The Last Vestiges of Fine Hand Spun Cotton in Ponduru, a Remote Village in South India
Article published in Textiles Asia Journal, January 2017
In the remote village of Ponduru in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, the tradition of hand spinning fine cotton yarn is still alive. It is the only place in India, or dare I say, the world, where one can still find a small community of spinners and weavers producing 100s new metric (Nm) count hand spun, hand woven fabric made from an endemic species of cotton.
Ancient India was the earliest center of cotton cultivation, manufacture and trade. Although we find hand woven fabrics all over the world, no other region can boast of such fine cotton yarn woven as early as 2700 BC as proven by the fragments of cotton cloth found in the excavations of Mohenjodaro. By the first century AD, Indian weavers were weaving diaphanous textiles described in the greco-roman report, Periplus of the Erithreyan Sea. And nowhere did it reach the perfection of muslins from Dhaka renowned for their yarns of 200s and 300s Nm count.
A yarn’s thickness or count is communicated through various internationally accepted numbering systems relating the said yarn’s length to its weight. The system used for cotton in India called the New Metric (Nm) system derives the yarn’s size by determining the weight in grams of 1000 meters of yarn. So if a hank of yarn is 1000 meters long and weighs 10 grams, it is called a 100s yarn. The higher the number, the finer the yarn. So a 100s yarn is finer than a 20s yarn.
So how did the spinners in ancient India manage to spin such fine yarn? Many researchers believe that the answer lies mainly in the unique qualities of the fibers of two indigenous Indian species of cotton – Gossypium Herbaceum and Gossypium Arboreum.
It was during my 5 years of training as a textile designer at the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad that I truly began to appreciate the comfort of handloomed cotton fabrics. In 2007, I returned to NID to teach a class on textile design. My teacher and role model, Aditi Ranjan welcomed me warmly, sharing interesting books and finds. One day, she showed me a caressable textured cotton fabric that was naturally tinted rose-beige and told me that it came from Ponduru.The name stuck. Ponduru. Figure 4
Two years later, while researching handloomed cottons for my fair trade business, I learned about Uzramma Belgrami, an activist working for the upliftment of rural cotton farmers and weavers through her non-profit organization, Malkha. It is she who first drew my attention to the harmful thoughtless practices of the commercial cotton industry. The lamentable story of how the perfectly adapted Indian cotton species were suppressed and replaced with hybrids by vested interests causing ecological and social catastrophes piqued my interest. She too mentioned Ponduru, this time in the context of an enviable situation. She was not able to replicate and render viable, the small scale production of fine hand spun yarn using local rain fed, hand plucked Gossypium Arboreum cotton grown only in small farms near Ponduru.
Ponduru became an obsession. Few people had any connection with the weavers in Ponduru or the AFKKS (Andhra Fine Khadi Karma Sangam), a unit of the Khadi Village Industries Commission that oversees the entire chain of production. They had no email and nobody picked up the phone. ‘Why do you want to go there? Ponduru fabrics are dead’, said one of my contacts working with weavers and rural development nearby.
One day, Lata Tummuru of Dastakar Andhra Marketing Association, from whom I had purchased fabrics for my garment company, found me a ‘direct’ telephone number for the AFKKS. And this time, somebody picked up the phone! A certain Uday Kumar, at the AFKKS assured me that he would show me the entire process of hand spinning and weaving.
In the summer of 2015, fully aware that this could turn out to be a wild goose chase, I flew to Vishakapatnam accompanied by my thirteen year-old daughter, and close French friends with their three teenaged sons to see for myself. Eager to reach my goal as soon as possible, I wasted no time, renting a ten-seater car for the next few days. Soon the kids were hungry. I was anxious about one of us falling sick – not when I was so close to Ponduru! We stopped at a road side restaurant and I ordered plain omelettes, Rotis and boiled vegetables, specifiying ‘not even one chilli’, fearful that they may add a bit of the infamous Andhra chilli. Everybody enjoyed the food and nobody fell sick. As there are no hotels in Ponduru, we stayed overnight at the clean, convenient three star Vijetha Inn hotel situated forty five minutes away from Ponduru, at Srikakulam, the nearest big town. Early next morning we reached Ponduru.
