Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Toil of the Loom

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‘There are many qualities of wool in Sind [sic], black, brown and white. A good deal of it, especially of the black, is worked locally into blankets and saddle-bags.’ Thus notes a British civil servant in the year 1906. He goes on to observe that in Tharparkar this wool is put to good use producing ‘blankets’, locally termed khatha. Similar to the kambli of the Deccan, this white-coloured product is, we are told, ‘finer in texture, the wool of which it is made being superior.’

Produced on narrow width handlooms and used more as cold weather attire than as bedding, these are, properly, shawls. Woven in two feet width, two panels in length measuring nine feet each are sewn together to create a single piece. Intricately woven in brightly coloured patterns along the border, the shawls are masterpieces of craftsmanship of the finest order. Unlike some shawls woven with cotton warp, the khatha is still, weft and warp, entirely sheep wool.

Rewind a century, the white wool was treated with locally produced vegetable dyes to create the intensely vibrant geometric patterns. Today, synthetic colours are obtained from the wholesale markets of Hyderabad and Karachi. The timeless designs, always angular geometric forms completely devoid of curvilinear or floral shapes, come from a common vocabulary we find in temple and funerary decorative schemes in Sindh and Gujarat that have not changed in a millennium.

The length of the shawl has however altered, decreasing to eight feet. In 1906, the typical white khatha could be had for a mere two rupees and was in great demand. In the mid-1990s, it cost Rs. 800 apiece. In the retail market of Mithi town today, the finest quality khatha, which now comes in either white or black, weighing 1,200 grams will set the buyer the poorer by Rs. 4,500. A middling quality weighing 200 grams less will go for about Rs. 2,500 while the lightest at 500 grams will be some Rs. 1,200.

This is a price set not by the craftsfolk producing this work of beauty. Rather, it is established by the middleman who keeps shop in Mithi town and also supplies the market in Hyderabad. Inevitably, this is grossly undervalued price so far as the artisan is concerned, leaving the fat profit to be gleaned by the middleman. Equally inevitably, it has determined a compromise on quality.

Traditionally, khatha craftsman worked in a family unit. The wool procured from local livestock was cleaned and carded by older men. While some yarn was produced on a manual spindle by patriarchs, much of it came off the spinning wheel worked by women. Preparation of dyes as well as the dyeing process was also women’s work.

In those bygone days of manual work, a khatha typically weighing 1,200 grams would take about three weeks from procurement of unprocessed wool to the time the finished product was ready to sell. Today it takes five days, for now it is made of wool processed and dyed in the factories of Karachi. To the uninitiated, the modern product may seem very fine but those who know the real thing can tell the difference at first glance.

The shift in use of material was determined by the imperative of cutting down on production time because the cabal of retailers pays the artisan no more than Rs. 3,000 for the finest quality khatha. The artisan, belonging invariably to the marginalised Meghwar caste, weighs lightly against the more influential bania and has no say in pricing. At the current price of raw materials and cost of living, the original shawl, processed in some three weeks’ time, can simply not be worth the effort and time. So the compromise on material as well as the three qualities of produce.

As things stand, the artisan earns a net profit of just Rs. 1,600 for five days of labour to create his best quality and as little as Rs. 150 for his lightest product. A khatha weaver, spending eight to ten hours at his loom seven days a week, typically earns between Rs. 7,000 and 8,000 a month. Unsurprisingly, the number of weavers is declining. And there are no apprentices learning the craft.

In the last two decades of the 20th century, incipient non-government organisations in Thar as well as an influx of tourists brought about a boom in the khatha makers business. That was when buyers regularly visited weavers at work to see and purchase. This continued until a few years ago when increased travel restrictions made it difficult for Pakistani tourists and impossible for foreigners to travel freely in Thar. Coupled with that, alternating droughts and floods resulted in low agricultural produce reducing the purchase power of local buyers.

Naino Ram Meghwar of village Sinyar Nangar, some 20 kilometres south of Islamkot, descends from a long line of weavers. Yet he says he would gladly give up khatha weaving if only he knew another skill. At 38 years of age, he is the last khatha maker of the family for he is not teaching his sons the toil of the loom. Who would want to learn a craft that cannot fill the belly, he asks ruefully?

If rains are good and there is livestock, guar beans and millets to sell, he has buyers and business is brisk between November and January. Otherwise he is obliged to sell his product to the bania in Mithi who supplies him the yarn on credit to keep his business going.

He is no longer making the authentic woollen khatha, says Naino Ram. But he still has the skill and can produce one for a buyer willing to pay the price. He is not alone. Across the rolling grey sand dunes of Tharparkar, there are scores of weavers who despite possessing the skill no longer produce the real item but pass off mere replicas. When Naino Ram’s generation of Meghwar weavers is no more, the khatha, without which no Sindhi gentleman would once be seen in winter, will have vanished forever.

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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