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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Weaving a new framework for handloom

The first anniversary of the National Handloom Day, observed on the 7th of this month in Varanasi, saw attention and fuss by the Union textiles ministry. A number of initiatives were announced, including a promising memorandum of understanding that would link weavers with fashion designers, a relationship that has always existed in multiple win-lose formats. That it now inspires political ownership suggests both market and marketing value.

What must really be cheered, however, is how India’s “otherness", its hand-weaving industry gutted in doomed village industries, has become the transition point to contemporary relevance. Everywhere in the world, industrialization has been the port of transition; in India, tradition is taking us forward. Crucial insights lie in transitions, because they uniquely mix problems and solutions, telling us what to keep and what to discard.

Those worried that this is a Luddite revival because it is anti-machine and thus not “modern" may want to challenge what Luddite as well as modernity mean here. Modernity in fabric is essentially about functionality and tasteful restraint. Handloom has the potential for both.

Sanjay Garg’s show Mashru, which opened the Amazon India Fashion Week last October.
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Sanjay Garg’s show Mashru, which opened the Amazon India Fashion Week last October.

Also, a handloom revival does not deny the existence of machines. It only enhances a cultural specificity, revealing the skein of what Rajeev Sethi of the Asian Heritage Foundation terms “our cultural and creative industries". At a time when distinction is hammered out by the sameness of uniformly available, if trendy, products, handloom establishes a sense of identity. It keeps diversity intact by incorporating design experiments. It calls for the sustenance of the environment and of Khadi, which could again become India’s Handloom No.1, and the inclusion of women into the weaving workforce. It positions India uniquely, as every writer here has argued.

While the textile industry employs over 45 million people, the handloom sector employs around 4.3 million. According to the annual Union textile ministry report, 2015-16, there are 2.37 million handlooms. Earlier news reports suggested the North-Eastern states alone had 2.16 million weavers; and till a few years ago at least, 99% of the weavers in the region were women.

The resurgence now also indicates the expansion of the middle class. Through its changing aesthetic and its increasing affordability, it is aping the elite. Handlooms are expensive, they fall and feel differently and are not as easy to maintain as shiny, synthetic fabrics. Even so, more people appreciate them. A lift operator in the Hindustan Times building told one of my colleagues that Khadi had become a “rich people’s fabric". He understood the irony.

A weaver at work in Phulia, West Bengal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
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A weaver at work in Phulia, West Bengal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

This edition, a journalistic exploration of some current issues, looks at handloom the subset and not textiles the superset. There are no reports on dyeing and printing, yarn and fibre, embroidery skills and embellishment traditions or synthetic textiles. Among fashion designers, the focus is only on those who have had sustained handloom interactions.

Mint Lounge journalists travelled to West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for updates on the once successful stories of Phulia Tangail, Maheshwar and Telia Rumal. Some of the most relevant voices in the sector too have shared their viewpoints here. In a persuasive interview, a doctoral scholar of India’s innovative looms explains why Big Business needs weavers, including the examples they set in ethical integrity.

There is no denying that the younger generation among weavers everywhere is despondent. But despite the threat from the power-loom sector, the tide seems to be turning—in some places, due to inventive interventions by fashion designers; elsewhere, due to education, entrepreneurial training and social media linkages. Khadi sales went up by 29% in 2015-16.

Resuscitating handlooms, though, is never going to be just about the fabric or making a Madras Check jacket for US Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It will mean closing the gap between the middle class and the weaver class with Swachh Bharat plans, bijli, paani, roti and makaan. The basics. Only then will kapda wear well.

Also read:

Khadi: Handspun, handwoven and always on a see-saw

The India Handloom Brand needs to create bridges with multiple stakeholders

How the Phulia Tangail went from boom to bust

Learning the weft and weight of weaving in Maheshwar

Telia Rumal: Is the tide turning?

Handloom in fashion design

Steps ahead of the ‘charkha’ century

To read more stories from the issue, click here.

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