Discussion about India’s handloom heritage swings between extremes. Some influential minds would have us believe that handloom fabric is doomed to extinction, given the versatility, speed and economy of computerized production on power-looms. A contrasting conviction is of the millions dependent on India’s second largest source of livelihood, serving a huge market at home and abroad, and creating what for some is “the world’s greatest fabric".

There is a third argument, less heard yet probably of greatest import. It regards handloom as symbolic of an alternative paradigm of human development, placing human and planetary well-being at the centre of concern. In this perspective, the Indian handloom is more than a tool. It emerges as a composite world view, a culture, and as a resource of wisdom and innovation that can respond to contemporary challenges with extraordinary creativity.

A look from a péro runway show by Aneeth Arora
A look from a péro runway show by Aneeth Arora

A middle path must find its way through the debate and into the marketplace, where the user is judge and jury. So who needs or demands handmade fabric? Can demand be built over competition from mass-produced imitations and alternatives? What does “handmade" actually mean in this age of mixed skills, materials and technologies?

The answers should come from the buyer and the weaver, yet both voices are stifled. The extinction argument is the one proclaimed loudest by lobbies claiming to speak for the consumer, though without any mandate from him/her. Their political clout is not matched by activists and aesthetes inspired by the “charkha century", or by the discipline of mainstream economics that is largely unaware of the crafts sector as an antidote to jobless growth.

Shibori and silk saris by designer Neeru Kumar. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Shibori and silk saris by designer Neeru Kumar. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Research-backed, demand-driven handloom strategies are nowhere in sight. The sector’s last marketing genius was Mahatma Gandhi. He changed the tastes of a nation through a handloom revolution that gave the 20th century its grandest design story. That message echoed after independence. Pioneers like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar made the handmade indispensable to defining who we are and who we want to be—until globalization and “liberalization" cloned Indian dreams into Shanghai and Silicon Valley fantasies. The handloom became an embarrassment when technology could deliver facsimiles at a fraction of the cost, and to uniform, mass-market standards. In shops stacked with mass-produced imitations, few could discern the difference. So why care? It was time for heritage to move off the body and into museums.

In 2012, these arguments led to an outrageous decision (fuelled by pressure from the power-loom lobby to scrap the Handlooms Reservation Act, 1985) to fix electric motors on handlooms. The announced intention was to reduce drudgery, increase earnings and liberate the poor weaver. At one stroke, millions of handlooms would become power-looms and heritage skills could be lost, perhaps forever. Protests across the country finally led to an assurance from the Prime Minister’s Office that the definition of handloom would “remain in the purest form". Soon, a handloom blitz was to be launched from Varanasi—a new Prime Minister’s constituency and home to the ultimate symbol of India’s craft genius. Fashion galas have followed, all with the objective of “lifting global handloom demand". Politics has forced the doomsday scenario into the wings. There, however, its whispers continue unabated.

Yarn being dyed in Phulia, West Bengal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Yarn being dyed in Phulia, West Bengal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Market demand is and will remain at the heart of this issue. Given the scale of the handloom industry and the market, the absence of serious research over almost seven decades is truly astounding. A fabric some consider the finest and others regard as terminally ill has been produced, sold, imitated, dumped, defended and promoted at the highest level without clear “demand evidence or supply response".

At a mega event in Mumbai, a design icon demanded to know what all the fuss was about. There was, she claimed, no lack of demand for quality handloom, either at home or overseas. “There is zero resistance on price. Buyers pay for quality. I can sell whatever I make, and I can sell it all at home. I don’t bother about exports." Her constraints were all in the supply chain, and in the appalling poverty that claims most Indian artisans. Bottlenecks in yarn delivery, transportation, poor market knowledge leading to confusion about consumer preferences, inadequate access (to credit, design, intellectual property rights and technical services), a reservation law that is seldom implemented, dumping from East Asia, dreadful conditions of work and living—all offered testimony to decades of schemes that have failed to deliver. The need was management, not five-star hoopla.

Yarn being dyed in Phulia, West Bengal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Yarn being dyed in Phulia, West Bengal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

If the future is a land we cannot visit, another generation of weavers must resolve the argument. Some are indeed exercising the option of exiting from a hereditary profession. So are their peers elsewhere. Others long to remain in the tradition of their ancestors, but with hope and dignity. Both demand new knowledge and access to its sources. Investment in entrepreneurship is a first essential. Professionalism could end the dreadful tradition of handloom fabric promoted as a rebate opportunity, signalling a product to be bargained down and treated as charity, not as “the world’s greatest fabric", with USPs that youth can recognize as simultaneously economic, social, political, environmental, cultural, even spiritual. And not just at the high end: The humble gamchha has a hugely profitable local market.

Even as jobless growth stares India in the face, cynics continue to suggest that anything the hand can do, technology can do better. Should this argument be used to dismiss other advantages of the hand, eye and mind? Indigenous knowledge is being increasingly respected as India’s priceless intellectual capital in areas such as agriculture, water, health, well-being, education, housing, combating climate change, and in the arts. If technological and managerial advances do not torpedo other sectors of Indian creativity, why should they do so in the case of weavers? They have welcomed change, innovated technologies and served global demand for centuries. Why assume that the great textiles of the future will not emerge from those who created the greatest 20th century fabric? If cutting-edge indications are needed, listen to former Infosys chief executive officer Nandan Nilekani: “Our mental models are dated. Export-led growth, ‘Make in India’ and big firms are yesterday’s stories. The future lies in our domestic market…. In the new world order, everything is micro, millions of small procedures aggregating their capability by using technology."

That is a truth young weavers across the country recognize. It is the opportunity they are demanding. It should be theirs.

The writer, a veteran crafts and design expert, has been executive director of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and president of the Crafts Council of India.

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