‘Udayji’, as I decided to call him, gave us a brief introduction of his Gandhian office, piled high with thick ledgers and antique records wrapped in dusty muslin. Apart from being the cashier, he is also the accountant, dispatch manager and receiving agent. He told us that the endemic Konda Patti and Punasa Patti, as the villagers call them, are still cultivated in neighboring villages by sixty farmers struggling against the heavy onslaught of hybrid varieties and the move towards mechanised intensive farming of cotton. Erra Patti, the naturally tinted rose-beige cotton is grown in smaller quantities as a mixed crop with tobacco. The villagers refer to it as red cotton. This small- scale production of cotton is hand picked and bought by the AFKKS for Rs. 100/ kilogram ($1.59). It is then redistributed to the one thousand odd village women who spin cotton for a supplementary income.
He then led us to the house of a spinner, a short distance from his office. We entered a tiny room about 1.5 meters by 3 meters wide. Haima Korukonda and her neighbour Kalyani Maadugula willingly demonstrated their skills, sitting down on the cool cemented floor. We somehow managed to fit ourselves in. Soon another two curious onlookers, our driver, as well as an inquisitive reporter from a local newspaper joined us. In all we were fourteen packed into the room.
On the floor were simple wooden tools inherited from their mothers and grandmothers. I was thrilled to find, as in most traditional crafts, exquisite tools and methods passed down from generation to generation co-existing with clever adaptations of products found in the modern world. The spinners of Ponduru use tools, techniques and raw material similar to those used by spinners in Dhaka in the 1800s!
Haima and Kalyani removed little bits of dry leaves from a handful of raw cotton. They then ran the short fibers of their cotton bolls cleaning them gently yet deftly by running them through a special comb made of a quarter of a Valuga fish jawbone. The Valuga, I believe, is from the Catfish family, with several rows of teeth. Ideally one has to have a big fish with a jaw measuring about nine inches long in order to cut it up and make four combs. Hard to come by these days, with the size of Valugas getting smaller, these are prized tools that make all the difference.
The result was a neat ‘chain’ of tufts of cotton with their seeds lying in the middle and their fibers lying parallel to each other. One would think that they would use this aspect. Instead, Kalyani pulled out a little wooden device with 2 rollers and a handle. She fed the fiber through the space between the rollers. The fiber fell in a pile to one side while the seeds fell to the other. This gentle method of ginning allows the cotton fiber to remain unbroken and the seed is collected for replanting.
Haima gathered up a handful of ginned fiber and laid it on a wooden board. She took up her Yekillu, a bow made of the wood of the Jamoun tree, and tied with the nylon string of a tennis racket. As she twanged the string amidst the cotton fiber, it fluffed up to double in size. Folding it lightly upon itself another three times, she twanged away to make what looked like a nebulous mass that was now the size of a melon. With nimble fingers Haima discarded a few short clumps of fiber that appeared only to her expert eyes. We sat mesmerized. It is this soft clean nebulous mass, that she rolled into a sliver with light pressure with both her palms and her Chuttupolla, a polished wooden rod. The sliver was ready for spinning and carefully encased in a smooth piece of dried banana bark folded in two. ‘It is important to be meticulous and ensure that there is no dust, dirt or perspiration’, Haima explained.
Time stood absolutely still. All of us experienced a collective sense of magic and awe as she fixed the spindle made of a spoke of a bicycle wheel on her Gandhi Charkha, turned the handle with her right hand and deftly drew a fine thread of cotton yarn from the sliver. All eyes were on the sliver, fiber after fiber slid smoothly into the flow of thread. Her left arm moved back and forth in large fluid movements to accommodate the creation of about 1 meter of yarn at a go, which she would then wind on to the spoke. Perspiration dripped from our foreheads, staring in disbelief, in the still silent hot humid air. Finally I broke the spell and exclaimed, ‘But how can this be? How can the fibers just slide off so obediently and make a yarn so uniform and fine, how?!’
Haima calmly broke off the thread on the spoke, held the broken bit to the sliver and off she went again, drawing yards of fine 100s Nm count yarn. Just like bread needs starter yeast, the spindle always has some thread on it. This starter thread when placed atop the fibers of the sliver ‘catches’. All of us have been told that the quality of a fiber depends on its length. This is not entirely true! Indian cotton fibers have filaments that are shorter with thicker diameters than the widely commercialised cotton species from the Americas, Gossypium Hirsutum and Gossypium Barbadense. The fibers cling much more to the seeds, making ginning difficult. But this also gives them a natural crimp and springy-ness which makes them ideally suited to spinning fine high twist yarn with fewer filaments that allows for long lasting washable fabrics. Once a spindle is full, the yarn is wound into a hank 1000 meters long, weighing 10 grams. The women earn Rs. 64 per hank from the AFKKS, which is about a dollar. Kalyani took off a hank and twisted it tight upon itself.
