The saris produced by this power loom weaving hub near Salem have found fans everywhere, thanks to social media
Deep down the winding road that leads away from the Salem/Sankagiri highway, the scenery is breathtaking, with mountains and temples framing paddy and sugarcane fields. Despite the agrarian setting, the fields are empty, except for a few, where women are planting paddy saplings in plots flooded with ankle-deep water.
We are going to Elampillai, which seems to be gaining popularity on social media for its saris. Soon enough, textile showroom billboards pave the way into this nondescript town that manufactures saris for sale in India and abroad.
“There are over 20,000 power looms in Elampillai. Besides 10,000 workers manning the looms, there are at least 20,000 more engaged in ancillary industries such as zari manufacture and computer-aided designing, many of them from other States,” says K M Siddharaman, proprietor of the family-run Sri Balaji Silks.
Siddharaman is a veteran in the sari trade, having started out as a handloom weaver with his father 40 years ago. “By the 1970s, the power loom had taken over the textile industry in a big way here. Most of the companies are small scale industries, with around 10-15 looms per firm. Those who have over 200 power looms cannot take care of them alone, because of the shortage of labour,” says Siddharaman, whose two sons manage 60 power looms between them.
Weaving a livelihood
- In the bylanes of Elampillai, we speak to Babu, a power loom operator with Sri Balaji Silks for the past seven years. His presence, like that of his other male colleagues at the unit explains why the fields in the vicinity are empty. “Like me, most of the men in my generation in Elampillai have opted to work in the power loom factories because it gives a steady income. We can earn ₹20,000 per month in this job. There’s no real future in agriculture for me,” he says.
- A worker is expected to monitor two power looms in a day. “It takes around six hours for us to produce a sari (of 6.3 metres). Though it is a mechanised job, the operator has to watch out for broken threads and other mistakes, so he has to be in front of the loom when it is on. An experienced worker can produce up to 10-15 saris in a week,” says Babu, whose unit is open from 6 am to 6 pm.
- One assumes the workers would get to buy some of the saris straight from the loom. “Of course not!” laughs Babu. “The designs we manufacture are exclusive and will be held as reserve stock for three months. So we just head to the downtown stores to buy saris in Elampillai.”
“In recent years, due to over production, Elampillai’s manufacturers have had to undersell their products so that they can pay staff salaries every Friday. So a sari that costs ₹700 to make, is usually sold for ₹500 to ₹600 by Thursday,” he says.
By mid-day, the main street of Elampillai, crowded with clothing stores, is open for business. Unlike the showy interiors favoured by shops in big cities, this town believes in more utilitarian iron shelving for its beautiful goods.
Men with bundles of yarn and warp rollers covered with newspaper sheets, steer their overloaded two-wheelers on the road outside, as customers float into the shops with a flurry of demands. Women emerge with white cotton sacks filled with saris, looking excited about their purchases.
“From 2 pm onwards, this street will be as busy as Mount Road in Chennai,” smiles Siddharaman.
Elampillai saris come in a variety of styles and colours, but most of them are soft-textured and have a jacquard self-design that improves their drape considerably.
This year, Kota cotton and art-silk (an affordable synthetic alternative to the real thing), are doing well, says Siddharaman.
“We have saris in the price range of ₹400 to ₹1,700. With the lockdown easing since September, we were lucky to fulfill some Deepavali orders just in time,” he says.
As we speak, a family clinches a five-sari deal for ₹2,500. The bill, Siddharaman admits, will be much higher in the big brand stores of Chennai, Coimbatore, Tiruchi, Madurai and Bengaluru, where he supplies his products.
“Unlike Mysuru or Kancheepuram, Elampillai’s saris are not known by their place of origin. But weavers like me can recognise an Elampillai sari simply from the way it falls on the wearer,” he says.
Babu operating a power loom at the workshop of Sri Balaji Silks, in Elampillai. Photo: Nahla Nainar/THE HINDU
Working social media
The lack of a distinct identity has actually worked in Elampillai’s favour, especially during lockdown as connoisseurs began looking for made in India fabrics. Social media has played an important role in popularising the saris, especially since manufacturers like R Gowrishankar of RGS Tex, ship orders to any part of India.
“Despite the lockdown, we had a good response for our Deepavali orders. We supply stock for mostly big retailers in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, but there were a lot of queries from women entrepreneurs who resell our saris from their homes,” says Gowrishankar, whose company is based in Thappakuttai village, between Edappadi and Salem.
The lockdown has accelerated the need for digital banking and contactless payments, which has aided traders with a social media presence. Google searches for Elampillai saris will invariably lead people to not just local manufacturers but also fashion vlogs focussed on the saris.
“I started our Facebook page titled Elampillai Saris five years ago, but it has come into its own only during the lockdown. We post pictures or short videos about our new products, and customers get in touch almost immediately, from far-flung cities,” says Gowrishankar. He adds, “In a way, not being overexposed through traditional advertising is good, because Elampillai saris have been able to retain their uniqueness in the market.”
Elampillai saris are known for their soft texture. Photo: Nahla Nainar/THE HINDU