Thoughts for handlooms August 2020

Unshackling the Handloom Demand- Supply : May Markets be the Kings!

This year has been complicated for most weavers across the country. On Aug 7, we celebrated the National Handloom Day under the aegis of the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India.  Just 10 days prior to this, there came a circular which abolished the All India Handloom Board  and there was no official statement from the Government on thoughts as to why this happened except to say a need for minimum government and maximum governance. On August 3, it abolished the All India Handicrafts Board.

The two boards were decades old, with the All India Handlooms Board having been set up in 1992 and the All India Handicrafts Board in 1952. These played the role of advising the government on formulating policies related to these sectors. The schemes like the NHDP towards education fees of weavers and their children, handloom marketing assistance which provided platforms to sell products in Fairs and exhibitions etc were all seem to be helpful.

In the light that the recent few years have been needing urgent reforms in the handloom industry and the current year’s crisis further complicating matters of survival and sustenance of weavers, craft and textiles traditions , this news came as a bit of a cul de sac. The handloom sector and textile industry is amongst the largest livelihood impact areas in the country and five years ago when Aug. 7 was declared the National Handloom Day by PM Modi to create awareness and commemorate the Swadeshi sentiment from 1905, it was to promote the handloom and the handwoven. It felt like we needed to dwell a little on the current state of this sector in the light of these 2 recent events.Hence feel like sharing a few thoiughts

I personally believe that one needs to celebrate handloom every other day beyond the notionally marked one. Specially in contemporary histories, the narrative of handlooms has assumed multiple layers and complexities. Independent India may have tried its best to govern and engage in policy making to assure weavers and craftsmen of a sense of inclusion through reforms, however the industrialisation policies and the power loom mills thrived in urban and other centers, with an easy access to market. While swadeshi and khaadi were proudly worn as a mark of independence, the textile markets under successive regimes were subjected to a web of taxes besides the subsidies and yet also stiff competition from power looms. What a weaver could do over days and months, the machine produced in a shorter time and at much cheaper prices. While both trajectories grew parallelly, the power loom lobbies grew stronger. The point of this article is not to debate if power loom is good or bad, and I have no comments there, but one must realize that the population in this country is immense. The employment generated under the handloom sector is systemically made redundant by the cheaper and bulk produced garments. Increasingly weavers’ children don’t wish to take up the family’s vocation and art, as it doesn’t pay for aspirations to a better lifestyle as is perceived, compared to the frugally afforded one in weaving. India has had a weaving tradition of thousands of years with the highest benchmarks of cotton cloth having been produced here. After the markets were liberalised in 1991 many labels have flooded the market and the playing field for handloom cannot be compared at level, with those markets getting compromised too for the weaver. Co-creation through design interventions has been happening over the last 25 to 30 years however efforts fall short given the length and breadth of this country. Delhi seemed to have become the hub for all advisors, researchers, marketeers, and policy implementers whereas the remote areas did not have an inkling of how things work.

So many handlooms produced in this country are getting geo-tagged as local weaves while the implementation and impact studies of the GI tags have barely indicated the commensurating positive conversion. So many weaves are named after the village or the area they originate from like the Narayanpet, Sambhalpuri weaves, Gadhwal silks, Kancheepuram etc. that one may realise that entire village economies in this country survive on their markets and are dependent on these hand looms for their sustenance. Generations have been practicing these textile and other crafts and knowledge has been passed down within the families. Pre-independence, royalty patronized trophy textiles and commissioned wearable art at the highest levels of artisanship. The weaver was assured of market and created the best possible works of beauty one can imagine. Post-independence the years have been progressively disruptive for the handloom sector with a huge gap in awareness and information also occurring at multiple levels. The recent years saw a whole resurgence of women wearing handloom sarees and proudly talking of them as part of their shared cultural identities on social media and gatherings. Being an Indian was enough of a connect, the woman could be in any part of this world and yet feels connected to this common identity.

While the saree is a quintessential product that the handloom sector can survive on, yet it also means that the awareness about weaves has marginally increased in the social media age of content consumption. Fashion as an industry is always happy to reflect the economy, heritage, cultural and social milieu besides political cues but in this specific case, the Indian weaver and craftsman’s existence needs to be focused on. True liberalisation of the markets can only be witnessed if the weaver can reach the market easily and vice versa, without layers in the supply chain, or dependencies on subsidies etc. Let the weaver be the entrepreneur s/he may be capable of becoming. Weavers know how to move with the times and adapt faster to market demands than one can imagine, and the market is key here. It should be able to patronize and support them without the need to always bargain. I am a firm believer that markets create the demand and it is not sustainable to produce in the absence of demand. To perpetuate demand, one cannot overlook the role played by hand loom enthusiasts, objective influencers and thought leaders in creating a conscience for the collective. In the light of which, the existence of any board may or may not have any impact on the demand-supply theories for survival of handlooms. All one needs are willing cheerleaders in the many women and men of this country to buy from weavers, connect them to the markets and to encourage a reformed mindset. The weaver needs to be empowered by the market and not by any board, institution, or government for him or her to respond directly to his or her needs of survival. He doesn’t wish for charity, he is happy to create and sell a world class textile and earn his respect and livelihood. The penetration of mobile phone networks to rural India has been very swift in recent decades and last mile access is no longer as terrible as during the pre-independence days. Already many weavers are leveraging this connect and ready to sell just on a whatsapp!

In theory and in practice, this year has only accelerated and highlighted industries that were already in trouble like in the case with hand looms and even with fashion. A reset, revive and re-invigoration of sorts is only possible if people take matters in their hands, be these the weavers or the consumers. Perhaps the time is ripe to hope that a few dozen Ahilyabais is all this country would need to drive the movement to a sustainable growth for Indian pride at the grassroots. It is time to unleash and unshackle the weaver and not choke him or her any longer. May there be beauty in this world being created with the soul of the hand woven, may it not be about people and institutions who control, but about those who make and sell and those who buy and celebrate.

 

Shabbir Ahmed Osmani, Himroo weaver
Najmunnisa, Paithani weaver

 

Photo taken at Rehwa, Maheshwar
photo taken at Women’s Weave
photo taken at Women’s Weave

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