A paved side road forking off the Limbdi highway stretches right up to the village of Mota Timbla, about 10-12 kilometres away. At the very edge of the village is Vankarvas, a space designated for the homes of the Dalit weaver communities residing here. Khat-khat…khat-khat , the rhythmic sounds of shuttle looms echo in the narrow lanes between old-style, tiled-roof houses and a few thatched ones, an occasional human voice or two interrupting the periodic beat of the handloom. Listen closely, and you will even hear the sound of labour. Tune in a bit more, and you’ll catch what seems a faint sound of regret weaving an intricate pattern within the louder rap-trap-rap, like a prelude to the story of Rekha Ben Vaghela.

"I had hardly been three months in Class 8. I was living in a hostel in Limbdi and had come home after the first school exam. That is when mother said that I was not going to study any further. Gopal Bhai, my elder brother, needed help. He had already dropped out before graduation to earn a living. Our family never had the money to support [the education of] my two brothers. That is how I started patola work.” Rekha Ben’s words are straightforward but sharp, like all things honed by poverty. Now in her 40s, she is the master weaver of Mota Timbla in Gujarat’s Surendranagar district.

“My husband was addicted to alcohol, gambling, paan-masala , tobacco,” she says, pulling in another thread of the story of her life after marriage. A rather unhappy one. Often, she would leave her husband and return to her parents’ home, but would be coaxed into returning to him. She was miserable. Yet, she bore it all. “He was not a man of good character,” she says.

“He used to beat me up sometimes, even during my pregnancy,” she says. You can hear the wounds still afresh in her voice. “I found out about his affair after my daughter was born. I continued like that for a year. That is when Gopal Bhai died in an accident [in 2010]. All his patola work was pending. Gopal Bhai owed money to the trader who had got him the material. So, I stayed back [in my parents’ house] for the next five months and completed all his work. After that, my husband came to pick me up,” she says.

A few more years went in fooling herself into thinking she was happy, in caring for the young one, in enduring the pain within. “Finally, when my daughter was four and a half years old, I could not bear the torture anymore and just left,” says Rekha Ben. The patola weaving skill she had acquired after leaving school came to her aid when she left her marital home. It smoothed the sharp, rough edges left by poverty, and gave her a new start in life. A strong one.

PHOTO • Umesh Solanki
PHOTO • Umesh Solanki

Rekha Ben started weaving the patola when she was in her teens. Today, in her 40s, she has made her space in the largely male-dominated industry as the only woman weaving double and single ikat patola in Limbdi taluka

Before long, Rekha Ben became the only woman patola weaver in the villages of Limbdi, the one who could align the warp and weft threads with the skill and ease of an expert.

“In the beginning I used to go to the neighbour’s house opposite ours for dandi work. I must have taken a month to learn,” Rekha Ben says. As she speaks, she is adjusting the shuttle, rubbing her rough cheeks weathered by experience, and resting her elbows on the loom. She carefully aligns the patterns on the threads along the warp (longitudinal) and the weft (transverse).

Replacing the empty spindle in the shuttle with a new one, she presses the two pedals of the handloom that lift the desired layers in the warp yarn, allowing the shuttle to pass through. One hand pulls the lever controlling the movement of the weft thread, another quickly pulls the beater to keep the weft yarn in place. Rekha Ben single-handedly weaves the patolu , her eyes on the loom, her mind foreseeing the pattern; she talks about her life and craft in the same breath.

Traditionally, there are at least two people involved in the weaving of a patolu . “The one who does the dandi work, the helper, sits on the left, the weaver is on the right,” she explains. Dandi work involves aligning the pre-dyed threads of warp or weft or both, depending on the type of patolu that is being woven.

The weaving process is intensive when one looks at the time and the labour spent on each piece. Rekha Ben, though, with her skill and dexterity, makes everything look effortless. It’s as if the entire complex process of weaving is nothing but a magical dream in her eyes that unfolds at her fingertips.

“In single ikat , the design is only on the weft. In double ikat, both the warp and the weft have a design,” she explains the difference between the two kinds of patola .

It is the design that differentiates the two types. Patola from Jhalawad are of the single ikat type, made from fine silk from Bengaluru, while those from Patan are double ikat, using a thicker silk from Assam, Dhaka, or even, weavers here claim, from England.

