Graduates from the apprentice program working on chairs in the weaving unit, c. 2021
The cane weavers of Phantom Hands are a motley bunch. Predominantly women, some of them come from traditional craft communities of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, others are from the local community around the workshop, trained via the company's own Cane Weaving Apprenticeship Program. Some of them are in their late teens or early twenties. Others sexagenarians. Cane weaving is a time intensive, meticulous job. Weaving the backs and seats of even the more straightforwardly woven chairs often takes days of patient, painstaking, and careful work. Many don't take to it. But for many others, it becomes an addiction, even a life's purpose.
Her name is Jayalakshmi but at the Phantom Hands (PH) workshop, she is known simply as 'Cane Amma'.
She was standing under a light, inspecting the chairs she had spent weaving the week before - a commanding figure in a green bordered white silk saree tucked at the waist.
She had recently had her cataract removed, Amma told me after we were introduced. "Now that my sight is better I can work into my 70’s, like my mother," she giggled. At 62, she has been weaving for over 54 years. In that time, she has made baskets, boxes, chairs, mats, pots, tables, beds, and various other kinds of furniture. Of all of these, the pieces from PH's Tangāli collection has probably been the hardest to weave, Amma said.
"It’s because of their curved design," she explained, running her hands around the smooth turn at the back of the Tangāli Modular Chair. "It also has a complex double weave that goes around the frame," she indicated, "the exposed back means the weave needs to be finished somewhat neatly." All of this is time consuming. Each chair takes up to two to three full days of work, Amma said.
"Once I start weaving, I don’t rest till I am done," she shook her head gravely. "Yes, I take my work very seriously, how can I not? What am I if not for my work? It is my purpose in life, my identity, my dignity. When I weave I don’t want to leave any room for mistakes, I don’t want my work sent for repairs during quality checks. I want to make a perfect piece."
There are sacrifices to be made for such a work ethic, she admitted. Putting her palms up, she showed me the cuts made by the cane strands she works with. ("No no, I can’t work with gloves," she said when I suggested it). As a young woman with children and a husband, juggling her chores and the craft had not been easy, Amma said. As an older woman, her responsibilities were even more. Fortunately, members of her family were almost all involved in cane weaving as well, so they often shared the work.
"That is how we had grown up, in the midst of everyone weaving cane," she said. It had not just been easy but natural to take up the craft in such a setting. Some of her cousins and brothers had even started their own business. "My brother's shop in Chennai is very well-known." Amma said with some pride.
The mention of the next generation inspired less enthusiasm. "They don’t have the skill," she said, wrinkling her nose. I reminded her about her son who is also a weaver at PH. She laughed heartily. "That is only until I am here. Once I am gone…." - she gestured to show how easily her own family might give up the trade in her absence.
But there are others from the community who she thinks do stellar work. Quietly, she pointed to the middle-aged man who was accompanying her, he was inspecting the freshly woven chairs they had just brought in. "He is very good," she whispered with mock secrecy, "but there aren't many others," she shook her head.
"The problem with the younger lot is that they don’t value their community’s traditional craft, the rigour it demands," Amma said, slipping into what I gathered was a common rant. And they all work with plastic. "Plastic!" she said with vehemence, rolling her eyes and making us all laugh. "Why do they do that? Is plastic better?" I asked provocatively. She looked at me sternly. No, plastic is not better, she said. ("You have touched a nerve now," the middle aged man said laughing, he had finished inspecting the chairs).
In an endless flow of words, Amma started describing the many ills of plastic to the young boy translating for me. He was struggling to keep up. ‘"Material matters," he said, turning to me at some point. Amma had sat down on the chair she had been showing me to demonstrate her point. Lightly bouncing on it she was delivering a monologue about how hardy cane is, how tensile, how it comes from the soil and returns to the soil. "Cane lasts years, plastic doesn't," she said.
The Future of Cane Weaving
Cane Amma comes from the traditional cane weaving community of Karaikudi, a town in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu. Her family, including her son and daughter in-law were the first of the cane weavers to be employed by PH.
Initially, the three of them had been enough to meet the newly formed company’s manufacturing demands. But as PH grew, so did their needs, and soon the team struggled to cope with the workload. Others from their community were then called in when required. In the meantime, PH also tried to bring in cane weavers from closer home, from the local Bamboo Bazaar in Bangalore.
Neither the local craftsmen nor the fluctuating flow of weavers from Karaikudi, however, resolved PH’s needs completely. It was in an attempt to meet these that the Cane Weaving Apprenticeship Program was conceived in 2018. Originally, it was aimed at finding aides for the existing weavers. The apprentices were imagined to help PH’s cane craftsmen with soaking, peeling, and cutting the cane. Soon, however, the new trainees picked up the basics of weaving. Within a few months, they could weave the seats and backs of the standard chairs.
It was then that the apprenticeship program was recreated in a more organised manner. Pavithra was one of the first trainees.
She had been sitting at home after dropping out of school, fresh after her class ten examinations. Her family was beginning to discuss marriage, "but I didn’t want that," she said. Then her neighbour who worked at the PH workshop had brought her along one day. She tried her hand at weaving cane.
It was far from fun at first, she told me. "I didn’t enjoy it at all. I came for a week and then stopped because it seemed too tough and I thought I wasn’t interested." But after a few weeks she returned and tried again. This time she stuck it out, she told me. "Then in a couple of months I had figured it out."
That was about two years ago. Today she is a permanent PH employee and trains new apprentices, she said with a quick flick of her hair. It’s braided and wound at the end with a string of jasmine.
"I give them two weeks to begin with. Every day they learn a new weave – ginger, dabai, male female weaving." She counted the weaves by their workshop names on her fingers. Many new trainees drop out after the two-week mark, she said. But then many of them return, like her. Typically, they are kept under observation for three months. Then, if their work is good, they are usually absorbed into the cane weaving team.
Pavithra has taught a number of girls currently working at the workshop, she told me. She pointed to them while she listed their names. Some of them looked up with a shaky smile, others remained absorbed with their weaving. Puja, who had come to Bangalore from Nepal with her partner, was one of Pavithra’s latest students. She had just finished her third month at the workshop. Yes, she wasn’t interested at first but now she was slowly getting the hang of it, she said. It was still hard, her fingers still hurt at night.
Before starting to weave individual chairs, Pavithra had been doing quality checks. Cane quality checks involve checking finished pieces for errors in the weaving, spotting frayed or weak cane strands or any other glitch that can compromise the cane webbing. Once the error is noted, the weave is redone, Pavithra told me. "This is how I started with cane weaving," she said, "I still enjoy doing repairs the most."
Like her, most girls came to apprentice at PH after dropping out of school, often after working elsewhere. "Mostly, people come here by word of mouth, through someone they know, like a friend or an aunty from the neighbourhood." Although the work is not easy and has a learning curve, new trainees (typically young girls) like it here, she said. "It’s safe here, unlike many other work places. Plus you get off days, and the pay is fixed and regular with benefits like health insurance once you are recruited." This is why she too recommends people she knows to come try out the apprentice program.
Pavithra was trained by Cane Amma, she told me as we wrapped up. "It will be a while before I get as good as her, but I am proud of the work I do. When I tell people about my job here, I always mention that here in this part of the workshop, I am someone to reckon with." She gave me a shy smile.
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