Innovation

This is not jugaad – C. Mallesham’s LAXMI ASU MACHINE

C_Mallesham_INK2010

Photo Credit : http://www.inktalks.com

Before weaving various patterns on the loom, a hand winding process of yarn is required in the traditional ‘Tie & Dye’ Pochampalli silk saree tradition (GS). This is a very tedious and cumbersome process and involves back and forth moving of the hand nine thousand times in a span of four to five hours before one saree can be woven. C. Mallesham, a traditional weaver, has made a device to mechanise this process and relieve women, who generally do this task, from the drudgery involved.

 Learning early

 Chintakindi Mallesham was born into a traditional weaver’s family in a small village of handloom weavers, Sharjipet. His parents, Laxminaraan and Laxmi taught him weaving from his tenth year onwards. By studying during nights and working during the day, he could complete his studies regularly till class seven. Thereafter he took private tuitions to fulfill his desire of completing up to class ten. In view of the weak financial condition of his family, he finally gave up studies in 1986. Though he did not have much time for other pursuits, he did like opening up dysfunctional radios and transistors and see the arrangement of components inside.

Keeping a tradition alive

His family has been pursuing the tradition of weaving Pochampalli sarees for several generations. Pochampalli [1] silk saree weaving is an exquisite tradition of double ikat style with a wide variety of colours and intricate designs of geometrical patterns. It is distinguished because it has a similar appearance of design on the front as well as the back side of the saree. Before weaving these patterns on the loom, a hand winding process of yarn, called Asu, has to be pursued. This process involves moving the hand over a space of one meter up and down around semi-circularly arranged pegs 9000 times for one saree, demanding high concentration and accuracy. On each peg one has to wind four times before moving to the next peg. For each saree almost four to five hours are required. The entire design of the sarees is totally dependent on the Asu process. Traditionally, ladies of the family performed this activity as it was done sitting under the shade or at home. But it involved long hours and a lot of physical effort. After the Asu process, designs are marked on the threads and tied accordingly, and then dyed in selected colours. The coloured threads are wound on spindles and set in looms for weaving the sarees with the beautiful designs and patterns of this tradition.

Genesis: All for mother’s pain

 C. Mallesham’s mother, Laxmi, used to do the Asu for the sarees woven by his father and him. In a day, at the maximum, she could do the Asu for two saris only, as it involved 18000 back and forth movements of one hand. This caused tremendous pain in her shoulders and elbow joints. She would often tell her son that she could not do this work any longer. She also did not want his future wife to go through the same ordeal and suggested that he should look for other avenues. Asu just for two sarees per day was not enough to fetch sufficient income. This was not the case for his family alone. Women of his community looked after their families, performed usual household chores and also worked for 8-9 hours to supply Asu material for two to three sarees per day. The pain of his mother did bother C. Mallesham a great deal. He wondered if there could be an alternative method for the Asu process that would lead to a better living condition as well as less physical drudgery for his mother. And at the age of 20 years, in 1992, this young innovator started his dream project.

Earning, Saving, Improving Machine, Again Earning…

Mallesham, did not have much knowledge about mechanical or electrical technology. But what he had was a strong desire to relieve his mother’s pain, which egged him on to achieve his goal.  He started working on the idea and divided the entire process into five different parts. Part by part, he developed and fitted mechanical devices to a wooden frame. Since he did not have the right technical knowledge, many times he ended up wasting money in buying incorrect parts. That money used to be the savings of days of his hard work. He then had to wait for some time to pool in his savings again and buy more parts. He did not get much free time since he had to work on the loom by the day and in the night on the Asu machine that he was developing. Earning, saving, spending on his project became a cycle that went on for four years. At the age of 24, he married Swarna. His wife supported him by giving him whatever money she had. With that money, he managed to complete three parts successfully in 1997. But by then he had drained all his resources. He stopped weaving and looked for loans.

asu laxmi machine

Perseverance

No one was ready to give him loans. Everyone knew that he might default at repayment. As it is, it was difficult for most of the weavers to make two ends meet, repaying a loan for Research and Developent would have been quite difficult for him. Determined, he approached all the people with the hope that some good hearted Samaritan might help him financially. Some did help by extending loans. With that money some more parts of the Asu machine were completed. He used to go to Hyderabad to shop for relevant components. By observing different machine parts, he managed to complete some more portions of the machine successfully. After some time he reached a stage where he did not know what to do, which components to fit and from where to get more money. He needed some technological help also but did not know whom to approach.

By then, his family was fed up with his desire of making a machine for the Asu process. They perceived it to be a useless distraction. His father, uncle and in-laws advised him not to pursue the idea of the Asu machine and get back to weaving seriously. Frequent visits of money lenders demanding repayment also stressed the family. His neighbours mocked at him commenting that he did not want to work and making the machine was just an alibi. “Asu poyadamlo kastalu oka mee ammake unnaya? (Is your mother alone going through this ordeal and not any other woman)?” they quipped.

