We need better policies for handicraft sector: Archana Shah, author

Handcrafted production is inherently eco-friendly; it employs more hands and still is not an organised sector.

Every region in India has its own distinctive raw materials, craft techniques, textiles, motifs and colour palettes.
Every region in India has its own distinctive raw materials, craft techniques, textiles, motifs and colour palettes.

“A once-nascent conversation about sustainability has evolved into a full-scale priority more so because handloom textiles are a central part of our future,” says Archana Shah in an interview with Vaishali Dar. In a career that spans four decades in design, the 64-year-old mentor, researcher and traveller has not just established her name as the founder of first textiles-based fashion brand Bandhej but finds a huge untapped potential in the textile industry. Kutch is her first love as the region finds prominence in her first book Shifting Sands Kutch: A Land in Transition written in 2013. Her never-ending fascination for traditional crafts and its potential is clearly demonstrated in a recent well-researched narrative titled Crafting a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices enriched with numerous artisans’ stories. Travelling through the length and breadth of the country, Shah tells us about the diversity of handcrafted textile processes and repurposing the abundant artisanal talent to rejuvenate the sector while combating climate change. Excerpts:

You have a deep insight into the different regions, artisan stories, yarns and textiles as evident in your book. What inspired you to write this?

Every region in India has its own distinctive raw materials, craft techniques, textiles, motifs and colour palettes. Patan in Gujarat is famous for its opulent double ikkat sarees, the patolas. The warp and weft are both tie-dyed according to a predetermined pattern and interlaced for design and takes six to eight months to create a patola saree. I am very fascinated with handcrafted textiles, more than this, the skill. All the glorious textiles have been spoken and written about, but nothing much about artisans who have created them. I wanted to tell their story. There has been a lot of conversation on how handcrafting is not viable any longer because artisans’ children don’t see any future or meaning in this. That’s not true. From 2018-20, I have travelled around to find out the ground reality inside the weaving centres, handloom projects, their ways, clothing, food, complexities, perspectives of people involved in the process, in the remote areas to know what artisans really want. This book has given a purpose to my wandering.

Kutch is covered prominently in your first book. This time, too, the cover features Lilaba Bhavubha Jadeja of Abdasa village in Kutch. Your fascination with Kutch and its people continues…

I have worked closely with the people of Kutch and love the land dearly. It’s a personal journey to the land to explore people, traditions and crafts, and the changes over the decades. The latest book shows a generation of textile teaching—a grandmother teaching the granddaughter who is equally interested in spinning. She is an educated girl yet interested in learning the age-old art of spinning cotton on peti charkha. The pictures align with my thoughts.

Can we say handloom has an upper hand in the fast fashion world?

A handcrafted product may produce five collections in a year, but fast fashion can produce 52 collections. The young who are talking about climate change have to be more responsible. Do you really need 500 shirts or 50 shirts in a wardrobe? These are the choices which one has to make. How much plastic waste and the use of inferior dyes is going in the landfill? Khadi as fabric lasted long, and we never bought 200 pairs of clothes. That’s what slow fashion is about, where you buy less and the best.

Handloom is more sustainable than factory-made fabric. Its strength lies in unique designs not easily replicated by power looms.

Yes, handlooms have a distinctive look and feel when compared to power looms. But we need all kinds of production so it is not one against the other. When power loom fabric is sold as handloom, I have an ethical issue. Handlooms cannot dress the world. We need different kinds of fabric for different markets. Power looms can be less polluting in their processes or in using natural dyes. Handcrafted has a human touch. The biggest support is marketing support for weavers. We need to create a distinctive new identity for handloom fabrics, to make them worth preserving.

So, is sustainable fashion more than a trend? What does the industry need to do to really become green?

Handcrafted production is inherently eco-friendly; it employs more hands and still is not an organised sector. Handcrafted products don’t use fossil fuel, but that does not mean all practices are green. Gradually people are realising what is polluting their land, food, and affecting their children. Small yet important initiatives in remote villages are bringing changes to processes and thoughts. For example, in the Himalayan region, where water is scarce, farmers have started using natural dyes so that the toxic waste water is chemical free and can be reused in the farm to grow vegetables. In Kutch, a village has stopped the use of naphthol dyes, instead introducing handmade dyes or installing effluent treatment plants to treat waste water. We are on the way to curb industrial pollution but there’s much more to be done.

What is a bigger factor threatening the traditional handwoven fabric: decline in demand or decline of weavers?

It is like a Catch-22. Weavers are declining because the demand in the market is such. If they have sustained work even after the pandemic, they will continue to produce. Urban centres have less work machines and are automated so less hands are used to man the machines. Migrant labourers have moved back to their villages. As a policy, we need a paradigm shift in the way we look at development in the sector. Why can’t we create work in villages? If we can provide a sustainable source of income in rural regions with basic facilities, there would be little reason to leave their hometowns or families. After agriculture, the handicraft sector is the second-largest sector in India so product development with the right narrative can help people buy handicrafts.

When you started the label Bandhej in 1985, the focus was on traditional textiles and a range of eco-friendly, handcrafted clothing for Indian women. What changes have you seen over the years?

More than the business, it is the brand’s confidence in artisan and their younger generation which has stood throughout. There is constant product development and a loyal handloom customer is always looking for authentic products.

In the journey of four decades, what are your takeaways for textiles as a designer, mentor, researcher and traveller. Which one have you enjoyed the most and why?

It is all interconnected and gives my travel a purpose. It’s an enthralling process—artisans at work, why they do things, patterns they choose, colours developed… The reason to jot all this down was the need to share what I have seen all along my close collaborative work with artisans. But one of the most encouraging takeaway from my travel was that money and crafts are now empowering women.

Climate change and unemployment are two challenges. How can the industry cope?

We all are in the middle of a crisis. More automation and artificial intelligence means all this is taking away the repetitive jobs, but 90% of the world earns bread and butter by doing these repetitive jobs. But the real issue is to work on policies and find a potential roadmap to uplift the sector.

Crafting a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices
Archana Shah
Niyogi Books
Pp 276, Rs 1,495

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