Choosing a livelihood


BASED on anthropological fieldwork, this paper examines mat weaving in Pattamadai town, Tamilnadu.1 Mat weaving is an important rural household activity in several parts of the state. The handlooms for mats are generally of simple construction and the raw materials are commonly available locally. Historically, therefore, handloom mat weaving has long been a low cost cottage industry and a complementary source of income for agricultural and other rural workers.

The paper focuses on livelihood choices made by members of the Labbai group, expenditures incurred by their households and the negotiated status of mat weaving. I will show that weaving is one among other livelihood choices available to the Labbai Muslim mat weavers of Pattamadai. Even though they refer to weaving as one of their traditional activities, the choice to weave today depends upon consumption patterns, household resources, personal preferences and larger market forces.

Pattamadai is located in Tirunelveli Kattabomman district, Tamilnadu state. The population is predominantly Hindu (over 55%) and Muslim (around 40%). Around 18 Hindu castes and two Tamil Muslim groups – the Rauthers and the Labbais – are represented in the town’s population.2 Both Labbais and Rauthers weave mats though it is the fine mats, which the Labbai predominantly weave, that have made Pattamadai famous. The Labbais make up 5% of the town’s Muslim population, approximately 650 people. Of these 50 or so weave regularly. It is difficult to fix the precise number of mat weavers as individuals take up or leave weaving at different times according to need or personal preference. Most Labbai households have a loom or the makings of a loom.

The majority of mats made in Tamilnadu have cotton warps and korai wefts. Korai belongs to the sedge family of plants, Cyperaceae.3 Korai mats may be broadly divided into three categories. Coarse mats are rough in texture, relatively quick to weave and may be made using either a handloom or powerloom. Higher quality handloom mats are finer in texture. The highest quality have a texture akin to silk. To make such mats the korai is soaked in running water for up to a week until it begins to rot, the central pith is then scraped off and each stem split into fine strands, dried and dyed. The finer the mat desired, the longer the korai needs to soak and the thinner the weft strands will be. The number of warp threads also increases with finer mats.

Mats having between 100 and 140 warp threads in every nine inches of their total width are only woven in Pattamadai town. They are locally known as ‘super-fine mats’, those with 50 warp threads in every nine inches of total mat width are termed ‘fine mats’. Coarse mats cost between Rs 25 and 50. Fine mats cost between Rs 250 and 1000, the more expensive mats are richly patterned. Super-fine mats cost between Rs 800 and 3000 –the price reflecting the intricacy of design and the quality of the mat. Most fine mats take around a week to weave. It takes about four weeks to weave a super-fine mat.



A Pattamadai super-fine mat won a bronze medal at the Delhi Exhibition of 1903 (Watt, 1904). Following this, the mats came to be classified as suitable for gifting (see Nambiar 1964; Pate 1917; Rao 1929). In 1952 a Pattamadai mat was commissioned by a man from Madras who intended it as a coronation gift for Queen Elizabeth. This mat, publicly displayed along with other coronation gifts, came to the notice of the All India Handicrafts Board and brought Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to Pattamadai who encouraged the weavers to form a handicrafts cooperative society.

Today, however, private traders drawn from the Labbai group are crucial in the commissioning and marketing of mats. Two national awards for mat weaving (both in the 1990s) have continued to ensure that Pattamadai mats are regularly represented in important craft bazaars and receive media attention. In addition to governmental agencies, an NGO, the Foundation for the Advancement of Craft Enterprise and Skills (FACES) works closely with the superfine mat weaving industry and has created a steady demand for these mats.



Marriage is a central institution, which marks a significant turning point in the lives of women in particular. After marriage, women normally move to their marital homes. The household is a chief centre for the reproduction of social norms. The group is kin and largely locality endogamous. A result of this, and of the densely housed streets, is the high level of information sharing and social contact between households.

Gender roles within the household and in the Labbai group are informed by larger structures including Islam and by attitudes pertaining to women in rural South India which lay stress on the woman’s role as wife and mother. Her primary place is within the home where she engages in domestic tasks and some income generation activity.

