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When Mansaram Tutania states his price for the shawl, the customer’s response is immediate: “I don’t have a government job. Can you reduce the rate?”

But Mansaram does not budge. “It’s fixed,” says the 72 year-old weaver, and the deal is shortly sealed. “Making a shawl is painstaking work. And then it takes effort to find the wool as very few people rear sheep and goats these days,” he says explaining why he sticks to his asking price.

Mansaram and his wife, Bimla Devi, work on a loom at their home in Kandbari village of Himachal Pradesh. They have been weaving handlooms for the last 50 years. They make gardu (blankets), shawls, stoles, and mufflers among other woven items. “My family has always had a charkha [spinning wheel],” says Mansaram who learnt the craft at as a young adult from a neighbour in Palampur. “I spent most of my life grazing cattle until I was 21,” he says. “Back then no one here had much of a school education. Even my family never told me to study,” he says about why he didn’t attend school.

Once the fleece is sheared, cleaned and dried, a charkha (spinning wheel) is used to separate the fibres of the wool. Photos by Amrita Rajput

The spinning is usually done by women, and Bimla makes time for it along with her domestic work. Photo by Amrita rajput

The master weaver recalls dividing his time between working in the fields and taking his family’s livestock – cows, buffaloes, sheep and goats – to graze. Mansaram belongs to the Gaddi community, listed as a Scheduled Tribe in Himachal Pradesh. Ever since I was a boy, I had observed this work being done. I never imagined doing any other sort of work.”

Bimla Devi says that the weaving process involves multiple steps. Once the fleece is cut from the sheep, it is cleaned and dried in the sun. A machine is then used to separate the fibres. “We bring the wool home and I create threads from it using a charkha,” she says. The spinning is usually done by women, and Bimla must do it along with her domestic work.

We have been to Delhi and put up a counter at Pragati Maidan for a month. We rented this counter from the government for 50,000 rupees… We couldn’t sell much as customers wanted softer cloth and ours were rough…

Watch video: Weaving gardu blankets – 50 years and counting

Bundles of spun yarn are then attached to the loom, ready to be woven into blankets, shawls and coats. “We wash the woven cloth before we begin weaving as this strengthens it,” says Mansaram.”

When he first started weaving, a shawl would sell for Rs. 50. “The cost of making a shawl depends on the wool. Nowadays, the wool itself costs 100 rupees per kilo. One shawl uses 2-3 kilos of wool, and this could increase depending on the length. We can sell a shawl for 1,500-2,000 rupees,” he says.

Bundles of spun yarn are then attached to the handloom, ready to be woven into blankets, shawls and coats. Photos by Amrita Rajput

In his youth, he remembers walking to urban areas across Himachal Pradesh, such as Kangra, Spiti, Kullu and Manali as well as Delhi, to sell his products. Now, his age and ill-health keep him home. “I cannot weave as much as I once could,” he says.

Weaving a shawl takes Mansaram upto five days, while a gardu can take him 15-30 days to complete. Used mainly during the monsoon and winter seasons, gardus are woven only in Himachal Pradesh. “Rain or snow and moisture cannot penetrate this blanket. Only one is needed to keep you warm during the winter. They also dry very quickly,” he says, proudly ascribing these benefits to the weaving technique used for these blankets, each of which sells for Rs. 8,000.

Weaving a shawl takes Mansaram upto five days, while a gardu blanket can take 15-30 days. Photo by Amrita Rajput

“The lockdowns did not affect us as people from nearby villages continued to visit. People from the Gaddi community still buy handwoven shawls and coats for the bridegroom during weddings,” said Mansaram. Stable demand for these traditionally woven garments and the fall in the number of weavers in Kangra, has enabled the family to continue making a living through their craft.

“Almost everyone in my family knows how to weave, but no one wants to do this work anymore because it takes a lot of effort,” he says. Mansaram and his wife had two sons – one died a few years ago, and the other lives with them along with his family of a wife and two children.

“We’re the only ones left in our village who still do this work,” he says, “I don’t know what will happen after we are gone.”

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Editor's note

Amrita Rajput is a final year student pursuing a Bachelors in Sociology at the Gauri Devi Government College for Women in Alwar, Rajasthan. She was chosen by the non-governmental organisation, Sahje Sapne, for a year-long mentorship and skilling programme that included a short course on documentation with PARI Education. Amrita says, “I never imagined I would learn so much during my internship at PARI. I learned to write stories, take photographs and even make documentaries. I learned that making a good photo and video needs patience. While making the video for this story, I felt this was how dialogues should be – as if we were a part of another person’s story, and everyday life, with the conversations that make this imprinted on our minds.”