How Khun Weaving Fights For Its Survival


Nearly hundred and dying, the fabric and tradition need a fresh lease of life, attention, patronage and support.

By Vaijayanthi Chakravarthy

Guledgudd, a vibrant town in Karnataka, breathes the music of looms. At senior weaver Siddharamappa Malagi’s modest home, the weavers take a nap on this drowsy afternoon. A single pit loom reluctantly dances to the weaver’s thoughts. Malagi and I struggle to make a conversation in Hindi. Stories flow. Malagi is passionate about his work, knows the rhythm of time and pulse of khun weaving tradition. He says, “Iska bhavishya nahin hai” (khun weaving has no future). The dancing pit loom doesn’t pause.

He believes that khun tradition in his family would end with his generation and the tradition of weaving blouse fabric in Guleddgud would die soon. Colours stretched on looms — green, magenta and yellow, fight the dullness in his words.

Malagi seeks beauty in the fabric he weaves, the purity of silk, cotton and the natural indigo he uses for the base blue running in the fabric. Other colours throw in waves, stars, squares and several shapes the dobby brings. The double-bordered 32” khun Malagi weaves is for blouses worn by women in Northern Karnataka and parts of Maharashtra. The chaniya cholis worn in Maharashtra were made of khun for a long period during the previous century.

Today, khun is moving away, from wardrobes of rich and ordinary people, to the living rooms, in cushion covers and table mats. Fewer women in cities and villages continue to wear it. Its transformation, some connoisseurs believe, from fabric made only for blouses to fabric for upholstery, would help this tradition survive. However, its use in bags, purses and shoes could affect its uniqueness and aesthetics.

Khun’s beauty deserves attention, support and patronage. Not many weavers in Guledgudd have the handloom trademark or the silk mark for authenticity of products. The brocades and designer blouses made here cost thousands of rupees, but what rolls out from the looms of Guledgudd is exquisite and elegant.

Wholesale trader Sampath Rathi’s office is bright and brisk. Weavers collect yarn, handful of people keep account books, and Rathi is busy handling people who walk in for enquiries. A third generation textile trader in Guleddgudd, he supplies yarns to weavers, gets the yarns converted into sarees and fabric for a price, and sometimes supports weavers with advances for setting up looms for their domestic needs.

Rathi doesn’t know the background, history or origin of khun. He can trace it to his grandfather’s times. “Mere dadaji ke zamane se,” he says. A hundred years — all they can think of. None of them remembers how or when khun came into their village.

Measure for measure. While Malagi has stuck to the old 32” inch standard size of khun, Rathi has gone ahead, increasing the panna or width to 36”. The word khun or khana means “a measure”, indicating half a meter. It comes to half a khana or one khana, depending on the measure bought.  In a report submitted in 1927 on Arts of Bombay Presidency, G P Fernandez records a khun as a measure of 10 hands by two hands or the Poona Khun, having a dimension of 32” by 20”.

Guledgudd finds a mention as an important centre of weaving both cholis and sarees. Fernandez reports 3500 looms of all sorts of silk, cotton sarees and cholis woven for a place with a population of 15,000. Statistics reveal that about half the population was involved in weaving and around 4000 of them in serious debt. Stunning 100 varieties of khuns were made in various designs and the weavers were capable of turning out cholis of any design ordered. Designs ranged from lions, elephants, birds, peacocks, tigers and dots, triangles, and diamonds. Today, the town of over 33,000 population has 4000 people involved in khun weaving.

After much thought, Rathi shows an elephant motif now revived. The regular customers are not keen on the animal motifs and his Jain clients avoid them, yet, he is willing to experiment with new ideas, including the Athangudi tile pattern shown to him. My mind drifts to the diamond and floral designs seen at the Badami Caves, not far from Guledgudd. Rathi is working with a variety of weavers, including those who work on power loom. At least in Guledgudd, capital of khun, they try to keep the “polyester” out, but willingly take “art silk”.

The shine in khun cotton can be confusing. A Kanchipuram silk weaver, son of a master weaver once looked at a khun blouse and refused to accept it was cotton, thinking that cotton can never shine like in a khun. Perhaps, the Kanchi weaver should look at how Chauhan brothers in Guledgudd dye the khun silk and cotton yarns.

How does cotton get its shine in khun? The Chauhan brothers insist it is because of the way the cotton is dyed, in hot water at a particular temperature. The hardworking Chauhan brothers are among the five dyers in the town, their sons away in the city, studying to be engineers. Guledgudd has an indigo expert who sources the powder indigo dye from Andhra Pradesh. He is unfortunately the last indigo expert in the town.

— The author is a journalist for 25 years. She has recently taken a break from news and is exploring Indian heritage and hopping looms.