In a first, the government launched National Handloom Day on August 7, 2015, to commemorate the celebration of aesthetics and indigenous talent.
The moment we evoke handloom, an ensemble of rich colour, dye, sequins, beads, mirrors, cowrie shells, intricate patterns and motifs, zardosi paint our imagination. Saris, especially. Hand-spun khadi, silks from Varansi, Bhagalpur and Kanchipuram or Chanderi are timeless gems that have survived generations and fierce competition from cheap emulations.
It must be noted that hand-woven fabrics transform their way into textiles when artisans introduce block printing, imprints, brocade, embroidery or brocade on to them. In fact, handloom weaving, traditional art of fabric printing and handicrafts are all interrelated and need to be promoted jointly. The Indian government has conferred geographical indication status to some of these looms so that these crafts and looms enjoy a patented identity.
According to a Ministry of Textiles, 2015 note, India is home to around 43 lakh weavers that India Handloom census estimated. However, this figure was a staggering low as against the 65 lakh weavers counted in the 1995-1996 census.
The textiles ministry’s interpersonal campaign #Iwearhandloom was started on August 1 as an effort to resuscitate and promote hand-woven creations. Seasoned bureaucrats, celebrities, fashion designers and commoners have posted pictures since then on social media. While most of these creations make for an expensive choice, affordable creations seem to be available too. Real empowerment of handloom industry will, however, happen when we inculcate and practise this art in our daily chores and make them affordable for the pedestrian. Campaigns such as Make in India will achieve their true potential only when commoners can afford present day hand-woven fabrics and textiles. This is how we can truly make handlooms living examples of Indian culture. This is important so as to eliminate the semblance of elitism and classism associated with consumption of cottage industries of today.
Here we attempt to map the geographical spread of handlooms made of different fibres as against the traditional art of fabric designing.
NORTH AND CENTRAL INDIA
Consider, for instance, handlooms from Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh that are mostly woven out of wool obtained from goat, sheep or camel. Pashmina or Jamawar wool is knit into exquisite shawls, scarves and stoles. Himachali ‘Rumali’ embroidery from Chamba district are ensembles exhibiting remnants of Pahadi/Rajput paintings from the Kangra region. Similarly, Kinnauri shawls in rich red and green hues have strong geometrical patterns embellished on them. ‘Do-rukha’ shawls from Kashmir – famous for embroidery on both sides are another speciality of the region.
Punjabi phulkari or ‘flower making’ art on shawls, scarves and odhnis from Punjab typify embroidered handloom. Colourful silk threads are used on khadi and cotton. Phulkaris are famous across the world for their rich patterns in rich reds, vermilion and shades of yellow.
Madhya Pradesh is home to the world-famous Chanderi and Maheshwari saris. These saris, with beautiful gold and silver designs embossed on light cotton, pure silk or tusser silk, are a delight in light colours of white, yellow and green. Districts of Ujjain and Indore also house fabrics treated with Batik works. The state’s Khargone district houses Maheshwar, where on the banks of river Narmada numerous weaving clusters produce Maheshwari silk on their looms. These hand-woven silks are also treated to Bagh block prints of Dhar.
Coarse textures of Kosa in golden and beige colours come from Chhattisgarh. Bhagalpuri silk from Bihar derive inspiration from traditional Madhubani paintings of the region. Banarasi silk with golden brocade and zari works are famous world over for their royal appeal. Uttar Pradesh is home to thousands of silk weavers specialising in richly coloured Banarasi weaves. It also is home to post loom art of Lucknavi chikankari or white embroidery on cottons. In fact, the great nirguna poet of the Bhakti tradition, Sant Kabir was from the Julaha/weaver community of Banaras.
Bandhni and Sanganeri art from Rajasthan are popular post-loom techniques, where hand-spun cottons are imprinted with circular, square-shaped Bandhej tie-and-dye. Sanganeri is block work used on silks and cottons. Exquisite Indigo blue Dabu or mud-resist printing on hand-woven cotton in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Mashru weaves a unique blend of cotton and silk is produced on looms in reds, fuchsias and other vibrant hues. This is a Gujarati tradition where we also see heavily embroidered Kutchi works of mirrors and other accessories. Patan, in Gujarat, is home to the niche and expensive Patola silk, hand-spun using the technique of Ikat. Karvati silks from Maharashtra spun out of cocoons is in tusser and printed. One can find Karvati saris in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra.
