Artisanship barely exists in modern India: Rahul Jain
Why what most of what we call handmade in India is semi-industrial and why the powerloom industry needs equal support
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One of India’s best-known design practitioners and historians of textile arts, Rahul Jain believes there is an enormous overlap between the artisanal and the industrial. Jain, who has run a workshop of traditional drawlooms in Varanasi for 20 years, is an advisor to numerous museums and crafts archives. He argues that authentic artisanship only exists now in minuscule ways and it may be prudent to nurture that while supporting the powerloom industry, which shares processes with the handmade. A 2015 Padma Shri awardee, Jain explains in this interview why the ongoing war cry about saving handlooms translates into misplaced rhetoric. Edited excerpts:
The rhetoric around the handmade is rising by the day. But in real terms, where does India stand in this conundrum?
As a nation still grappling with substantial poverty, we have the luxury to preserve and promote handlooms and handicrafts whose makers are often seriously underprivileged with little say in the matter themselves. Yes, we still have pockets of what would be considered ‘artisanal’ today in Indian hand-making, but large urban segments are now better described as a modern, semi-mechanized industry, where human hands are merely put through the motions of making. Take khadi for instance. Even today, few are aware that nearly all the lighter, finer types of khadi yarn are spun on the ambar charkha, a retrogressive entry of a modern mill technology into artisanal hand-spinning. Producing yarn on the ambar charkha is like manually hauling a tractor without a fuel tank and calling the land hand-tilled. This is not to say that its introduction was a wrong policy decision, but we need an awareness of the difference between artisanal hand-making and the larger contemporary business of the so-called ‘handmade’ and ‘handcrafted’ today.
Are you saying that a lot of what is passed off as handwoven actually originates in powerloom production and there is a huge overlap between them?
Handmaking has indeed become quasi-industrialized, so ‘handmade’ and ‘handcrafted’ are not strictly accurate terms. This is because traditional hand-made textiles have increasingly absorbed materials and processes from modern mechanized technologies. Although 21st century India has inherited a vast enterprise of hand-making, a burgeoning consumerist market has forced production toward largish, sometimes factory-sized, workshops, with a wholesale use of industrial fabrics, yarns and dyes and even near-mechanized processes, in order to speed up output and standardize ‘quality’: a model borrowed from the modern mechanized industry in the first place, and one that is at odds with the artisanal. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that these near-industrial spaces should be so easily invaded by powerlooms, large-scale embroidery machines, digital printing etc., all of which, as currently adapted, are in fact reasonably labour-intensive technologies in their own right. It is becoming difficult to differentiate between handloom and powerloom textiles. To confuse this reality with any serious notion of contemporary artisanship is a mistake.
How would you then define artisanship in this day and age?
Artisanship reflects making what conforms to the potential, the contours and the constraints of the human body. It is the maker’s immersion in the process, with its shades of dhyana, sadhana—what is now being called ‘flow’—which is distinctive. This immersiveness makes it human. That’s perhaps why the so-called ‘arts’ and ‘crafts’ were perceived as a single continuum in older cultures. I once thought this really overstates the case. But over the years I have invariably sensed an inward focus in older artisans, a certain bodily centring, a stunning economy of purpose and action: qualities often missing today from the handmade and handcrafted. Those artisans went about their work with an artless physical ease, with unselfconscious dedication and surrender. The body with its finely-tuned senses, its sensitivity and expressiveness, is the primal site for making or creating. It is our primary technology. The artisanal carries, each time, a unique human signature: an imprint, whether strong or subtle, of the sensitive human body. It must bring a sense of well-being both to the maker and the user. The best analogy perhaps is the food prepared by a homemaker for the sustenance, health, and enjoyment and well-being of a family—an intimate process free from the stress of productivity and standardization.
Can you give us an example of artisanship in the current Indian textile industry?
I can recall one relatively recent artisanal process: the spinning of native Indian cotton varieties in Srikakulam and Ponduru in eastern Andhra Pradesh. There, hand-spinning has remained a highly immersive activity, in which village women congregated in the afternoons to share talk and sing songs, all the while carding, combing and spinning the cotton with characteristic facility and unselfconsciousness. I can also tell you of my first meeting with the last of the great traditional pattern-makers, Naqshband, of Banaras silk-weaving, the most technologically complex of all Indian silk-weaving. His acute understanding of his traditional art, his sense of dignity, and his bodily repose were that of a Sufi master.
If many powerloom workers are ex-handloom weavers, hasn’t their movement caused a loss to our hand-making tradition?
Yes, many who now work powerlooms are former handloom weavers. Certainly, that can be viewed as a loss. With the exodus of handloom weavers, skills have been lost too. It is important to recognize, nonetheless, that what has survived in much of modern Indian hand-making is a more or less superficial, if continuing, impression of a historical tradition, as materials, processes, and even skills have irreversibly changed. We now need to view this hand-making firmly as a modern industry, which is distinct from small pockets of artisanship. In this modern industry, given the promise of better wages, weavers will move easily from handlooms to powerlooms but rarely vice versa. Also, they will easily leave the industry to take up unskilled labour if schemes like MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) offer a better daily wage. It is easy to judge and bemoan these choices from a comfortable distance, but for poorer weavers, this might well be the only choice.
Are handloom workers and handicraft artisans frequently underpaid and exploited?
Modern India has hugely undervalued its traditional craftsmanship and seriously underpaid its craftspeople. Let me put it this way: if equitability was a real concern in India, say, via a wage increase that reflects a 21st century valuation of traditional crafts skills and labour, a lot of private players in the field would simply exit. Their profits would fall dramatically.
Do you think this loud war cry to save the handlooms is misplaced?
I see in it a fundamental confusion about the nature and conditions of Indian hand-making today. It is important to recognize that handlooms don’t clothe India anymore. Powerlooms do. It is estimated that powerlooms weave 85% of what India wears. As the population rises to 1.4 billion, this gap will widen until handlooms barely matter in terms of volume. The two segments can be no longer viewed as competitive. For their sheer employment and income generation potential, both need support. My pitch is to recognize artisanship and attempt to nurture it, perhaps even generate ‘new traditions’ of artisanship, within a fresh, contemporary framework. The new Indian artisan, whether of traditional lineage or not, may well need to be nurtured, promoted and treasured in an altogether new landscape of making and using. As for the rest, it is more important to save, or to support human dignity than to debate about saving handlooms or restricting powerlooms.
This is as much of civilizational project for our time as it is an arena for private enterprise or government policy.