It is said that India makes 95 per cent of the world’s handmade textiles, a glorious testament to our 2,000-year-old craft heritage, unique to each geographical community within the country. This diversity in textiles and superior artistry of craftsmen is unmatched elsewhere. Despite the magnitude and importance of the handloom sector, hand craftsmanship is on the decline. According to 4th All India Handloom Census 2019-2020, the country is home to over 3.5 million handloom workers today (down from 6.5 million in 1995-96), which includes both weavers and ancillary workers.
So, five years ago, August 7 was anointed National Handloom Day to create awareness about this very industry—a date holding special significance, as it was when the Swadeshi Movement was launched in 1905 to protest against the British government.
The need of the hour are urgent reforms and upgrades to ensure sustainability and longevity for artisans at the grassroots level. More so, as the 28-year-old All India Handloom Board, that was created in 1992 to advise the government on the development of the sector and protect the interest of weavers and SMEs, was disbanded in late July this year. Vogue dials three experts to understand just how this can be achieved.
Ramesh Menon: “We need to celebrate handlooms every day”
Menon is the founder of Save The Loom—a non-profit community to revive, restore and restructure the handloom industry in India
“Handlooms have been on a decline over the decades. This is a generational skill but lack of income (67 per cent of weavers earn less than Rs 5,000 a month) and absence of dignity of labour are deterring the current generation from entering the industry. In the last 10 years alone, we’ve lost 8,00,000 weavers.
“The problems are layered. Despite multiple bodies, government schemes and funds geared at holistic change, long-term benefits don’t trickle down to the artisans. Handloom hubs like West Bengal, Orissa, Assam and Kerala are recurrently prone to natural disasters. For instance, nearly 48,000 weavers were affected by the Assam floods last year but there has been no campaign to safeguard them. Women make up 72 per cent of the workforce, and the immediate concern is hygienic working conditions with washrooms, natural light and airflow for them.
“So, change is required at multiple levels simultaneously—while designers have played their part in creating an awakening about handlooms, we need a supply chain based on fair wages and rightly priced products keeping in mind that handmade products will be limited in quantity. Social impact pricing where the artisan’s wages are fixed first (and not last) can make a difference.
“We need to improve the infrastructure and make it aspirational. For instance, we have collaborated with architect Vinu Daniel for our upcoming museum-cum-weaving-centre in Chendamangalam, Kerala where visitors can learn about handloom history and watch craftsmen in action. Another solution is to have designers spend a few days with weaving communities to upskill them in creating newer, more relevant prototypes. There are several small private labels that work with craftsmen while also sharing revenue with them. We have also worked on a collection of saris with a transparent price structure. Every tag carries a narrative to give customers an insight into the price breakup as well as a bio on the weaver who made it. These templates can be replicated all over the country.
“There are ample patrons globally who are keen to experience Indian handloom products. Since the practitioners are limited, we need to celebrate handlooms every day and create interlinks for their artistry to thrive.”
Mayank Mansingh Kaul: “Practitioners of handlooms have to be given the dignity and recognition that they deserve”
Mansingh Kaul is a Delhi-based curator and writer who is currently curating an exhibition of Indian saris from the late 19th century to now for The Registry of Sarees, Bengaluru
“Indian handlooms are as diverse as our regional geographies and cultures. While they are declining in most parts of the country, they are also providing new means of employment and creative production (even if on relatively smaller scales) in other parts. Weaves can offer limitless potential as resources for innovation to designers if explored further. But weavers and practitioners of handlooms have to be given the dignity and recognition that they deserve. For far too long, their skills have been seen as mere tools for designers and artists. We also need their voices to be heard, rather than only those of facilitators who often represent and work with them. Further, both at the governmental and private level, regular gathering of statistical information is required to understand the real situation on ground with regards to production, markets and quality. This can be further leveraged for the creation of policies as well as local and national organisations which can stand for the handloom sector.
“To the consumers I’d say: Buy handloom products from companies which are transparent about their practises. In fact, demand this! Be willing to pay higher for handmade products. Take an interest in travelling to handloom centres and buying directly from there. Educate and create awareness in your own circle of friends, colleagues and families about keeping the handloom economy alive. Every handloom supports a range of practitioners other than the weaver too—such as cotton or silk cultivators/farmers, spinners of yarn, dyers and so on. So every time one buys a handloom product, we are supporting an entire chain and ecology.”
Rta Kapur Chishti: “The industry needs support by those who commission handloom textiles for high quality work”
Kapur Chishti is an author, researcher and editor known for her work on tomes like Handcrafted Indian Textiles – Tradition & Beyond and Saris of India (both of which include bibliographies on Indian handlooms).
“The Indian handloom industry is in a state of disarray as all high-skilled but slow-producing techniques are being replaced by more mechanised procedures. Therefore, quality of basic fabrics suffers, pattern elements become enlarged and space filling rather than fulfil a function for an end-use, which could be unstitched or stitched for apparel or home. The industry needs support by those who commission handloom textiles for high quality work that cannot be easily replicated by mechanised systems. Consumers can shop in a way that the artisans receive the benefits by asking for superior textiles or showing their heirlooms to those who can either weave them or have them woven with the specific quality of design, materials, weight or drape they are looking for.”