I could sit there and watch them for hours. But the reporter was plying us with questions, and Udayji was hungry. It was lunchtime. With the characteristic generosity of all Indian villagers, Haima offered us lunch. It was enticing, but I declined. We were so many, and the children were not used to spicy Andhra food. We settled down to a picnic of bananas and biscuits bought at the local market in the cool corridor of the AFKKS office.
The rest of the afternoon was spent chatting with Udayji. He told us about the difference in yield of hybrid cotton – 1200 kilograms of cotton per acre, versus 300 kilograms of indigenous cotton. Konda Patti and Erra Patti he said, require no chemical pesticides and no extra water, as they are rain fed. The farmers use natural fertilizers like cow manure and Neem leaf (Azadirachta indica) powder.
After tiny cups of delicious hot black tea, we walked across to the house of a weaver. Like most weavers in the area, he used a pit loom, sitting comfortably in an in-built seat on the floor, his feet on two smooth pedals. I always wondered why handloom weavers preferred pit looms, especially as they have a tendency to flood during the monsoons. My personal theory is that the closer the warp is to the ground, the higher the humidity. Cotton fiber is stronger when humid.
Unlike other handlooms that I saw in the region, the weaver inserted a shuttle that held tiny bobbins that lay soaking in a bowl of water, beating his weft ever so gently. The yarn chafes easily and breaks once in a while, especially if it did not get its fair share of starch while warping. But the experienced weaver mended broken ends as calmly as a Zen master. Typically, he weaves up to a meter of fabric per day, and earns Rs. 140 for it, ($2.22).
The next morning, our hotel was abuzz with the news! E-Naadu, the local newspaper had an article on us, on the fact that we had come so far to Ponduru, all because of it’s wondrous cotton spinning. But we had to hurry if we wanted to catch a glimpse of the warping process. Warping is done from dawn to 10 AM or until the morning dew and humidity dries up in the hot sun. Udayji explained to me that the hanks are soaked in water for three days before being wound onto cones. This allows the yarn to shrink, thereby gaining in strength, I surmised.
He led us inside a hut with extremely low walls and a high thatched roof. Submissively bowing to enter the cool dark space, we rose to behold a magnificent giant warping reel right up in front of our faces. One half of the reel was lodged in a trench that took up the entire width of the hut, and the other half rose imposingly to the tip of the roof. Three warps were being reeled on at the same time!
The streets were filled with warps being laid out, sprayed with light rice starch, and combed with palm root fiber brushes to separate the warp threads. Whole families were involved, moving their bodies in perfect harmony, spreading threads apart, beating lightly on bamboo sticks so that broken ends would drop down so they could mend them. They worked in unison, aware of the need to proceed quickly and efficiently.
Ram Babu, a reporter for the Hans India newspaper and several local TV channels, appeared along with Madhu, a journalist from Sakshi newspaper. I would have shooed them away, but for my friends who reminded me that if I wanted to promote Ponduru fabric, I should answer their questions patiently.
The heat was rising and the warps were now swiftly being wound up. We decided that it was time to acquire some of these marvellous textiles. At the AFKKS shop we treated ourselves to several meters of fine unbleached 100s Nm count for Rs 1009 ($16) per meter. The fabric felt light and airy in my hands.
Advocating for gentle manual processing, spinning and weaving, the people of Ponduru produce fabric that is alive to the touch! To know the comfort of hand spun and hand loomed cotton fabric against one’s skin, the way it breathes and absorbs perspiration, the way it seems fragile, yet resists repeated washing, only to grow softer each time, is a privilege. To me, limited edition Ponduru fabric is as connoisseur worthy, beautiful and alive as the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi. Undecorated and modest, it tells a story so rich and pertinent in today’s glossy publicity ridden world. This fabric, with its subtle irregular textured yarn is the essence of purity and authenticity. We have the British to blame for the decline and disappearance of gossamer thin Dhaka muslin. Who do we blame if Ponduru fabric dies a quiet death?
By Karthika Audinet
Photo credits: Figures 5,6,13,14 and 18 by Peyrache family. All other photographs taken by the author.