Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Handloom skills in an industrial age

Despite public perception, the Union textiles ministry, recently handed to Smriti Irani’s care, is hardly a comedown. It’s true that human resource development (HRD), her earlier portfolio, dictates India’s future, but textiles are a major part of our present. They encompass the lives of the largest number of people after agriculture, including some of the most marginalized and exploited: handloom weavers of course, but also mill and power-loom workers, and the labour in our garment sweatshops—often daily wagers, therefore totally unprotected by either unions or social security.

Sadly, handloom, power-loom and the big textile mills are not harmonious bedfellows. They cater to the same clientele, but have few common interests. For handlooms, power-looms are an ever-looming threat, making cloth cheaper and faster, and eating into their rural and small-town markets. For the big mills, power-loom is also the gadfly, as low production costs enable it to effectively undercut them. Nevertheless, it’s the big mills that tend to have the money and connections, and therefore the government’s ear.

In the textiles ministry, these three sectors vie with one another for concessions and attention. It’s a tussle in which handloom, very much the poor country cousin, is generally the loser. A friendly bureaucrat once told us, “Government responds to a voice that is loaded." Handloom has neither cash nor clout.

What it does have is extraordinary design and skill traditions that are unique and cannot be produced by any other method; the ability to make each individual piece unique and different—all with very low infrastructural costs. Mill cloth, for example, would have to produce a run of several hundred metres before recovering the cost of changing a design, texture, or even a colourway. Handloom can do this in a single warp. In a consumer society where everyone wants something “exclusive", let us exploit this advantage.

Last year, when Dastkar, a non-profit organization working with Indian crafts and artisans, and others from the handloom sector campaigned against changes to the Handlooms (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act, 1985, even sympathetic government officials couldn’t see what the fuss was about. The power-loom lobby wanted the Act to be withdrawn as it protects traditional handlooms, especially saris, from being copied by their power-loom competitors. “If power-loom can make cloth cheaper and faster, why preserve handloom…?" was the common response. One power-loom lobbyist said, “We have progressed from the firewood chulha to gas and electric stoves. If we need to hang on to technologies from our grandparents’ times, it is a mark of regression. Our children will laugh at us." Another claimed that “the customer prefers the cheaper power-loom sari".

We need to challenge that statement. First, it is not an either/or—there is place both for power-loom and handloom. India’s consumer base is diverse and multilayered, and though handlooms have lost some rural customers, there is a growing demand for this amazing fabric in the urban and international market. Over the last five years, the sale of handlooms has actually increased. Avid bulk buyers at Dastkar, Sanatkada and Crafts Council exhibitions bear witness to this. Globally too, as an understanding of the design versatility and “green" values of handspun and handwoven textiles grows, more and more international buyers are looking to India as a source. How tragic then if we allow it to die instead of investing in its potential.

Second, to say that we don’t need handlooms because we have power-looms is really absurd. To take the chulha analogy, it’s like saying that because we have microwave ovens, we don’t need tandoors! Each serves its own unique purpose, and it’s the Indian tandoor, not the microwave, that creates our unique Indian cuisine and draws tourists and foodies. The handloom creates thousands of one-of-a-kind weaves, motifs and textures that no power-loom can replicate—a wonderful tactile drape that is irreplaceable.

And guess what? Handloom doesn’t only mean Fabindia kurtas, saris and being boringly “ethnic". Think furnishing fabrics, men’s shirts, and those palazzos and asymmetrical skirts everyone is wearing.

However, access to credit and markets are not the only requirements if this potential is to be realized. We need investment in both infrastructure and the fabric itself—handloom drapes beautifully but does not lend itself to well-stitched garments. India’s once-inspirational Weavers’ Service Centres, which helped mentor and invigorate weavers, their technology and skill sets, need to come alive again before we start sending Western-wear designers to Varanasi.

Albert Einstein warned: “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots." In chasing technological dreams, we should not forget the power and creativity of the human hand. It is India’s strength that we have hand skills while successfully being part of an industrial age.

The writer is the chairperson of Dastkar, a society for crafts and craftspeople.

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