Kaithun, a village about 15 km away from Kota, Rajasthan, is home to nearly 500 weavers. Mostly women from the Ansari Muslim community, they have been weaving in the tradition of handwoven Kota Doria for generations. As one walks through the turban-like winding streets, where houses sit cheek-by-jowl providing solace from the 48 degree desert heat, it’s not unusual to see pit looms and charkhas in almost every home. It’s about 7am and women are already out for sizing (starching with rice paste and wild onion juice) and warping the yarn. Gossamer silk threads that are almost invisible and pure cotton yarns are stretched out on bamboo stands, allowing them to gain strength before they are dyed and put on the loom.
Kota Doria (doria meaning thread) saris were patronised by Maharaja Bhim Singh, who summoned the weavers from the Deccan region to Kota, in the early 18th century. Its unique warp and weft combines threads in a delicate check pattern, called khat, with cotton yarn that gives it stiffness while the silk lends the fabric its lightness. However, with challenges of duplication from the power loom, and its lack of visibility on textile platforms, Kota Doria has seen a decline over the years.
Recently, Delhi-based NGO All India Artisans and Craftworkers’ Welfare Association (AIACA), which has been working to reinvent and reposition crafts for newer markets, began the ‘Going Green Project’, in partnership with Traidcraft Exchange, UK, supported by the European Union. On their list of clusters in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, was Kota. The others include Varanasi, Lucknow, Jaipur, Udaipur and Churu. On June 11, the organisation hosts a national conference on ‘Future of Craft’ at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, to showcase its work among craft clusters.
“When we first went to Kota in 2014, the weavers were working individually, making saris and dupattas based on briefs given by vendors, traders, or middlemen. The major markets for such products were Hyderabad, Chennai and Bangalore. These have a peculiar taste in designs in terms of colours and motifs that do not do justice to the delicate and sophisticated character of this weave. The artisans were making very large motifs in very loud contrasting colours, and had no idea about the tastes of high-end consumers,” says Madhura Dutta, Executive Director, AIACA.
They began work with Kota Women Weavers Organization (KWWO), a business collective, made of nearly 38 self-help groups. “We facilitated better governance practices, and linked the weavers to various government schemes. We tried variations in khat sizes, traditional geometric motifs inspired from Muslim architecture, and shifted colour schemes to sober pastels. We introduced awareness on safe dyes and trained local artisans and dyers as well,” says Dutta.
Mohammed Rafiq, one of the five dyers in Kaithun affirms, “We were using chemical dyes and had little knowledge of azo-free dyes. Today we know that each yarn has a different dye and what works best in which temperature,” says the 47-year-old, as he shows us a catalogue of more than 1400 swatches of dyed silk threads.
We meet 35-year-old Zaib-u-nissa, who has been working on a yardage, commissioned by AIACA. “I used to work in the fields before, until I saw that the other women were doing different weaves from what we have seen regularly in Kaithun. I was initially very scared to even work on the loom, however, after I finished a sari, I have gained confidence,” she says. Even as orange threads on her loom come together in plain and transparent weaves, the new pattern that emerges is strikingly different from the usual checks of Kota Doria. “Many of them were initially opposed to the idea of changing the weave pattern or motifs,” says Avanish Kumar, Textile Specialist at AIACA. “But once they realised that the new designs and weaves were reaching the right markets, their trust in us grew.”
For 60-year-old Aseema Banu, Haj will soon be a reality. “I’ve been weaving since I was knee-high. I haven’t been to a school, but for me weaving is child’s play. I’ve sold my weaves at different exhibitions in the country, and worked with everything from fresh yarn to waste threads. One is never too old to learn new things, and these new designs are bringing in more customers,” she says.
While Kumar is aware of the material’s structural limitations and its diaphanous feel, he believes there is ample scope in expanding the Kota Doria range. However, the local market in Kota’s Rampur Bazaar seldom stock handloom Kota saris. “It’s all about the price,” says Shahnaz Ansari, one of the local coordinators for AIACA. “A handwoven Kota Doria begins at Rs 3000, while in the market you’ll find a power loom Kota sari sold for Rs 300. We also use authentic zari in our motifs. Few clients know that the Kota Doria sari has a Global Indication (GI) tag, which is woven into the sari pallu.”
Even as the Ansari community of weavers strengthen one another through self-help groups, AIACA is facilitating their reach into stores such as Good Earth, and on platforms such as the Lakme Fashion Week. “The KWWO is already Craftmark certified. We envision that these weavers will soon become entrepreneurs,” says Dutta.