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Q & A | Sally Holkar

Much of the credit for the revival of the Maheshwar sari is given to Sally Holkar, who co-founded the non-profit Rehwa Society in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, in 1978. She not only provided the weavers with work but also gave them housing, education and healthcare. In 2003, she set up WomenWeave, a charitable trust, to bring to the forefront shadow weavers (mostly the wives and daughters of male weavers) and later, in 2009, started the Gudi Mudi project (under WomenWeave). The latter aims to support spinning yarn from locally grown (Madhya Pradesh) cotton and develop income-earning opportunities for women who come from non-weaving backgrounds.

Holkar, who was in Delhi recently for a WomenWeave exhibition-cum-sale, explains why it is important for the survival of the handloom industry to train people who do not come from a weaving background, create new textures by mixing yarns, and what women buy these days. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about Gudi Mudi.

Four years ago, we selected some needy women in Maheshwar who had no background in weaving. We trained them for a year and a half thanks to grants from the Madhya Pradesh government, HSBC Bank and the Sir Dorabjee Tata Trust. These women went from beaten wives of alcoholics, abused women, lowly labourers to being weavers—most of whom got hired by other weavers in Maheshwar.

Now we have about 50 women in the project who weave and about 25 who spin the yarn. The cotton comes from Madhya Pradesh, it’s grown, spun and dyed here. It is as green as we could make it.

We wanted to send a message to the town of Maheshwar that the weaving story is not over. It can grow and include more and more people and we can sell these products globally. Also, that handloom is not a sunset industry.

Why work with women without weaving skills?

Maheshwar’s weaver community is oversubscribed. They have enough work. I thought we are not reaching out to really needy people. Maheshwar is a small town and a portion of it (weavers) is getting richer while a portion is getting left behind. We wanted to find people who need skills and give them a chance to make a sustainable income.

Many women approach us now but we have to say no because as an NGO, until we break even for three years at a stretch, we cannot expand. The cost of running this programme is high, especially because we worked with unskilled women to start with. There are a lot of defects, delays in deadlines. From an efficiency point of view, right now we are inefficient because we are working with the neediest of them all.

What do these women make besides saris?

Slim, contemporary stoles which younger people like to use, shawls which are 18-36 inches wide, regular, full-width dupattas and yardages, plus saris. Our saris, specially the pure Khadi ones, sell fantastically and Sabyasachi (Mukherjee) buys them all the time. He selects from our designs and sometimes embellishes them to add value. We hardly use yarns from China and try not to compete with the traditional markets of Maheshwar. We also create other marketing opportunities, like holding exhibitions, or invite groups to buy from us directly. We sell in 29 countries online.

You have moved beyond rehabilitating weavers to doing new things in the existing handloom industry.

In the Indian psyche, handloom is an old tired story for customers as well as the weavers who have been doing it for generations. The weavers hardly get any feedback, and some can barely make ends meet. I am not saying abandon the old ideas, just that we add to it. I want handloom to rise again like a phoenix. To do that we must try different things like this project, for which we partner with different NGOs in Uttarakhand, Bikaner (Rajasthan), Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. We exchange information, sometimes design and sell together. A central designer sent out designs to all and then we did a coordinated collection with different weaves and textures. I can only explain it with the simile of fusion cuisine—mixing Thai with Mediterranean and French. You come up with something new.

Something old, something new—what does that mean for you?

We need to help our weavers to blend yarn and create completely new textures. For example, in Assam, we introduced zari and taught them how to weave with it and it has been a big hit there. In Uttarakhand, our designers introduced some cotton and silk yarns with wool and they have new textures now.

Another way is to change product proportions. Everybody was weaving at 48 inches width. Initially, weavers could not be persuaded to weave 36 inches even though Indian women are not wearing gigantic dupattas any more. The young crowd, if they are wearing anything around their neck at all, it is 18 inches wide and we had to work with weavers to change the width and adjust wages accordingly so that they didn’t make losses.

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