The most troubling of the issues is the wide pay gap they face when fashion houses fail to remunerate them fairly for their work. But help has come from unexpected quarters, ensuring not just fair pay, but a voice for the community as well.
India’s handloom story goes back thousands of years. Archaeological surveys, in fact, show that people of the Harappan civilisation knew how to weave. References to weaving and spinning materials can also be found in Vedic literature. It’s no wonder then that, over the years, the Indian handloom industry has taken major strides. Sadly, however, the same can’t be said of weavers in the country, who continue to face hardship not just because theirs is an unregulated sector, but also because they suffer at the mechanised hands of industrialisation (read: power loom products). But most troubling is the huge pay gap they face, wherein mass producers of fashion acquire their exquisite works for a paltry sum, selling it, in turn, at exorbitant rates.
So grim is the scenario, in fact, that many weavers today encourage their children to take up other professions. “I’m a fourth-generation karigar (artisan). This (weaving) is what I have done all my life, but I would never ask my sons to choose this profession,” says 56-year-old Abid Siddiqui, who makes a living as a weaver of Benarasi silk saris in Varanasi to support a family of seven. Siddiqui’s story could be of any weaver in the country.
But help can come from unexpected quarters, like some entrepreneurs who are doing their bit to bring weavers into the mainstream and ensuring that they get remunerated fairly for their work. One of them is Udyan Singh. A Banka-based social entrepreneur, he founded Banka Silk, a non-profit organisation, which works for the betterment of weavers across Bihar, in 2012. A civil engineer by qualification, the 35-year-old says he founded Banka Silk to develop a handloom cluster (several weavers working under the same umbrella, which ensures fixed wages, supply to mass producers, etc) and an ecosystem to support handloom research, design and creation, as well as to train and empower local artisans and craftsmen in Bihar. “I wanted to make a change to the lives of hundreds of weavers in Bihar. With exposure through events like exhibitions, they could earn more for their hard work,” says Singh.
Recently, in fact, the NGO joined hands with Avinash Pathania and Kiran Kheva, the organisers of the fashion week, India Runway Week, which was held in the national capital in April. As part of the collaboration, over 40,000 weavers who work with Banka Silk got the chance to sell their work directly to fashion designers at prices deliberated by them. As a result, the weavers made a direct profit without the involvement of any middlemen. “The authentic handloom fabric, acquired from Banka Silk through weavers in Bihar, was bought at the weavers’ price,” explains Avinash Pathania, founder, Indian Federation for Fashion Development (IFFD), which organises India Runway Week. Founded in 2012, the IFFD is aimed at facilitating action and inspiring growth in the fashion industry. The collaboration with Banka Silk, says Pathania, bridged the gap between designers and weavers—it promoted local artisans, while providing quality handloom fabrics to fashion designers without them having to visit any stores. That’s not all. Banka Silk also signed agreements with around 30 participating fashion designers, giving them access to pure handloom fabrics at weavers’ price for the designers’ future works.
Another social entrepreneur working towards the uplift of weavers is Mumbai-based costume designer and stylist Nikhat Mariyam Neerushaa, who, earlier this year, founded the Roots in India initiative for weavers across India with the aim to provide them financial support, work, etc. Neerushaa’s programme, however, goes beyond buying, selling and providing market access to artisans by helping them in other ways as well. In Rajasthan, for instance, Neerushaa ensured that the weavers received water for dyeing clothes. “The welfare of artisans can’t be ensured by solely selling their wares. They have other needs too,” says the 44-year-old, adding, “Every state has a different set of problems… If the Rajasthanis have a water crisis, others suffer from poor access to sanitation, healthcare, education, etc. One can’t just buy their craft and pretend to help them. A focused effort from the government is what they really require.”
The costume designer, who condemns the way local artisans are overcharged for setting up stalls in exhibitions and trade fairs (upto Rs 1.5 lakh per stall), suggests allowing them to set these up free of cost to promote their craft.
