I don’t think we in India are totally aware of the treasure house we have here. One rare and privileged skill that still exists across the country is that of the hand weavers and spinners who give us our true couture. The less we know about our heritage, the less we preserve it. This is not a war between the power loom and handloom. We are the only country that has this living heritage. The government is taking a part in trying to save it but it can’t treat handloom like a poor cousin. If we take the example of Thailand, they’ve created an entire tourism industry around Thai silk. How conscious are we as people, or anyone who visits India, about the Benarasi, Murshidabad silk or Bhagalpuri silk? These are non-violent, organic fabrics. If the awareness increases, I am hopeful for the future of handloom but not as a subsidised fabric or as cheap alternative such as bedcovers for the railways. Handloom needs tax breaks and infrastructural support. The #iwearhandloom by Smriti Irani is starting a conversation for a lot of people — what is handloom and why don’t I own one?
I have been working with handloom textiles for nearly three decades now and it makes me really happy to see that Indians are finally appreciating and celebrating it. But it has been a long journey till now. Handloom textiles have gained popularity in the last three or more years. Be it the time I introduced Dhaka muslin in my work or
the “Nashikantha” collection that I was instrumental in reviving, there were hardly any takers. Today, it is heartening to see handlooms being celebrated. As much as I appreciate Smriti Irani’s initiative, on the ground she will need to facilitate more designer interaction by easing the bureaucratic procedures involved and also reach out to master weavers and do away with role of middlemen who control handloom clusters.
I think the #IWearHandloom is a good initiative to mobilise people into consciously thinking about what they are wearing and where it comes from. As a country rich in textiles and weaving skill, such initiatives reinforce the value of our heritage and how we need to reinvent ourselves to keep it alive. When it comes to what the government and Smriti Irani can focus on, I feel, that first and foremost is design intervention – making products and textiles which are more relevant today rather than extensively detailed occasion-driven apparel. Quality is another issue along with colour fastness and proper finishing. Last but not the least, is packaging. We really need to work on the packaging of our handlooms if we want them to make their place in premium luxury stores in India and across the world.
My mother’s wardrobe has these beautiful Banarasi saris that date back to 30 years or so, and they are in mint condition. It’s great to love handloom, but are we consuming enough? When was the last time we bought a handloom sari? Partly, we can blame mechanisation for this condition but partly, it’s the consumer’s responsibility. Earlier, when the handloom industry was thriving, and everyone was wearing saris, the population of weavers was high. Now the population has increased manifold but the weavers are few. If you don’t wear saris, a new product from the handloom industry will have to emerge. Saris are not being worn and only emerge at weddings and religious functions. It’s a two-way street — as consumers you have to consume, and as designers we have to create new products from handloom. Otherwise we will lose this heritage to museums or Instagram photos once a year with #ilovehandloom hashtags. The hashtag initiative is great. At least it’s a talking point. These crafts can give us uniqueness in a world that is moving towards the uniformed fashion of Mango and Zara. Also, Indian handlooms are perfect for all weather and looks — Ikat is colourful, northeastern textiles are warm, Banarasi is festive. What more do we want?