STORIES FROM THE LOOM
“We come into this world with nothing, and before long, we will leave with nothing. While I’m here, I would like to help people the best I can”
PURNA MAYA MAHARJAN
Heart & Soul of Palpali Dhaka
Lovingly called ‘Aji’ by many, Purna Maya’s gentle smile and humble disposition belies a spine of steel, and a rich legacy earned with an unflinching commitment to her personal values of hard work, perseverance, and service to the society.
While late Ganesh Man Maharjan is credited with the invention of Palpali Dhaka, his wife Purna Maya has been no less of a force in building the legacy their family has come to be known for. The Royal family was a big fan of her designs and sought her expert eye on colour combinations when commissioning their favourite patterns.
Starting with a small workshop of 3 pit looms, Purna Maya eventually went on to train hundreds of women from 14 districts of Nepal in weaving dhaka. When Palpali dhaka was at the peak of its popularity, their workshop Swodeshi Bastrakala Palpali Dhaka Udhyog, employed around 500 weavers.
Having lent a hand to support many people in her lifetime, Purna Maya is one of the most respected figures in Palpa. When many factories and landmarks around Palpa became a base camp for the rebels, Purna Maya sternly told them to keep the fighting out of her factory and let her people work. Some members in the rebel army had grown up playing in her workshop as children and couldn’t bring themselves to disrespect her wishes, but that wasn’t enough to save their business from the consequences of war. Though Swodeshi Bastrakala was one of the very few factories that survived this period, the once-thriving factory of 500 weavers was reduced to less than 50 weavers.
For someone who helped build this industry from scratch and took it to its peak, it was especially heartbreaking to see its sorry state post-war. Even more crushing was seeing low grade, machine-made dhaka being sold as the original, destroying the essence of the very brand they had worked so hard to create.
But it has lifted her spirits immensely to see Palpali dhaka entrepreneurs unite with the common goal of reviving the industry and ensuring that the weaving technique she and her husband had spent their entire lives perfecting will continue to live on with a new generation of weavers. Today, with the catalytic skilling-based enterprise growth support from सीप, her workshop and others associated with PDA, have tripled their workforce and dramatically increased productivity. She is proud to see her youngest son Sagar Man Maharjan helming the Palpali Dhaka Association to carry on their legacy of the craft into the lives of the new generation.
Refusing to retire despite being well into her 80’s, what drives her to show up to work every morning is not the desire to create a business empire, but to help people by handing them the skills to earn a dignified livelihood.
Tara Bahadur Rana
Master Weaver and Technician
Sitting cross-legged in a workshop, humming to the tune of a familiar folk song on the radio, Tara Bahadur Rana meticulously punches holes into cardboard cards according to a design graph he plotted himself. It will take him a few days to make about 720 of these cardboard punch cards which will form the template for a single repeating pattern of dhaka, to be installed into a semi-jacquard loom.
With his ability to translate any design from a sketch or a photo to an actual graph, Tara Bahadur is one of the best dhaka technicians in the region. Plotting a graph for the patterns and making punch cards to feed into the semi-jacquard looms is the primary step of the process, and one that requires mathematical precision and focus. There are a precious few who adopt this role, even with training, as one needs to be an all-rounder intimately acquainted with all aspects of dhaka weaving.
But Tara Bahadur loves the technical challenge that each new design presents. But as textile industries dwindled during the civil war, Tara Bahadur left for Saudi Arabia for better livelihood. Post-war, he returned to Palpa, wanting to be with his family and return to his beloved craft. So, he set up a small home workshop with a few looms and trained a few weavers to work there.
Tara is also buoyed by the rejuvenated spirits, skills, and motivations of artisans and technicians engaged in the sector. “Tansen has new-found inspiration and fresh positive energy over the last two years, thanks to the work done by सीप and PDA,” he adds.
Sarita BK first started weaving over a decade ago, having learned about a training in her village giving through a friend. As a single parent, the training would offer her a new skill and a means to build a future for her daughter.
The learning phase was difficult for her, with broken threads, mixed up colours, and wrong pattern repetitions. Weaving came more easily to her as she practiced, eventually replacing farming as her core source of income, and has been even more lucrative since the Palpali Dhaka Association came into the picture, according to Sarita. Their training with graduation certification has given a formal recognition to her talent, adding to the motivation of weavers like her and emerging weavers like her daughter Srijana.
Sarita is quite fond of the fabric she weaves, preferring dhaka to imported fabrics. Her young daughter’s fascination with the fabric prompted Sarita to teach her how to weave, and these mother-daughter moments
weaving colourful threads onto the warp has evolved into a beautiful daily routine. Today, Sarita is the proud mother of a resourceful 19-year-old young woman who balances school and weaving, and is already en route to becoming a master weaver.
The mother-daughter duo are grateful for the vastly improved livelihood-linked skilling provision and other productivity measures that are now within an easy reach with support from PDA and सीप at workshops around Palpa.
“Weaving has added so much to our lives. It helps us earn a livelihood and gives us a sense of community. Coming to the workshop, helping out mother, trading stories and laughs with the other weavers, all the while weaving beautiful fabric. I can’t think of a better way to spend my days.”
19-year-old Srijana already speaks with the maturity and wisdom of a much older woman. Daughter of Sarita BK, a seasoned weaver who first taught her the craft, Srijana starts her day like any other teenager, attending morning classes at her high school. After assignments and chores, she joins her mother in the late afternoon to weave by her side.
Her mother initially taught her the basics of weaving about 4 years ago, a skill she picked up with much enthusiasm. “It always looked fun when mother was doing it”, she muses. “And the dhaka fabric is so pretty!”. Thanks to a 3-month skill training organized by the PDA and सीप, she had an opportunity to ask the right questions to an experienced facilitator and hone her skills further, making her a more confident weaver. The youngest weaver in her village, she thinks more young people should learn this craft instead of idling away their days.
Min Kumari has been weaving since the early 2000’s. Her years of experience have improved her mastery of her skill, but by no means has it made dhaka an easier cloth to weave.
“Weaving a single row of motifs can easily take up to an hour, and if you miss a thread, or use a colour in the wrong row, it can’t be fixed. It requires focus and attention, and a lot of hard work goes into weaving a single meter of cloth,” she explains.
Times have taken a turn for the better since the formation of the Palpali Dhaka Association, according to Min Kumari. After their training, she had a broader understanding of the other aspects of production as well, like making punch cards and repairing the loom.
She finds it encouraging to see the traditional fabric evolve with new patterns and colour palettes and enjoys working on differently coloured warps and design varieties, which gives her pride and more income.
Min Kumari loves the sisterhood she has found with her fellow weavers. Whether it is exchanging laughs, solving problems or sharing life’s woes, she takes comfort in the fact that weaving has also found her a community.