The last handloom weaver of Gobindapur

Roopchand Debnath is not willing to part ways with his loom, even as other weavers in this Tripura village move away from dropping incomes and government apathy

Roopchand Debnath at his loom in a Tripura village (photos: Deep Roy & Rajdeep Bhowmik)
Roopchand Debnath at his loom in a Tripura village (photos: Deep Roy & Rajdeep Bhowmik)

Rajdeep Bhowmik and Deep Roy

There is no shortage of weavers here on paper, but it’s all over (practically) once I die,” sighs Roopchand Debnath as he takes a break from weaving on the handloom in his bamboo hut.

Apart from the loom, which takes up most of the space, are piles of junk—broken furniture, metal spare parts and pieces of bamboo, among other things. There is barely any room for more than one person.

Roopchand, 73, lives in Gobindapur, on the outskirts of Dharmanagar city, on the border of India and Bangladesh, in the state of Tripura.

A narrow pitch road leads into the village, once home to 200 weaver families and over 600 artisans, according to the locals. The office of the Gobindapur Handloom Weavers’ Association stands among the few houses in narrow lanes, its corroded walls a reminder of mostly forgotten glory.

“There was not a single house here that did not have a loom,” recounts Roopchand, who belongs to the Nath community (listed as one of the Other Backward Classes in the state). The sun is bright, and he wipes the sweat off his face before continuing. “Society used to respect us. Now, no one cares," he asks, voice cracking with emotion.

Tell me, who would respect a profession that doesn’t have any money?”

The veteran weaver recalls making the handwoven nakshi sarees, which had elaborate floral motifs.

But in the 1980s, “when Purbasha (the handcraft emporium of the government of Tripura) opened an outlet in Dharmanagar, they told us to discontinue making nakshi sarees and start making plain sarees,” says Roopchand. These were low on detailing and overall quality, and hence cheaper.

Slowly, he says, nakshi sarees faded out in the region, and today, he adds, “there are neither any artisans left nor supply of spare parts for the looms”.

His words are echoed by Rabindra Debnath, acting president of the Weavers’ Association for the last four years who says, “There was no market for the clothes we used to make.” At 63, he cannot keep up with the physical demands of weaving any more.

By 2005, Roopchand had stopped weaving nakshi sarees altogether and switched to the gamcha. “We never used to make gamchas. All of us wove only sarees. But we had no choice,” recounts one of the last masters of the loom in Gobindapur.

“Since yesterday, I have woven just two gamchas. I will make barely Rs 200 selling these,” says Roopchand, and adds, “This is not my earning alone. My wife helps me with winding the yarn. So it is the earning of an entire family. How does one survive with this income?”

Roopchand gets down to weaving after breakfast, around 9 a.m., and continues till a little after noon. He pauses for a bath and lunch before resuming work. He usually does not work in the evenings now, as it causes his joints to ache. But when he was younger, Roopchand says, he worked “till late in the night”.

At the loom, most of Roopchand’s working day is spent weaving gamchas.

“Earlier, we used to dye these yarns ourselves. For the past 10 years or so, we have been purchasing dyed yarns from the Weavers’ Association,” he tells us, and adds that he too uses his own gamchas.

But when did things change in the handloom industry? Roopchand says, “It was primarily with the introduction of power looms and a decline in the quality of yarns. Weavers like us can’t compete with power looms.”

Power looms are expensive, making it difficult for most weavers to make the switch. Additionally, in villages such as Gobindapur, there are no shops that sell spare parts for the loom and repair work is challenging, which is a deterrent for many of the weavers. Now, Roopchand says, he is too old to use the machines.

“I recently bought yarns (22 kg) worth Rs 12,000, which used to cost me around Rs 9,000 till last year; with my current state of health it will take me around 3 months to make around 150 gamchas which I will sell (to the Weaver’s Association) for just around Rs 16,000,” Roopchand says helplessly.

Basana Debnath divides her time between household chores and helping husband Roopchand (photos: Deep Roy & Rajdeep Bhowmik/PARI)
Basana Debnath divides her time between household chores and helping husband Roopchand (photos: Deep Roy & Rajdeep Bhowmik/PARI)
Deep Roy & Rajdeep Bhowmik/PARI

Roopchand was born in Sylhet, Bangladesh around 1950 and immigrated to India in 1956.

“My father continued weaving here in India. I studied till Class 9 before dropping out of school,” he says.

The young Roopchand then took a job in the local electricity department. “The work was too demanding and the pay too low. So, I quit after four years.”

He then decided to learn how to weave from his father, a generational weaver.

“The handloom (industry) paid well at that time. I have even sold sarees for Rs 15 a piece. I couldn’t have paid my medical expenses or married off my (three) sisters had I not been in this craft,” he says.

Basana Debnath, his wife, remembers that she started helping him to weave right after they got married. “We used to have four looms at that time and he was still learning from my father-in-law,” she says over the sound of her husband operating the loom in the other room.

Basana’s day runs longer than Roopchand’s. She wakes up early, performs the household chores and prepares lunch before helping her husband with winding yarns. Only in the evening is she able to get some rest.

“All the work of winding the yarn and making skeinings is done by her,” Roopchand acknowledges.

Roopchand and Basana have four children. Two daughters are married, and his two sons (one a mechanic and other a jeweller) live not too far away from their residence.

When asked if people are losing touch with traditional art and craft, the maestro introspects, “Even I have failed. Why else could I not inspire my own children [to take up the craft]?”

Across India, the household income of 93.3 per cent of handloom workers is below Rs 10,000, while in Tripura, 86.4 per cent of the household income of handloom workers is below Rs 5,000 (Fourth All India Handloom Census, 2019–2020).

“The craft has been dying slowly here,” says Arun Bhowmik, Roopchand’s neighbour. “We are not doing enough to preserve it.”

His thoughts are echoed by Nanigopal Bhowmik, another senior resident of the village, “People want to work less and earn more,” he sighs and says. “Weavers have (always) lived in huts and mud houses. Who wants to live like that?” Roopchand adds.

Apart from a lack of income, persistent health issues plague the weavers. “My wife and I spend Rs 50,000–60,000 on medical bills every year,” says Roopchand. The couple suffers from shortness of breath and cardiac complications, a fallout of the profession.

There have been some efforts by the government to preserve the craft. But Roopchand and others in the village think it is not making a difference.

“I have trained over 300 weavers through the Deen Dayal Hathkargha Protsahan Yojana (a central government initiative launched in 2000),” Roopchand says. “It is hard to get trainees,” he continues, “people mostly show up for the stipend. It is not possible to produce skilled weavers like this.”

The state of affairs is made worse by “the mismanagement of handloom storage, wood mites infestation and destruction of yarn by rats,” Roopchand adds.

Handloom exports have decreased by almost 50 per cent between 2012 and 2022, from around Rs 3,000 crore to around Rs 1,500 crore annually (Handloom Export Promotion Council) and the funds from the ministry have also dried up.

The future of the handloom in the state looks bleak.

Roopchand says, “I feel this is beyond repair.” But he pauses for a moment and is able to offer a solution.

“More involvement from women would help,” he says, “I have seen a tremendous workforce, almost entirely run by women, in Sidhai Mohanpur (a commercial handloom production site in West Tripura).”

Another way of remedying the situation, he says, would be to offer a fixed daily wage to the existing artisans.

When asked if he has ever thought of quitting, Roopchand smiles. “Never,” he says with resolve, “I have never put greed ahead of my craft.”

There are tears in his eyes as he rests his hand on the loom: “She may leave me, but I never will.”

This is an edited excerpt from an article that first appeared online on the People's Archive of Rural India (PARI)

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