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A model at the ‘Artisans Speak’ fashion show at Delhi’s Red Fort, organized by the textiles ministry in 2019. Photo: Getty Images
A model at the ‘Artisans Speak’ fashion show at Delhi’s Red Fort, organized by the textiles ministry in 2019. Photo: Getty Images

How handloom became a hashtag

The recent scrapping of the All India Handloom Board has stirred up heated debates. As handloom becomes both a punching bag as well as a powerhouse for fund-raising, where does the weaver stand?

The usually high-on-hashtags buzz around National Handloom Day on 7 August had some engine sound last week. Just a week earlier, the Union textiles ministry had dissolved the All India Handicrafts and Handloom Boards, set up in 1952 and 1992, respectively. “Leaner government machinery and the need for systematic rationalisation of government bodies," read the gazette notice. There was no further explanation. The forums, which included institutional members from government organizations and countrywide representation of weavers and artisans, were advisory bodies on the notional and national value of handicrafts and handlooms, policies on marketing and employment generation.

Dissent and debate surged on news and social media. Some saw the move as a betrayal of the democratic spirit the government owed this sector. Others said the boards had become a caucus of “middlemen and spokespersons". They barely met even six times in a dozen years and disbanding them would not change anything about Weavers’ Service Centres (WSCs) or handloom beneficiary schemes. Ministry sources confirmed that all 200 offices, 28 WSCs and administrative staff in 400 districts remained functional. The ministry also disbanded the All India Powerloom Board last week but there wasn’t a murmur of dissent about it.

A ‘patola’ being woven by the Salvi family of Patan Patola. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
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A ‘patola’ being woven by the Salvi family of Patan Patola. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

In both cases, little was known about what the weavers themselves thought. Despite dozens of collectives, cooperatives and NGOs “empowering" craftspeople for years, with formidable work in capacity building and enhancing entrepreneurial skills, and the government trying to make the sector “atmanirbhar", the hierarchy of who speaks for these sectors has not changed in decades.

“I have never heard about the All India Handloom Board," says Dayalu Meher, a Sambalpuri ikat weaver, on the phone from Barpali in Odisha’s Bargarh district. Meher won the Odisha state award for weaving in 1986, the National Award in 1993 and the Shilpguru award in 2003. His wife, Swarnalata Meher, who learnt to weave as an adolescent bride, was honoured with the National Award in 1999 and the Shilpguru in 2016. Their two sons, Nabakishor and Devkishor, are also National Awardees. Devkishor, 35, has never heard about the handloom or handicraft boards either.

Nor has Rahul Salvi, 42, from the famed Salvi family of Patan Patola. The Salvis, recipients of four National Awards and two Shilpguru citations, proudly reiterate that the Patan Patola Heritage Museum in Patan, Gujarat, was built with family funds. “We have never been updated about these boards, nor about any beneficiary schemes for weavers," says Salvi on the phone from Patan.

The Mehers and Salvis share similar nirasha (disillusionment) about their connect, or lack of it, with the government as well as handloom networks.

The Hashtag High

Salvi, in fact, wonders why smart hashtags, or the number of Instagram followers, matter more than authenticity or skills when it comes to credibility, quality and copyright for heritage weavers like them.

Actor Sonam Kapoor promoting National Handloom Day on Instagram.
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Actor Sonam Kapoor promoting National Handloom Day on Instagram.

Hashtag marketing is a smart, information-based science that helps businesses increase their social media reach and, thus, the number of their consumers and followers. The handloom industry, then, needs a new, fizzy set of hashtags to free it from the traditional government-weaver-NGO net it has had to negotiate.

The “handloom elite" recognizes this double bind. As does the government.

Knot So Simple

However, the uneven texture of India’s handloom story is not a hashtag saga. Nor does the buck stop only with government boards. For, be it the media, fund-raising groups, fashion week platforms, designers, stylists or millennial textile artists trying to search for the next sustainability story, we have turned handloom into a convenient punching bag as well as a powerhouse to be used to argue for relevance, empathy, morality and ethics.

But can we at least ask what the weavers think about all this?

As handloom scholar Annapurna Mamidipudi argues: “The old contract between the state, the craftsperson, mediated by a middle person, has to be reworked. While craftspeople have built the capacity to speak for themselves, we have not been able to develop the mechanism to understand what the weaver is saying."

When you unpack reality, many threads look impossibly entangled.

Textile curator and researcher Mayank Mansingh Kaul questions, quite rightly, even the positioning and timing of stories such as this one around Independence Day. “Let us get out of this mentality of celebrating handlooms and Khadi on such occasions only. Let us acknowledge that we have moved far from them being synonymous with the freedom struggle alone," he says.

If handloom is now “mainstream", as the hashtags suggest, why is there no debate about the intellectual copyright of hand-weaving skills (beyond sitting at a pit loom and throwing the shuttle) and their certification? There is a persistent assumption that valuable learning flows one way, from the trained urban designer to the rural artisan. Why don’t we ask young-generation handloom workers for their views on the Indian Matchmaking show on Netflix, Starbucks, Zara, whether they are on Tinder and Twitter, whether someone among them is an engineer or a veterinarian? Whether they worry about diets, dowry, diabetes, cancer and depression like “our kids" do.

“We always talk about ‘celebrating handlooms’ and weavers but the reality is that 60% among them earn less than 5,000 per month. A large part of the handloom weaving population lives in poverty, only a few can be called artisan entrepreneurs," says Siva Devireddy , the founder director and CEO of GoCoop, India’s first online marketplace for weavers and artisans. Launched on 15 August 2012, it now supports 350 groups across 55 clusters. “Only a small number in handloom families have gone to school or completed degrees. If we only consider them as resources to make garments, we miss the whole point. Their social and economic needs are not just the government’s responsibility but (also) that of the private sector and other groups who engage with them," adds Devireddy.

That is why Mamidipudi and Kaul argue for personal and creative autonomy for weavers. “Protecting handloom workers is not only about welfare. What about intellectual copyright? Because what they know is not written down in scientific terms, we have completely discounted the knowledge they hold," says Mamidipudi. She explains that the historical arrangement of weavers needing intermediaries or brokers to speak on their behalf was to hold powerful structures—the economy and the state—accountable in an unequal society. “But that has come to be seen as a political process instead of also one of science and technology with analysis of the transmission of knowledge, with teaching or pedagogy," she says.

Kaul also believes that handloom workers “need to speak for themselves. It is important that we assess what to say and whether to say it at all, and start stepping back to make way for a new generation." Just as the other side, the reader, spectator or consumer, must not celebrate or hashtag handlooms for the sake of it. “Not everything handmade is artisanal, in my view. Setting up the loom, spinning the yarn, dyeing, zari making, all these allied activities make a creation such," he adds.

So if private institutions build new handloom forums to replace those disbanded by the government—as some propose—an unwavering commitment to contemporary inclusivity and a mix of technological, photographic and traditional knowledge could be the founding pillars. A handloom studies course taught by weavers for urban students of the humanities perhaps? A craftsperson invited to speak on the impact of climate change on the colour intensity of natural dyes?

To bring justice to caste issues, green technology, the social value of woven creations and how these are influenced by trends, a new bunch of handloom minds, weavers and policymakers need to agreeably squeeze into the same space. Like the mashed words of a hashtag.

#Boredofboards anyone?

Shefalee Vasudev is a fashion and culture commentator and editor of The Voice of Fashion

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