Kantha embroidery work on silks and Jamdani silk weaves on muslin hail from West Bengal. Kantha weaves in fact originated from embroidery on quilts and blankets traditionally. This art is also known as ‘Nakshi Kantha’.
The North East has the golden Muga and Eri silk. The weaver cluster of Sualkochi specialises in blending Muga into a combination of red and gold Mekhla Chador, the finest silk sari from Assam. Sambhalpuri cottons using Ikat dyeing technique is from Odisha with geometric patterns come in cotton and silks. Odisha Ikat also enjoys geographical indication status from the region.
Pochampalli silk from Telangana also uses the Ikat technique. Traditional Ikat dyeing is prevalent in Odisha and Telangana, Patola sarees of Gujarat use double-Ikat dyeing and that is what makes them intricate and expensive. Mangalgiri hand-woven sarees from Andhra Pradesh and Kalamkari prints with fine motifs derive inspiration from beautiful carvings of temple architecture in Andhra Pradesh. Chandrakala silk from Karnataka uses the traditional Kasuti embroidery from Mysore. Kasuti folk embroidery is also used on Ilkal sarees from Karnataka.
Kanjeevaram silk weaves from Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu are also popularly christened Banarasi silk of South India. The designs are traditionally inspired from mythology, art and architecture and culture of the region. Kutthumpully or famously known as ‘Kasavu’ saree weaves from Kerala are the typical off-white golden blends that characterise silk and cotton weaves from the region. This, in fact, is most famous from the region and has been conferred the geographical indication from the region.
Handlooms and craft, therefore, function at the intersection of livelihoods, sustainability and ecological consumption. They contribute to a treasure trove of heritage, cultural legacy and are important teachers of history.
Handloom and Swadeshi
Realising the social and economic damage owing to colonial extraction, Mahatma Gandhi promoted the model of Hind Swaraj and Swadeshi, with a focus on reviving these crafts, looms and most importantly self-reliant, human-skills. The Make in India campaign, in fact, derives its inspiration from here.
Gandhi’s Charkha symbolises timeless legacy and art of spinning. It also exhibits the importance our ancestors attached to environment friendly and resource optimization of scarce resources. Recently, PM Narendra Modi urged every Indian household to purchase at least one product of Khadi. The Indira Gandhi International airport instituted recently the largest ever ‘Charkha’ symbolising self-reliance, indigeneity and rich tradition of hand spinning that is recorded in annals of our national movement.
August 7, in fact, has been chosen as the National Handloom Day – for it was the official start of the Swadeshi Movement in 1905. Hundred years later, the central government has done great deal of work in promoting Khadi and village industries by investing in capacity development, marketing through ‘Khadi Gramodyog’, craft fairs all across the country, making it mandatory under the Handloom Reservation Act, 1985, to manufacture school uniforms out of hand-woven fabrics. To add to these efforts, the PM launched the ‘India Handloom Brand’ so as to both promote Make in India and preserve the unique monopoly Indian weaves enjoys in this space, across the world.
What’s the way forward?
One important effort would be to introduce pedagogy associated with ancient crafts and textile designing into daily curriculum, akin to Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of Swaraj and education.
The second, and most important, intervention will be at the policy level. Handlooms are eco-friendly, organic and sustainable. Development of cooperatives and strengthening of the Handloom Act, 1985, should be prioritised. This would boost rural development and village tourism. Similarly, changes in the National Fibre Policy should be sensitive enough to not hurt artists owing to fibre taxes.
Next, we need to promote an existing network of women self-help groups and producer groups so as to boost entrepreneurship and enterprise in handlooms. This relates to rural marketing, promotions and market linkages. This is where programmes like Digital India end up benefiting the inaccessible. One of the master strokes here is Project Mausam, which targets cultural revivalism along ancient trade routes.
However, in addition to pragmatic policy revival, social challenges of child labour and poor labour conditions must be addressed to mitigate the exodus from these indigenous industries, in addition to programmes on capacity development with organisations such as the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT). The Centre has weaver centres and capacity enabling initiatives like the Indian Institute of Handloom Technology and the Handloom Export Promotion Council.
Handlooms are the newest form of identity assertion. They are not just about aesthetics or style. They encapsulate heritage, culture and a revered Indian work ethic. The Indian weave could move beyond occasional hashtags so as to contribute to an inclusive picture dealing with poverty, livelihoods, sustainable consumption and most of all educating about timeless traditions of Indian weaves.