Ilkal – The Forgotten Queen of the South

It was already 7:30 pm and we were clueless about Platform No.15 of the Kempegowda Terminal 1 bus stand. One security guard pointed to an overbridge while another asked us to march straight. Shubhangi and I were literally running with our bag packs to find the bus. Finally, at 7:41 pm we set foot on it, again Shubhangi quickly ran down to grab some wafers and cold drinks and at 7:45 pm we started off for Ilkal. Quick rewinding, a cab that we waited for almost 20 minutes got canceled by the driver last minute, then we had to rush to a metro station and then finally walk (read, frantically run) to get the bus. That’s, unfortunately, the Bengaluru setting that we didn’t really anticipate earlier.

Ilkal is a town located in the northern part of Karnataka and takes about 10.5 hours of bus ride from Bengaluru. The onward journey, although felt rickety then, in retrospect was quite smooth, given our return experience. We did stop to dig into some aloo jeera and roti for dinner at a roadside dhaba. I love the food at dhabas – fresh and filling. We did get some sleep, on and off, and reached the Ilkal bus stand at 4:45 am (thankfully the bus was delayed by over an hour). In the wee hours of the morning, we were able to locate our lodge with the help of Google Maps and a confirmation from the sole auto driver.

Catching on some more sleep, we woke up and got ready by 10:30 am to leave for the cluster after a sumptuous Upma and Masala Dosa breakfast prepared by local aunties in the little restaurant of the lodge. We had an escort from the cluster and after a quick auto ride, we reached our destination. The auto ride kept us busy as we were spotting (and clicking on-the-go) quite a few women in Ilkal sarees, interestingly, all of them were elderly. Also, we noticed almost all the women were in sarees, a sight quite rare in most metros.

On entering the home of our master weaver, the kolam outside the door caught our immediate attention. That’s a specialty of the southern part of our country, we found similar kolams in our Pochampally cluster too. Crossing the little courtyard, we stepped into the house. Seated on a mattress we spent the next hour looking at the beautifully handwoven collection of Ilkal sarees (which get their name from the town itself), in cotton and silk, each carefully pulled out from the stacks in the cupboards. From this craft being passed down by his great grandfather (whose photo hung on the wall) to his son Deepak joining to help him, Vijay ji shared his family’s story with pride. He went on to share that because of the internet, more and more people today know about Ilkals, while earlier the demand was mostly confined to Maharashtra and Karnataka. He mentioned that the full cotton Ilkals were a recent innovation and how the power loom versions being way cheaper were more in demand.

We then walked a few meters from Vijay ji’s home to meet the weavers who work with him. It is here that we met Narayan Appa, Rajender Bhaiya and Padma Tai. Seated on pit looms, in a room with minimal ventilation, they patiently answered our questions while weaving. We learned how Narayan Appa, now 72 years have always been weaving for a living, and so did his father. He showed us how the ‘topi teni’ pallu is woven for an Ilkal saree. I showed Padma Tai her photo that we had uploaded on social media in March and she giggled shyly. In some time, Padma Tai was replaced by her husband, Hemanya Appa. We learned, due to age, both of them divide their work hours to weave a saree together, taking turns.  In some time, Khwajabi Didi, their immediate neighbor, came in and added her perspective while we sat there immersed in the setting. Khwajabi Didi turned teary-eyed while narrating how machine made products have reduced the demand for handwoven ones and it is, therefore, getting increasingly difficult for them to maintain the family expenses. ‘’Humhe toh bass yehi aata hai’’, (this is all that we can do to earn a living) is what she had to say. We also met her daughter and grandkids – Wajid (who loved getting clicked) and Atiya (who held on to her saree as we spoke). However, they were happy despite the challenges, as festivities were around the corner – they were busy preparing for Eid.

Everyone insisted that we stay back for Eid, which was on the following day. Seemed like everyone celebrated the festival, irrespective of their faith. Where three square meals a day is a challenge, where you experience each other’s life struggles as if it’s your own, is there any time or relevance fighting over religious differences? This whole harmony made us rethink of how at the macro-level we project differences and disagreements, while at the grassroots the fight is a completely different one – a fight for survival and dignity. Gratitude for the work they do and respect for their life struggles overpowered every other emotion that we felt. We were humbled by those warm hugs and eyes full of hope, and something within made us promise to return there again.

When it comes to weaves of the South, Kanjeevaram is the most popular one, but for me, it will always be the Ilkal. A weave that’s elegant and traditional, a weave that’s smart and contemporary, a weave whose lost glory definitely needs a resurrection.

With enough food for thought and heart full of warmth, we returned to the bus stand, now to literally have some food in the tummy. We had yet another long journey ahead, a bus to catch for Gajendragad, our next stop. The picture of Narayan Appa’s broken Hindi, trembling hands, lean structure, and big expressive eyes stayed with me from that afternoon and will remain etched in my memory forever. He resembled my Nana ji, Appu is what I called him.

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