Labbai females can be divided into three categories on the basis of their sexual and marital status. Girls who have not attained puberty are free, like their male siblings, to play in the streets and lanes around their homes. Most children are sent to school though girls are usually discontinued from school after menarche. This propels them into the next phase of their lives. Between menarche and marriage the girl stays mostly within doors learning household tasks, and helping with the cooking and cleaning. Boys in the same age group continue to attend school. Some go on to take diplomas in vocational courses or degrees, though most begin to work in their late teens.

After her marriage, some of the restrictions on the female are lifted, though her movements continue to be monitored by her in-laws, her parents and other members of the kinship group. Over time her mobility tends to increase and women may travel singly or in groups to nearby towns on work or to visit relatives.

The transition from girl to bride is one of the most financially difficult periods for her natal household. Significant amounts of money (equalling two years or more of the natal household’s income) are demanded by the parents of the groom.4 In addition, gold ornaments, new clothes and gifts have to be purchased for the bride, groom and members of the groom’s family.

Other expenses include the cost of a marriage feast. With the birth of the first child come more expenses. The parents of the new mother have to pay the medical costs. They also have to buy both bride and groom new clothes for the first Id festival after the marriage. These expenses are usually borne by the household to which the girl belongs. Other culturally defined expenditures include male circumcision and female coming of age ceremonies, births and deaths. Households also have to bear miscellaneous contingency expenses including medical and hospitalisation costs when necessary. The household’s productive resources in the form of both male and female labour have to be mobilised to provide for the above as well as for daily subsistence.



The Labbais of Pattamadai, both male and female, are primarily involved in the informal and unorganised sectors of the economy. Despite the high regard in which they hold governmental and other jobs in the formal sectors, they are affected by the general shortage of such jobs as well as by structural factors, particularly their socioeconomic status, which affect access to education and other opportunities.



Short-term economic migration is an important strategy for men through-out rural towns and villages in India (Racine 1997) and the Labbais of Pattamadai are no exception. This is both because it is difficult to find jobs in Pattamadai and the possibilities of earning more are greater elsewhere. Even in households where the men can weave, they seek other sources of income, primarily from petty trade. Those men who migrate to work in the unorganised sector return to the village periodically for a few months when work is slack or to attend festivals and marriages. At such times they may take up weaving. Few Labbais do agricultural work, hardly any own agricultural land.

Men also migrate abroad for a few years and repatriate money. The most lucrative work is available in Middle Eastern countries. Such trips are only possible through specialist agents based in Chennai or Mumbai. The agent charges a commission for organising tickets, a job and necessary permits. While the returns are high, the initial capital outlay is a significant cost.

Certain occupations are considered ‘traditional’. These include mat weaving, trading and acting as ritual specialists. The ritual tasks include leading congregations in prayer, performing marriages, effecting reconciliations between estranged marital partners, and exorcism. As members of the group are also called upon to officiate at funerary rites, however, ritual specialisation contributes to the low status of Labbais among other Tamil Muslim groups. Additionally, payment for services in mosques and at household ceremonies and life-cycle events was irregular and sporadic, placing them within the poorest section of Muslim society (Fanselow 1989).

Ritual specialisation has, however, opened up new avenues. Some men make short trips to neighbouring nations outside the subcontinent where they act as ritual specialists in the homes of wealthy immigrant Tamil Muslims. They may also lead mosque congregations. From what I could gather, cash donations for these activities are generous. The cost of each trip is large but the returns can be high.



Households borrow money on interest from the rural non-formal credit sector to raise the capital outlay required for overseas migrations. Loans are rarely available from the formal sectors of the economy. Even money repatriated from abroad may not be enough to pay for marriage or other large expenses and equally not all men can get or want jobs abroad. In common with other parts of the country, chit fund schemes (Rotating Savings and Credit Associations or ROSCAs) are an important way of raising money.

