green and others. It takes 2-3 days to prepare the dyed yarn. The labourers who dye the yarn are usually hired as a team of three persons and each dyer earns Rs. 200 a day on the days they are called in to work. Right: Arunachalam Perumal, 58, drying the yarn. He has been in this industry since he was 12 years old 

7.	M. K.  Godhandabani prepares the warp of a saree for the loom
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

M. K. Godhandabani preparing the warp of a saree for the loom

Manonmani Punnakodi and her family members prepare the warp early in the morning. The loom is washed with rice water. The starchy water helps separate the threads quickly and crisply. They are separated to a particular count for the loom
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar
Manonmani Punnakodi and her family members prepare the warp early in the morning. The loom is washed with rice water. The starchy water helps separate the threads quickly and crisply. They are separated to a particular count for the loom
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Manonmani Punnakodi and her family members prepare the warp early in the morning. The loom is washed with rice water. The starchy water helps separate the threads quickly and crisply. They are separated to a particular count for the loom

Saraswathi Eswarayan fixes the warp to the loom, traditionally called ‘paavu punaithal’. This task is usually done by women, who twist 4,500-4,800 strands by hand on the loom.
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar
Jayakantha Veerabathiran,  45, weaves a plain saree that will later be embellished with  embroidery. In most homes, the looms are placed on the floor with a  shallow pit  for the pedals
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Left: Saraswathi Eswarayan fixes the warp to the loom, traditionally called ‘paavu punaithal’. This task is usually done by women, who twist 4,500-4,800 strands by hand on the loom. Right: Jayakantha Veerabathiran, 45, weaves a plain saree that will later be embellished with  embroidery. In most homes, the looms are placed on the floor with a shallow pit for the pedals 

Nirmala uses multiple shuttles for complex saree designs
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar
Devasenapathy Rajagopal at work
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Left: Nirmala uses multiple shuttles for complex saree designs. Right: Devasenapathy Rajagopal at work

. Jagadesan Gopal weaves a saree made entirely of zari – silk and silver thread coated with gold. Such a saree can weigh 2 to 5 kilos
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Jagadesan Gopal weaves a saree made entirely of zari – silk and silver thread coated with gold. Such a saree can weigh 2 to 5 kilos

Devasenathipathy Rajagopal finishing a saree and cutting the cloth from the loom. His son studies at a high school in Arni and helps with the weaving
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Devasenathipathy Rajagopal finishing a saree and cutting the cloth from the loom. His son studies at a high school in nearby Arani town and helps with the weaving

A man weaving on the machine
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

'This is what feeds us and we do not want to let it go. If we rest, it is a loss of pay', says Jagadesan Gopal

Sundaram Gangadharan and his daughter Sumathy (not in the photo) both weave for a living
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Sundaram Gangadharan and his daughter Sumathy (not in the photo) both weave for a living

Narasimhan Dhanakodi, 73, has been weaving for half a century and says he wants to continue to do so
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar
‘We work all seven days of the week’ says 67-year-old Saraswathi Gangadharan
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Left: Narasimhan Dhanakodi, 73, has been weaving for half a century and says he wants to continue to do this work. Right: ‘We work all seven days of the week’ , says 67-year-old Saraswathi Gangadharan

Devasenathipathi Kothandapani (another weaver by same name) and his wife Gomathi pack the finished saree into a box. The weavers have to deliver the neatly folded and boxed sarees to the cooperatives they are associated with
PHOTO • Anusha Sundar

Devasenathipathi Kothandapani and his wife Gomathi pack the finished saree into a box. The weavers have to deliver the neatly folded and boxed items to the cooperatives they are associated with

Anusha Sundar

Anusha Sundar lives in Chennai and works with DTNext, a news portal of the Daily Thanthi group. She has an undergraduate degree in Design from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Bengaluru, and a Masters in photojournalism and documentary photography from University of the Arts, London.

Other stories by Anusha Sundar