By Laila Tyabji
Two successive years of COVID and lockdowns have changed the Indian economy – destroying lives and livelihoods as a consequence. The handloom sector has been no exception – weaver communities all over India have been decimated.
Mohd Dilshad is a handloom weaver from Chanderi, weaving diaphanous, gold-edged sarees spelling summer and celebration. Today his story is bleaker. “Last year,” he recounted, “we were short of food, we didn’t have money for new production. These days we are worried about life and death. The Corona virus reached our villages. It was everywhere, and there is no nearby hospital, no proper medical supplies. 12 artisans died in the first fortnight. 200 more got infected the following day.”
His story is only one of hundreds of handloom communities across India. Tragically, this year Covid struck the hinterland, with districts and villages everywhere in the grip of sickness and death. With few proper medical facilities, the percentage of deaths was proportionately high. The weaver community in Kota had 160 deaths, a tiny village in Barmer had 80. In an Odisha, a 100 out of 500 infected sabai grass-weavers died. A durry weaving cluster in UP had 250 deaths. In Andhra, among handloom weavers, one in every 8 cases proved fatal. The sad stories poured in – from Uttarakhand, Bihar, Kutch, Bengal, Kashmir, …..
There is a silver lining. Over and over, during floods, cyclones and droughts, in Orissa, Bihar and Bengal and the 2001 Kutch earthquake, craftspeople show a resilience and recovery quicker than the average industrial enterprise. The investment required for infrastructure, raw material, tooling etc is comparatively small, and the skills already exist in their hands and heads. They are an ideal sector for regenerating livelihoods and incomes. What WE need to do is give them the support and marketing.
Handlooms are the warp and weft of India – our culture and aesthetics are rooted in its threads. Each fabric tells a story; the raw material, motif and design rooted in the landscape and community.
Often forgotten is that handlooms are also a major part of our economy. Weavers form India’s second largest employment sector. Including the numerous ancillary workers involved – the loom makers, the spinners, those setting the warp, those washing and starching the fabric, those transporting and selling it- the numbers go into countless millions. They are professionals whose knowledge systems and skillsets that are unique to India, unparalleled in the world, with a minimal carbon imprint; perfectly suited to local conditions and production systems. A gold mine.
Every year at this time, the Textile Minister sends out a letter to chosen influencers, urging them to promote handlooms on Handloom Day. Everyone – film-stars, tycoons, politicians, socialites – posts selfies of themselves wearing beautiful Patolas, Banarsis, and Kanjeeverams, with ILoveHandlooms hashtags. But handloom and the weavers who weave it need more than a one-day Love Fest.The rest of the year they remain unseen, voiceless and outside mainstream politics and policies – dismissed as part of our cultural past, seldom regarded as a asset for our economic future.
We need to begin with the basics – appropriate yarn, investment in design, product development, entrepreurship, textile technology, dyeing, washing, and packaging facilities, access to credit and markets…. Production and demand hand in hand.
Do people still want to buy handloom? An intricately woven FORTY LAKH Kanjeeveram sari recently found its way into the Guinness Book of Records and Nita Ambani’s cupboard. One brand alone, FABINDIA, consumes over 15 million metres of handloom annually. So many moribund weaving traditions have recently found a revival – Habaspuri, Dongria, Ilkil, Bomkai, Begumpuri, Kotpad, Bhagalpur, Tangaliya,Bavan-Buti, Kunbi, Baluchari…. There’s even a newly evolved and hugely popular sari – the Bhujodi, whose weavers previously made heavy goats wool shawls. The Western shift from fast fashion and mass production to green, organic, and ethically produced products is a contributing factor. Designers like Abraham & Thakore,Sanjay Garg, Neeru Kumar and Bappaditya Biswas have made their names with handloom. A new generation of young weavers are suddenly seeing a future.
We need to cherish and protect these unique skill sets; honouring and investing in their makers. People cite Nita Ambani’s bejewelled 40 lakh sari but no one remembers the names of the weavers who wove it. Its lack of social acceptence that causes weavers to leave the sector, not because no one wants handloom. Handloom’s survival depends on so many external factors – market linkages, access to education, finance, design and market information, the know-how to develop new fabrics for Western cuts and stitched garments….
Francois de Laval, the French traveller commented in the 17th century that “Everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, is clothed from head to foot in the product of Indian looms” It could happen again. But every day needs to be Handloom Day!
(Laila Tyabji is Chairperson and Founder Member of DASTKAR Society for Crafts & Craftspeople. Views expressed are the author’s own.)