A group of people, usually from the same caste or sub-group, join together and agree to contribute a fixed monthly sum (chit) for a predetermined number of months. The group is coordinated by one member who extracts a commission from each contribution. Each month the contributors bid to be allowed to take that month’s total contributions (less the commission). The highest bidder obtains the lump sum and their bid is distributed equally amongst the other contributors. Each contributor can only get the lump sum once.

The obvious problem with joining a chit scheme is that contributors get less money than they have put into the common pool. The commitment to paying a chit every month for a number of months is also difficult for a group whose lives are characterised by a lack of financial safety nets or economic security. People often borrow money to keep up with chit contributions. However, chit schemes allow a person with no other sources of liquidity to access large sums of money at short notice. This is what makes them so important and individuals often participate in several chit schemes simultaneously.

Household income generation activities and money repatriated by men working outside Pattamadai bring in regular sums of money for subsistence needs and help pay chit contributions. In most households, women and unmarried teenage daughters participate in productive activities in the domestic setting. Beedi rolling and mat weaving, the two main household activities, provide regular income as the worker is paid piece rates and usually, barring illnesses or marriages or festivals in the home, works everyday. Large sums of money for special consumption needs are accessed through male migration and ROSCAs described above.



Mat weaving can be seen as an embodied resource – a bodily technique, the knowledge of which stays with the person for life and can be activated in times of need. Thus men may weave in-between migratory trips or when business is slack and women who have stopped weaving may resume when there is a need. Even non-weaving households whose members do not express any intention of taking up weaving in the foreseeable future, are loath to sell loom components, many of which are difficult to replace. This underscores the importance of weaving as an important resource for the Labbais of Pattamadai.



Weavers have complex feelings about their work. Most weave what may be termed standardised mats – the patterns woven on the mat and the order in which they are woven are rarely varied. Some, however, occasionally weave special mats with innovative designs and colours. These special mats, though often submitted to awards competitions, are rarely woven just to increase earnings or receive external recognition. They form the subject of extensive and often highly technical discussion among weavers. They are an expression of creativity and individuality. At the same time, mat weaving is seen as difficult work especially where people perceive they have few alternative options. Narratives about weaving incorporate both these viewpoints though the idea of weaving as drudgery predominates everyday discussions about work.

Many males want to work outside Pattamadai. The weaver cannot be mobile. The very nature of his occupation requires his physical presence at the loom, which is firmly fixed in space. Men who become migrant workers, on the other hand, sample new experiences, difficult though their lives as migrants may be. Their narratives both reveal distaste for certain aspects of migration and pleasure in others. Women have fewer options due to restrictions on their working outside the home. Men work primarily in super-fine mat weaving, while women can be found throughout the weaving industry.

The choice of household based occupation – beedi rolling or mat weaving – is usually left to the woman, though especially in the case of unmarried girls, it is dependent on the availability of equipment and someone (usually the mother or a close relative) who can teach the requisite work. Income generation skills are seen as an insurance against hardship in the future and girls are taught more than one such skill. ‘A female child must know some handwork (kaithozhil). Boys can manage somehow or the other’.6 

Teaching within the home is informal. Youngsters learn by watching and occasionally receive direct instruction. Like mat weaving, beedi rolling too is an embodied resource albeit one which has the added advantage of requiring little specialised equipment. As long as one knows how to roll beedies and beedi companies in the area put out work, it is possible to earn some money. Beedi rolling has the added advantage of being a more mobile task than mat weaving and girls who leave Pattamadai after marriage often continue working for beedi companies.7 



In this section, I examine the interplay of the above strategies and issues through the detailed discussion of one household over a period of four years (1997-2001).8 

Bibi is a super-fine mat weaver. In 1997 her income from mat weaving amounted to around Rs 1000 a month. Bibi’s husband, Bhai, can weave but usually works outside Pattamadai. In 1997 he, along with his son and one of his sons-in-law, started a small shop in a South Indian town. The business failed and the group dispersed. Bhai returned to Pattamadai and his son and son-in-law moved to a North Indian city. The low-paid jobs they managed to find barely sufficed to meet their subsistence needs.



