Ask a porter, a rickshaw puller or a construction labourer about the reassuring importance of a gamchha. Thrown on the shoulder, wrapped around the head or waist, the 2m cotton cloth with a mix of checks and stripes, mostly in red and white, works as a towel, a shield against the sun, even a bedsheet. “Much like the lungi, the gamchha has been central to the lives of India’s male working class. Of course, the elite class doesn’t look twice at it because it’s the ‘poor man’s cloth’ after all," says Jaya Jaitly, a handloom expert and founder-president of the Dastkari Haat Samiti, an association of Indian craftspeople.

It’s not just the class-based stereotype that hurt the evolution of this basic handloom product, woven in the rural areas of Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar and West Bengal. “Chinese towels are being sold on pavements across the country at throwaway prices ( 30-40). There is also the onslaught of the power-loom," says Jaitly, 74, who has been trying to draw the attention of the authorities to the plight of gamchha weavers for a decade. “The authorities are only interested in the established weavers, like those in Varanasi. Even if our traditional gamchha becomes extinct, no one would notice it."

Rajesh Pratap Singh’s gamchha jacket
Rajesh Pratap Singh’s gamchha jacket

To find ways to keep handlooms alive across classes and social hierarchies, Jaitly went on a journey in May last year. “There was too much hullabaloo happening. ‘Government is going to undo handloom reservation. Power-loom is suddenly the monster.’ I was annoyed by the armchair discussions," she says, referring to the power-loom lobby’s demand last year to repeal the Handlooms (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act, 1985. So she decided to visit West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar “to know the weavers, their struggles, and assess what’s happening at the ground level". She returned with insights on the changing dynamics within families that were part of a weaving cluster.

In West Bengal, for instance, she came across female gamchha weavers in Phulia and Nabadwip. “Within the state’s weaving communities, gamchhas are made on handlooms by the women of weaver families, while men are involved in the weaving of more famous Bengali saris. Gamchha weaving does not require such meticulous work, unlike a sari made on a jacquard loom. Therefore, women, after finishing their household activities, weave gamchhas. When I saw them (the women), I had a eureka moment: Let’s make saris!" That’s how the Gamchha Project started, to “revive the handloom cloth and take it beyond the working class". While stumbling into the idea of the gamchha sari was the obvious outcome, Jaitly’s parallel discovery of women slowly penetrating the formerly masculine territory of weaving needs more than a footnote.

Jaya Jaitly and Ankit Kumar at their office in New Delhi. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Jaya Jaitly and Ankit Kumar at their office in New Delhi. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

“The aim (of the project) was to link the urban buyer to the rural weaver (which would increase the weaver’s income), and also make the sari more popular. Most women today prefer Western clothes over traditional Indian attire. But the sari is sophisticated Indianness; it’s our tradition. It should be made popular in whatever way possible," believes Jaitly, who is always dressed in a sari. The day we met, she was wearing a Patteda Anchu sari, bought decades ago—the 10th century Karnataka weave is now on the verge of extinction.

Soon after Jaitly, Ankit Kumar, a textile designer with the Dastkari Haat Samiti, visited Phulia. “After the first survey, we found that Phulia was not very centralized, thus making the process of weaving saris difficult to monitor and manage. We then turned towards Nabadwip (around 3 hours from Kolkata by local train). Weaving gamchhas there is not only a source of livelihood, but a part of the local tradition and practice," says Kumar.

There, he met master-weaver Sukumar Chandranath, who manages around 60 handlooms. “When I asked Chandranath to make a sari from the same gamchha loom, he was speechless. He had absolutely no idea," says Kumar. “The goal was to implement the idea that if they wove a sari exactly as they weave a gamchha, it would increase their daily earnings. The process remains the same, but with a little extra weaving time and effort they could produce six yards, resulting in beautiful saris," says Kumar.

After many “action" discussions (Kumar doesn’t know Bengali while Chandranath speaks only Bengali), Kumar helped the weavers create newer colour combinations and sari designs. “To create new things, it’s not necessary to teach new, complicated skills, you can simply tweak existing skills," says Jaitly. And that’s what they did: “We started with four looms, with 25 saris per loom, to get our first batch of 100. The end result was stunning, each sari had a slightly different shade. It was pure magic."

These gamchha saris—priced at 1,500 each —were sold at four pop-ups in Bengaluru in May. “Within 2 hours, the entire lot was sold out," says Jaitly. The best part about the initiative is the income it generated for weavers. “They used to earn 40-50 a day weaving gamchhas. By weaving a sari a day, they make 150 a day," says Kumar.

A gamchha dress by Aneeth Arora
A gamchha dress by Aneeth Arora

This may be a rooted revival of the gamchha, but the fashion industry has had its eye on the working man’s towel for a while now. Designer Aneeth Arora’s penchant for the gamchha has become associated with her design vocabulary of creating layers with different handloom garments. From skirts and blouses to shirts, jackets, dresses and scarves, the founder of the péro label has used the gamchha in many ways “for its versatility and vibrancy". In 2010, Rajesh Pratap Singh presented the red and white checked gamchha jacket as part of his Spring/Summer collection. Woven with a blend of cotton, linen and silk, it was selected for The Fabric Of India, an exhibition of Indian textiles that was held at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum last year. The jacket is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Outside the confines of traditional red and white checks, the gamchha has also been accepted globally as a scarf, especially for men. Even online portals like Amazon offer bath towels and napkins in the gamchha design.

A gamchha scarf by Arora
A gamchha scarf by Arora

In a sense, it’s similar to the story of the Telia Rumal, where too a weave has been extended from one product to another. Originally a headscarf, literally a square rumal (handkerchief), its patterns were interpreted for saris that have made a niche for themselves in India’s weaving repertoire.

Jaitly and Kumar are in no hurry to take the gamchha beyond its sari avatar. “It’s very easy to make a shirt, a coat, a blouse, or even a napkin out of the gamchha; it will be popular too. Today’s generation and the upper class want instant changes in fashion. But that will take away the gamchha’s essence. We don’t want to lose its aesthetic by giving it various shapes," says Kumar.

There is something unique about tradition that you can’t kill or change, says Jaitly.

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