PHOTO • Umesh Solanki
PHOTO • Umesh Solanki

The patolu weaving process is intensive in terms of the time and labour involved. But Rekha Ben with her skill and dexterity makes everything look effortless

PHOTO • Umesh Solanki
PHOTO • Umesh Solanki

Traditionally, there are at least two people involved in the weaving of a patolu : one weaves and the other helps with aligning the design. Feet on the pedals, one hand on the lever, another on the beater, Rekha Ben does the weaving all by herself

The complex process of tying and dying known as ikat has been practised by weavers across many parts of India, like in Telangana or Odisha. However, what makes the patola from Gujarat unique, apart from its geographical location, are its intricate and clear designs, and the vivid colours of the silk. The final products are expensive and have a history of royal patronage.

Padi patole bhaat, faate pan feete nahi . The design of the patola , the popular Gujarati saying goes, never fades, not even when it frays. What goes into the patola design is another complex story. For another time.

Rekha Ben’s time after she left her husband’s house was anything but easy. It had been a long while since she had given up weaving. Getting back to it was tough. “I spoke to two or three people, but no one trusted me with work,” she says.“Jayanti Bhai of Somasar gave me six sarees to weave for a fixed wage. But I was getting back to it after a gap of four years, and the finish was not as good as expected. He found my work raw – and never gave me another chance. He always had some excuse,” Rekha Ben says, weaving in a sigh. I wonder if that would disturb the precise alignment of the warp threads, crucial for the overall pattern.

Days passed without work, in a ‘to-ask-or-not-to-ask’ dilemma.  The shades of poverty ripened. When it came to work, Rekha Ben didn’t mind begging, but pride came in the way of asking for money. “I spoke to Manubhai Rathod, my fui’s son [father’s sister’s son]. He gave some work. There was some improvement. He liked it. I worked for more than a year and a half as a labourer, weaving for a wage. That was single ikat, and I used to get 700 rupees for a patola saree,” recalls Rekha Ben. “When my sister-in-law [Gopal Bhai’s wife] and I worked together, it took us three days to weave one.” That’s well over ten hours of labour in weaving alone on each of those days. More hours are spent on other tasks.

The life of constant strife, though, gave her some courage. “I thought,” she says, taking a deep breath, “that it would be good to be on my own and work on my own to better our financial situation. I bought the raw material, and got the loom prepared from outside. Once the loom was ready, I brought the warps home and started weaving."

“Not for any orders,” she adds with a proud smile. “I started weaving my own patola . And I even sold them from home. Slowly, I increased the production.” That was one extraordinary feat – a move from vulnerability to independence. There was only one niggling regret she had – her lack of knowledge and command over the double ikat weave.

PHOTO • Umesh Solanki
PHOTO • Umesh Solanki

Patola are differentiated by their design which depends on the pre-dyed yarn. In a single ikat (like the one on the left that Rekha Ben is weaving) the design is only on the weft, while in double ikat (right), both the warp and the weft have a design

“Finally, I took training for that from my elder paternal uncle for a month and a half,” she says. Her daughter was still young, in Class 4, she had no ties with her in-laws’ family, and the financial stress on her was still great. But Rekha Ben was determined. “I put all my savings into buying raw material, silk yarn. I prepared the yarn with designs for sixteen patola on my own,” she says.

“You need a minimum of three people to do this job and I was all alone. I was confused. Pasi vicharyu je karvanu chhe e maraj karvaanu se. Man makkam kari lidhu pasi. [But then I told myself that there is only me for all that needs to be done. I made up my mind].”  And yet, when she sometimes needed help, people in the community came forward to lend a hand: to stretch the now coloured threads of warp between two poles in the street to give it a coat of starch and strength; to roll the starched warp threads on the beam; to fix the beam on the loom; to connect the yarn threads on the beam through the phen (heddles) in the right order (a process known as slaying) and set the handloom ready for weaving.

Giving the threads a coat of starch is a tricky business. Carelessly leaving extra flour on the yarn will attract rats and lizards to the loom.

“Double ikat was not easy. I made mistakes. Like errors of alignment in the weft and warp threads. I even had to call people from outside to teach me. No one will come when you call them once. I had to keep going and requesting them four or five times. But then it all got set!” Her smile has a ring of satisfaction mixed with uncertainty, fear, confusion, courage, and persistence. ‘It all got set’ meant the warp threads were well aligned with the weft threads, ensuring the flawless pattern on the fabric without which the patolu will prove to be more expensive for the weaver than the buyer.

The intricate double ikat patola once came exclusively from Patan. “The weavers in Patan get their silk from England, we get it from Bengaluru. Many traders buy their patola from Rajkot or Surendranagar and then put the Patan stamp on it,” Vikram Parmar, 58, another weaver from the village speaks from his experience.

“What they buy from us for fifty, sixty, seventy thousand rupees, they sell at a much higher price. They too weave but they find this cheaper,” says Vikram. More than one weaver in the village tells this story of the cheaper patola of Jhalawad bearing a Patan stamp, getting sold for lakhs of rupees in the big cities. This has been going on for a long time now.