The failure of the business imposed severe financial strain on the household. This was exacerbated by the fact that Bhai’s sister wanted her daughter, who was betrothed to Bhai’s son, to be married soon. This was particularly important since the son had moved to the city where Bhai’s sister lived with her husband and daughters. After the marriage he could move into their house. In keeping with custom however, his marriage could not take place until all his sisters were married. A marriage was therefore arranged for Bibi and Bhai’s second daughter in 1998.

The household was unprepared for the cost of the daughter’s marriage. Following the failure of the shop, there was little extra money. They had to pledge half their house as collateral to borrow Rs 50,000 from a broker at 3% interest per month. They also joined two chit funds. Shortly after her marriage, Bibi’s daughter became pregnant. This imposed more debt as it is customary for her parents to bear all the costs of their daughters’ first pregnancy.

Bibi stepped up her production of mats. This exacerbated an eye condition but she felt she had little choice. Bhai went abroad several times for a few months each. He had to borrow money on interest to pay for tickets and other expenses. Even though he returned with significant sums, the nature of the trips was such that he could send no money to his household while away. This made things difficult in the short term.

During the six month period between mid-June 1999 and end January 2000, Bibi earned an average monthly income from mat weaving of around Rs 2500. However, the household’s monthly chit fund contribution subsumed a large proportion of her earnings, as did the need to raise money for tickets abroad for Bhai. The household also looked to the formal sectors of the economy for money. In 1999-2000, loans of Rs 10000 each were available to members of specially formed ‘self-help groups’ of female mat weavers. Bibi joined one such group. The loan was utilised in debt servicing.



The Labbais of Pattamadai live and work within a framework of relationships based on endogamy, group affiliation, occupation and religion. These frames define the larger identity of the group in relation to other groups, and are the basis on which important decisions at the household level, pertaining to members and their lives, are made. Constraints on the group include structural poverty and the lack of any financial security. High expectations of social consumption mean that the line between relative financial comfort and indebtedness is very thin. In order to cope with this, individuals and households adopt several strategies. These include tapping into available sources of credit, economic migration, participation in household industry including mat weaving and petty trade.

Bibi’s case shows that the income from mat weaving can be regular and not insubstantial. However, marriage and childbirth expenses impose a heavy burden on households. While mat weaving is a means of livelihood and self-expression, by its very nature, it can only bring in a certain amount of money. It takes at least a week to weave a fine mat and up to a month to weave a super-fine mat. Even though market demand for mats is high, household earnings from weaving are constrained by the availability of money for raw materials, the number of looms and the amount of space and the number of people able and willing to weave. The expectations regarding social consumption, especially mean that mat weaving can only be one livelihood choice among others, albeit a special choice, for the majority of the Labbai group in Pattamadai.



1. Fieldwork was carried out between 1997 and 2001. The research has been fully written up as a PhD thesis (Venkatesan 2001).

2. A discussion on the origins of the term Labbai and the historical usages of the term is beyond the scope of this paper. See Fanselow 1989, Bayly 1989, More 1997.

3. See Amalraj 1990.

4. There appears to be a significant increase in dowry demands over the years. An 80 old woman said that a nominal amount of Rs 1.50 was paid at her marriage 60 years ago; for her granddaughter’s wedding in 1998, the dowry demanded was Rs 50,000. Another woman in her late forties said that the dowry for her marriage 21 years ago was Rs 150 while for her daughter’s marriage in 1998, it was Rs 30,000. Even with the fall in the real value of the rupee, this represents a significant increase.

5. For anthropological studies of ROSCAs, see the edited volume by Ardener 1996 (1995).

6. ‘Penn pillaikku kai thozhil theriyannum, aann pillainga yeppadiyavadhu pozhaichuppanga.’ Maideen Bivi, Pattamadai, 2000.

7. Tirunelveli is among the most important centres in India for home-based beedi rolling and many beedi companies operate in the area including in Pattamadai (Gopal 1999). It is not only Labbai women who roll beedis; throughout the town women can be seen sitting in their houses or at doorsteps hard at work.

8. The names and specific identifying features of the household have been altered to protect people’s identities.



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