Laila Tyabji has spent over three decades working alongside craftspersons in Gujarat, Bihar and Rajasthan. Through her work, Tyabji, 69, has tried to build a connection between traditional crafts, our civilisational identity and the sustainability of livelihoods. Ahead of the National Handloom Day, she talks about the past, the present and the future of the industry.
You set up Dasktar in1981. Tell us a bit about the journey.
When the six of us were setting up Dastkar, we never imagined the effect it would have on our lives and that of others. We watched how craftspersons were transformed from being ‘Kallu’s wife’ to being known as Raeesan, Rameshwari or Kalawati. To be able to craft a product of beauty with your own hands, and being able to get appreciation and monetary benefits has spectacularly altered lives. Crafts are not only about beautiful and expensive objects but about how lives are lived and about self-esteem. We learnt of women in Bihar held captive as bonded labour for Rs 500 spinning tussar silk for 20 years. I discussed it with author Gita Mehta, who said we should simply do the math and give them the royalty of her forthcoming book. The River Sutra (1993). The loans were paid off, we enabled the women to learn weaving, beyond just spinning and they made Bhagalpuri tussar saris a premium product.
Can the distance between the lives of impoverished weavers and the expensive, “valued” products they make, ever be bridged?
What we in the NGO sector have been able to do is solve a very tiny bit of the problem. But in the micro successes are lessons for the larger sector. First, we need the right numbers. According to government statistics, there are 14 million craftsmen, while our estimate is upwards of 25 million, if we include those who help core craftsmen with their art. The government cannot just walk into Banaras and announce a big marketing plan or large handloom halls. They must make raw material or cotton/silk available to them — credit in ways they want to receive must be addressed (need more clarity). It’s not only about taking the same route as you would with big industrial production. Indian craftspersons and the markets for it are multi-layered; we must use them as strengths and the big cluster approach is not always the answer. The raw material issues of handloom workers closely relate to farming issues in our country. The government would do well to think about both together.
Gandhi powered handloom via khadi into a central theme in our self-image, and later Indira Gandhi kept the idea of pride in handlooms alive as a statement. But these weren’t enough to keep the handloom sector healthy.
Till the ’60s, handicrafts, especially handloom, had an emotive connection with the Indian identity. Then, from the ’70s to the ’90s, when we ceased to be a closed country, it was natural for people to want change. Our magazines, TV serials and cinema started prioritising another aesthetic. Even then the Gandhi women wore handloom and film actors such as Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Sharmila Tagore wore saris. But the sharp message that went down via mass media now was of being a behenji if you wore a sari. There is no harm in western wear, but we succumbed to looking at our own craftsmen and clothes as inferior, and longed for plastic footwear or synthetic clothes.
Handmade products and their maintenance is expensive. Isn’t it unfair to expect people to pay so much for it?
Of course. But we can do both, and need to make some practical decisions, like allowing mill cloth to supply most needs in a country like ours. The sad thing is that there is nobody in the government who is passionate or knowledgeable enough to imaginatively take this forward. They see India through the prism of ‘developing’ and ‘developed’. With all that, Indian strength is devalued greatly. In India, we have a massive shortage of jobs, so we must revive interest in skills we already have and make them viable, paying and valued. This will change how rural India functions.