PHOTO • Umesh Solanki
PHOTO • Umesh Solanki

Rekha Ben along with her bhabhi (brother's wife) Jamana Ben and Jaysukh Vaghela (Rekha Ben's older brother) bleach the yellow tussar yarn with hydrochloride and later dye in a single colour. The process is the first among the many steps involved in preparing the yarn before weaving

PHOTO • Umesh Solanki
PHOTO • Umesh Solanki

Rekha Ben stretches the newly coloured warp threds between two poles in her street to give it a coat of starch and strength. People in the community come to help her with such tasks when she needs

About forty years ago, 70-year-old Hameer Bhai, from an earlier generation than Rekha Ben’s, brought patola weaving to Limbdi taluka .

“Arjan Bhai got me to Rajkot from Bhayavadar,” Hameer Bhai recalls his journey to Katariya village in Limbdi. “For about a month or two I was shifted from one factory to another. Once the owner asked me: ‘ cheva so ? [what caste are you?]’ and I said ‘ Vankar .’ That was it. He said ‘ kal thi no aavata, tamara bhegu pani nath pivu ’ [Don’t come from tomorrow; I don’t want to accept even water from you.]’  After that, Mohan Bhai Makwana once asked if I would like to learn making patola , and I started at five rupees a day. For six months I learned how to design, and the next six months I learned to weave,” he says. He returned to Katariya after that and continued weaving, and passed on the skill to many others.

“I have been weaving for the last fifty years,” says Punja Bhai Vaghela, another weaver. “I must have been in Class 3 when I started weaving. I used to work with khadi first. Patola came later. My uncle taught me patola weaving. Since then, I have been doing this work. All single ikat, seven to eight-thousand-rupee ones. We, husband and wife,” he points to his spouse Jasu Ben, “worked for Praveen Bhai in Surendranagar, and now for the last six or seven months we work for Rekha Ben.”

“If we sit by her side [helping with thread alignment] at the loom, we get 200 rupees a day. If we do a few, small design-related jobs, we may get 60 or 70 rupees. My daughter Urmila goes to Rekha Ben’s house for yarn colouring work. She gets a daily wage of 200 rupees. Everything adds up and we manage,” says Jasu Ben.

“These loom-shoom and all, belong to Rekha Ben,” Punja Bhai adds, stroking the teakwood frame. The cost of the loom alone could be as high as Rs. 35-40,000. “All we have is our labour. Everything put together, we make about twelve thousand rupees a month,” says Punja Bhai, his words trying hard to paper over his poverty.

PHOTO • Umesh Solanki
PHOTO • Umesh Solanki

Jasu Ben Vaghela and her husband Punja Bhai Vaghela work for Rekha Ben, helping her slay the loom, align the design by sitting by her side, weaving for a wage

PHOTO • Umesh Solanki
PHOTO • Umesh Solanki

Hameer Bhai Karshanbhai Gohil (70) and his wife Hansa Ben Gohil (65) introduced patola weaving in Limbadi taluka. Today patola from here, bearing a Patan stamp (right) , are sold across the world for lakhs of rupees

Rekha Ben had to outsource some of the weaving to Punja Bhai as business took off. “I wake up at five in the morning,” she says. “I sleep at eleven in the night. I keep working all the time. All the housework is left for me to do. So is the outside work, including maintaining relations with people in the community. The whole business is also on my head alone.” Rekha Ben slides the bobbin with the waft thread into the shuttle and slides the shuttle from right to left.

Mesmerised, I watch the shuttle move from right to left, left to right, Rekha Ben’s hand aligning the warp and the weft, a perfect patola design in the making, and Kabir playing at the back of my mind:

‘नाचे ताना नाचे बाना नाचे कूँच पुराना
करघै बैठा कबीर नाचे चूहा काट्या ताना'

The warp and weft dance,
so does the old koonch *
Kabir at the loom dances
as the rat cuts the thread

*a soft brush used to clean the yarn

The writer wants to thank Jaisukh Vaghela for his help.
Umesh Solanki

Umesh Solanki is an Ahmedabad-based photographer, reporter, documentary filmmaker, novelist and poet. He has three published collections of poetry, one novel-in-verse, a novel and a collection of creative non-fiction to his credit.

Other stories by Umesh Solanki
Editor : Pratishtha Pandya

Pratishtha Pandya is a Senior Editor at PARI where she leads PARI's creative writing section. She is also a member of the PARIBhasha team and translates and edits stories in Gujarati. Pratishtha is a published poet working in Gujarati and English.

Other stories by Pratishtha Pandya