Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stories from Chinnur: 1

Chinnur used to be an important market town until the mid-20th century. Much earlier, the Mannevarlu jati in the surrounding villages smelted steel in earthen crucibles, the famous Konasamudram steel that was exported to Damascus to make Damascene swords. When we first came to Chinnur, in 1989, and began our visits to the villages on foot [there were no buses then] we could see the ancient slag-heaps near the local cheruvu as we approached.

It had been a heavily forested area, but by then most of the forest had gone except for the odd majestic beheda standing solitary in a field, though you could see the tendu forest in Maharashtra across the Pranahita river. Our Padmashali weaver friends, husbands & wives, used to abandon their looms in the tendu leaf picking season. They would set out in the mornings with a gourd flask of fermented jonna ambali for their midday meal and return in the evenings. It was frustrating for us, but they earned more at this unskilled task than with their hereditary skills.

It was the traders among the Padmashali community who had introduced cheap powerloom cloth to the local market. As Odelu said "We made an axe from the branch of a tree and used it to cut down the tree": with the introduction of cheaper cloth local handloom weaving gradually disappeared. There was still a demand for the things that powerloom did not weave - the thick, heavy dupattlu that, doubled, served as blankets in winter. When word spread that under our project some looms had started again, people came to weaver homes asking for headcloths, lungis, and the traditional designs of sarees worn by the Golla women. This was before television came to Chinnur, when local traditions were still strong.

These were also the days before the Mineral Exploration Corporation began its ultimately successful search for coal just outside Chinnur along the 2 km stretch of highway we regularly walked between Chinnur and the weavers 'colony'. The trees lining the road would at night be lit by clouds of fireflies. There were little bloodstains on the tarmac surface, from the unshod hooves of the bullocks pulling carts. The axles of these carts had long ago been made of Kunasamudram steel.

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