Talking about the germination of Roots in India, Neerushaa says after working for 18 years, she decided to take a year-long break in 2017, during which time she met handloom weavers from across India. And that’s what led to the genesis of Roots in India. “I had reached a point of saturation, which became worse when I lost my mother. That’s when I knew it was time for me to give back,” says Neerushaa, who plans to present a project report to the Union government soon with extensive data on Indian weavers collected during her hiatus. “I am not against the efforts of the government, but I want them to participate in this more proactively,” says Neerushaa, who was awarded the Dada Saheb Phalke Award this year titled ‘Heritage Indian Textile Reviver’. She was recognised for her contribution towards the revival of Indian textile heritage.
Then there is the Pollachi-based husband-wife duo of Mani Chinnaswamy and Vijaylaxmi Nachiar. From encouraging farmers to set up the country’s first organic cotton farm in Pollachi, Coimbatore, to creating a sustainable fashion brand, the duo is making all the right noises with their venture Ethicus. One of the most significant aspects of their sustainable fashion brand is how each product (mainly saris and blouses) carries a tag with details of where the cotton was grown, who the artisans were and how many days it took them to complete the garment. This is especially significant, given the fact that the textile value chain is hard to track, as the material goes through the hands of hundreds of people before the final product is ready. That’s one of the main reasons why they wanted consumers to attach an identity to the nameless, faceless weavers, says Nachiar. “We want people to wake up and recognise the effort that artisans put into creating each product,” says the sexagenarian, who established Ethicus (an amalgamation of ‘ethics’ and ‘us’) with Chinnaswamy in 2009.
Hailing from a family that has been rooted in the cotton business (they have owned cotton mills in Tamil Nadu for over three generations), Nachiar made use of her master’s degree in textiles and clothing to back Ethicus. A ‘Made in India’ brand, their ethos is firmly based in reviving the traditional textile heritage of India. Taking pride in the fact that they got into the business when ‘sustainable fashion’ was not even a rage, Nachiar says, “Our fascination with textiles was inherent. Even then, we were keenly aware of the resources we used and our carbon footprint. After the switch to organic cotton, our process may be slow, but our products are of the highest quality, and our designs are timeless.”
Nachiar ensures that a minimum of two collections are brought out every year under Ethicus—for summer and winter. These are available through exhibitions in India and abroad, and retailed from select stores across the country, as well as online. “We would like to foray into ready-made garments in the future and are also looking at expanding our business online,” says Nachiar, who wants Indian women to rediscover the joy of wearing a sari. “Through Ethicus, we are trying to bring the humble cotton to the forefront of sustainable fashion by taking it to boardrooms, parties, social events and even to weddings,” she says.
But nowhere is the plight of artisans as grim as in conflict-ridden Jammu & Kashmir. Famous for their own style of intricate embroidery and winterwear, Kashmiri handloom artisans need not just an outlet for their work, but for their voice as well. And channeling some of their concerns through her work is fashion designer Leena Singh (of the Delhi-based fashion label Ashima Leena), who, in March this year, brought out a collection to pay tribute to the weavers of the state.
The Kashmir-centric collection, ‘The Reversible Shawl’ (which consists of shawls, suit pieces, etc, made from Jamavar silk), was created after visiting the artisans’ homes several times over the course of the past year, says Singh. Several months went into the exhaustive research, and in the designing and creation of each shawl, with Singh closely supervising the cuts and patterns for the Jamavar silk she sourced from J&K. The fabrics used in the collection carry Singh’s designs, with hand-embroidered beadwork and tassels by Kashmiri weavers. The term, ‘reversible shawl’, with a rough side and a glamorous one, is, in fact, a metaphor for the artisans who toil with the designer to shape every creation. “With this collection, we wanted to move beyond the glamourous world of films and cinema to mirror the dark world of artisans and craftsmen, especially from the Valley,” says Singh.
Her brand Ashima Leena, which has been around for close to three decades now, is known for its fashion-forward approach, but Singh now wants to dial it back a few notches to be able to resonate with regional artisans. She also plans to continue working with Kashmiri weavers and is hopeful that her customers would commission several pieces in the coming winter. These pieces will carry her design/motifs and the artisans’ handiwork, resulting in them being remunerated for the same. “You can’t take their art away from them by reproducing it in a factory,” says Singh.