Home >mint-lounge >features >Learning the weft and weight of weaving in Maheshwar

It is 7am and a group of young men are posing for pictures at Ahilya Fort in the small town of Maheshwar, about 2 hours from Indore. They are wearing self-woven textiles: kurtas, stoles, dupattas. Maheshwar is, of course, known for the seven-yard or nine-yard (nauvari) pure cotton “Maheshwari" sari—soft, light, with a subtle shine. The body has light checks, while the pallu has three or five characteristic stripes in two alternating, complementary colours. Much like the Ahilya Fort and Narmada river form one side of the town’s border, the typical Maheshwari sari too has borders with designs of motifs from the fort’s wall, or the Narmada leher (wave) pattern zari.

Wasim Ansari, 28, and Vijay Ganga Kanere, 32, are outspoken. Wasim comes from one of Maheshwar’s most respected weaving families. “But like most of India’s handlooms, Maheshwari weaves too saw a period of neglect after independence," says Richard Holkar, who is from the erstwhile royal family of Indore. Falling demand and low wages led to a mass migration from Maheshwar. “In the mid-1970s, there were just about 300 weavers left," says Richard, who is dressed in a light green Maheshwari kurta with translucent stripes. It was only when he, with his then wife Shalini Devi (Sally) Holkar, began Rehwa Society, a not-for-profit, in 1978 to revitalize the craft and focus on women’s employment at the looms, that this migration stopped.

While Wasim is a Rehwa child—he grew up in the Rehwa Society’s housing colony—Kanere is from Malharganj, a settlement of older, traditional weavers nearby. These two represent the younger generation of Maheshwar weavers, who are taking the town’s three-decade-old revival story towards entrepreneurship.

Thanks partly to Sally Holkar’s The Handloom School (THS), Maheshwar’s weavers have been able to adapt to the swiftly changing demands of the domestic and foreign markets. The first of its kind in the country, THS was formalized in 2015, as part of Sally’s 2003 umbrella project, WomenWeave. Wasim and Kanere are from THS’ early, formative years.

Supported by donors (the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, for example), THS currently spends about 1.5 lakh per student, inclusive of regular stipends, while the government spends 8,000-10,000 per beneficiary on a month-long skilling programme, says Sharda Gautam, THS’ executive director.

“Most weavers have no idea what happens to their textile after it leaves the loom. They’re just told what to weave and given wages. We hope to break this cycle that does not support the lifestyle that the younger generation wants," says Sally, who has been at the forefront of Maheshwar’s revival story. She says their “aim is to put the weavers directly in touch with the market not just for profit, but also for pride and satisfaction".

Sally Holkar at a student’s loom on the THS campus
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Sally Holkar at a student’s loom on the THS campus

There are 15 students from 10 states in the current batch at THS. Their year-long curriculum, which is designed by a panel of National Institute of Design designers, in collaboration with other educationists, ensures their exposure to mentors from academia, and internships at businesses like Fabindia, Nalli and Good Earth. They also do a “field assignment" in their villages, where THS “nurtures and incubates micro-entrepreneurs in the field of handloom textiles", says Gautam.

In most handloom clusters so far, weavers are either dependent on a local organization or on a “master-weaver"—who in many cases is a businessman who owns the looms and brings in orders, but may know little about the craft.

A young weaver of Malharganj at work
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A young weaver of Malharganj at work

Despite being one of Malharganj’s skilled weaver families, this is how Kanere’s family has stayed in business for years. His father is “retired", but maintains the looms. “The loom occupies a large part of our lives. But we had no other choice but to work for a master-weaver earlier," says Kanere. He has learnt computers and English at THS and teaches the language at a school nearby to earn some extra income. With this, he has helped his family hire more weavers and set up extra looms, and joins them in weaving every evening. “With this new generation, the master-weaver to weaver dynamic, which was often exploitative, has now become instructive," remarks Sally.

For Wasim though, it is the Internet that is making him self-reliant. With his friends Rahat Ansari, Aasif Ansari (who also did a diploma course from Delhi’s National Institute of Fashion Technology and interned at Vogue magazine), Nasir Ansari, Muzammil Ansari and Parvez Mushtaq Ansari, he has set up a Facebook page called FabCreation. They take orders for saris and stoles on it.

“None of these boys wanted to continue as weavers initially. They wanted to know what the world outside was like, learn English and computers," recalls Hemendra Sharma, the chief operating officer of WomenWeave. Now, just putting up photographs of their weaves on Facebook or WhatsApp gets them orders for at least 15-20 saris. “We also supply to Jaypore and Fabindia," Rahat, 22, says, adding that they are in the process of setting up their own website.

One of THS’ graduates working at her home
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One of THS’ graduates working at her home

Such success stories from the THS model have inspired the government to adapt the school’s programme into a government-run certificate course in handloom entrepreneurship. Last year, it started the course at three centres of the Indian Institute of Handloom Technology (IIHT): Bargarh in Odisha, Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, and Salem in Tamil Nadu. The latest to start this is the IIHT at Jodhpur.

THS found the current domestic market—a fertile ground for stoles, yardage and salwar-kurta materials—both cluttered and competitive. A traditionally designed silk-cotton mix sari would cost 1,900 in local stores, while a 70%-cotton sari, with a cotton-weave border, would be 2,000-2,300. A cotton-silk stole, however, would cost about 400 and a dupatta, 750. So THS adopted an indie-label sensibility, in tandem with its young, start-up designer clientele.

A local handloom store at Maheshwar displaying saris and stoles
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A local handloom store at Maheshwar displaying saris and stoles

A large part of THS’ programme also focuses on collaborations with high-end fashion markets in the West, says Gautam. Batches are trained to be comfortable in working with unconventional yarns—wool, Tussar, linen, or a blend—for short-run, multi-design, bespoke fabric that enables supply tie-ups with couture clients and designers in the West. This year, their finished fabric will find its way to designers at fashion schools like London’s Central Saint Martins and New York’s Parsons School of Design. In October, THS’ products will be showcased at New Delhi’s Bikaner House.

Around 60% of THS’ output is exported to 27 countries, including the US, Sweden, Italy, Japan, France and Indonesia, say Sally and Sharma.

So the demand for handlooms isn’t region- or country-specific, says Sally. There is a larger handloom consciousness that transcends geographical boundaries; it has taken root in a certain age group and socioeconomic section of the world. Handloom, therefore, is very much a product of this particular era.

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