He decided to leave the village to make a living in Hyderabad. This way, he thought he would be able to clear the debts and avoid constant discouragement. Storing the semi-finished machine in a room, he went to Hyderabad in mid 1997 and started working with an electrical contractor on daily wages. There he worked for a year, regularly sending home some money. After a year, he shifted the unfinished machine to Hyderabad and fitted it in his rented room. He started working part time to earn more money. The additional money was used for buying machine components. Within a short while, the machine was almost ready except for one movement. He had no idea how to fix a part of the machine for a particular activity that involved the thread to go round the peg and slide down to the last thread perfectly. To add this part took him a long time but without it the machine could not become functional.

The Breakthrough

In February 1999, he went to work in a machine shop in the Balanagar area in Secunderabad. A number of machines caught his attention. He started observing each one of them. The owner shouted that he had come for work and not for watching the machines. This incited him to watch the various machines even more seriously. In one, he noticed a movement similar to what he required in his machine. Immediately he told the shop owner that he was off for the day and was prepared to forego the wages. He rushed to a workshop, and got a component manufactured to suit the requirement. With his heart palpitating, he reached his room, fitted the component to the machine, and started the operation. The machine worked to his great excitement. On the next day, he disassembled the machine and took it to a friend’s house in Aler. The machine was reassembled and Mallesham demonstrated the Asu process. His friend used the Asu machine to process yarn for weaving a saree. The quality that came out was better than the one obtained through the hand operated Asu process. The news spread like wild fire and there was a beeline at his friend’s house to see the Laxmi Asu Machine, named after Mallesham’s mother.

History was made that day. It was for the first time that a machine was used for the Asu process that had been done by hand for centuries.

Mallesham

The first machine, made in 1999, was mounted on a wooden frame. The coming year, the second machine’s frame was changed to steel, also the speed of operation was marginally increased. A provision for stopping the machine when the thread got cut was incorporated in addition to some other minor improvements. This was the first machine to be sold. This initial sale was followed by a sale of sixty machines in 2001 and then Mallesham started selling almost hundred pieces each year from 2002 to 2004. In order to improve the automation process, he incorporated many electronic components in 2005. The number of threads on each peg could also now be adjusted. These changes resulted in almost 90 per cent noise reduction. The revised design reduced electricity consumption. Considering the fact that most weavers would not be able to afford the new machine, Mallesham took special care to incorporate changes in such a way that costs would not escalate. He has sold hundreds of machines over the last few years.

With this machine, the time to finish one saree was reduced from four hours to one hour and thirty minutes. This means that instead of two sarees per day, now six saris could be made with a wide variety of designs, which was impossible to even think of earlier. Also, the mechanised Asu making process does not need to be supervised much.

A Social and Financial Revolution

Overwhelmed by the response of the weaver community, he decided to pass on the comfort to all the women of the weaver community. No mother should any loger undergo the suffering his mother did for so long. With the help of his brother and other family members he started a workshop in 2000 to produce the Asu machines for supplying these to the weavers. He was now a contented man as his machine helped a wide cross-section of the weaver community involved in the Pochampalli silk saree tradition. Employment, productivity and marketability have visibly increased. Separate work centers only for the Asu process have come up especially for those who cannot afford a loom. Ladies who had been engaged in the manual Asu process now learnt to weave on looms like men and were able to supplement their family income. Some loom-less weavers set up ‘Asu Machine Centers’ and started supplying Asu to weavers with looms. This new entrepreneurial opportunity is only possible because of Mallesham’s machine. For those weavers who wanted to stop weaving due to the difficulties faced in the manual Asu process, he has become a ray of hope. His mother can’t stop praising him.

The road ahead

 Till date Mallesham has sold over 600 Asu machines. His mother does not complain of pain in her arms any more. And Mallesham’s happiness is beyond measure noticing the relieved faces of the women of the weaving community. But he is not satisfied yet! His first priority is to provide Asu machines to all the families of the silk saree weaving community in the state. He also plans to develop a loom for weaving sarees, which would erase the need to use hands and legs for operating the loom. A small prototype is ready. Mallesham mentions that most of the younger generation is keeping away from weaving due to the very strenuous leg and hand work required for working on the looms. It involves 3000 movements of the legs and a similar number of hand movements per saree over a period of 2-3 days. Because of this, many weavers are switching over to other jobs that require less physical work. Mallesham has almost completed a machine, which imitates the manual movements of hands and legs to weave a saree.

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[1] Pochampalli saree got geographical indications certification (GI) a few years back making its copying outside its region illegal. The sarees of this tradition are woven by over 30000 families residing in 3000 villages of Nalgonda and Warangal districts of Andhra Pradesh with about 90 per cent  of them being located in Nalgonda itself. 

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