Hand­hold­ing Hand­looms


The gov­ern­ment's re­cent mea­sures are aimed at re­viv­ing the rich heritage of hand­loom sec­tor and en­rich­ing its weavers.

Ariot of colours, eye-riv­et­ing designs, scin­til­lat­ing hues and en­tranc­ing in­ter­lac­ing of warps and wefts give these fab­rics a dis­tinc­tive ap­peal. From the North­East and Kash­mir to the south­ern tip of the coun­try, these fab­rics have dis­tin­guish­ing features that im­part a unique ex­otic ap­peal. Through cen­turies, hand­looms have been as­so­ci­ated with ex­cel­lence in In­dia's artistry in fab­rics and pro­vid­ing a source of liveli­hood to mil­lions of crafts-per­sons in al­most ev­ery State.

De­spite sweep­ing changes, the tra­di­tion of art and craft has been kept alive due to con­tin­u­ous ef­forts of gen­er­a­tions of artists and crafts­men. They have weaved their dreams and vi­sions into ex­quis­ite hand­loom prod­ucts and trans­ferred their skills to their prog­e­nies.

From an­cient times, Indian hand­loom prod­ucts have been iden­ti­fied by their im­pec­ca­ble qual­ity. These in­clude muslin of Chan­deri, silk bro­cades of Varanasi, the tie-and-dye prod­ucts of Ra­jasthan and Odisha, the Chin­tas of Machh­li­pat­nam, the Him­roos of Hy­der­abad, the Khes of Pun­jab, the prints of Far­rukhabad, the Phenek and Tongam and bot­tle designs of As­sam and Ma­nipur, the Ma­hesh­wari sa­rees of Mad­hya Pradesh and the Pa­tola sa­rees of Vado­dara.

Fur­ther­more, the skill in­volved in pro­duc­ing these spe­cial hand­loom prod­ucts - such as the Kancheep­u­ram and Be­naras silks, the Kosa and Moga silk from Ch­hat­tis­garh and As­sam re­spec­tively, or the Jamd­hani from Ben­gal, the Bha­galpur silk, the Chan­deri from Mad­hya Pradesh and the Tus­sar and Ikat of Odisha - is a part of a spe­cial cul­tural cap­i­tal. Though the lighter, Western cloth­ing is pre­ferred to­day, most of us still do not miss the most in­tri­cately-wo­ven tra­di­tional cloth­ing on spe­cial oc­ca­sions, like wed­dings and fes­ti­vals.

Tough times

Af­ter In­de­pen­dence, the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced many safe­guards to pre­serve the Gand­hian legacy of valu­ing Khadi to pro­tect hand­loom weavers and the cul­tural heritage of this in­dus­try from en­croach­ment by the pow­er­loom and mill sec­tors. The Hand­looms (Reser­va­tion of Ar­ti­cles for Pro­duc­tion) Act, 1985 set aside 22 tra­di­tional cloth items, such as sa­rees with bor­ders, dhoti and lungi, among others, for exclusive hand­loom pro­duc­tion and put them out­side the purview of the pow­er­loom sec­tor. But, when this Act took ef­fect af­ter eight years in 1993, af­ter a pro­tracted lit­i­ga­tion by the pow­er­loom sec­tor, the re­served list had only 11 items.

In the late nineties, pro­duc­tion suf­fered due to a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors, such as cus­tomers' chang­ing tastes, trade prac­tices and duty-free im­port of Chi­nese crepe yarn. Weavers be­came labour­ers. Slowly, trends changed and tra­di­tional crafts-per­sons found it dif­fi­cult to sus­tain their liveli­hood. How­ever, since 2015, the sa­ree has re­vived peo­ple's in­ter­est in hand­looms like never be­fore.

The sec­ond-big­gest source of em­ploy­ment in ru­ral In­dia, next only to agriculture, the hand­loom sec­tor pro­vides em­ploy­ment to 43.3 lakh from di­verse com­mu­ni­ties en­gaged in 23.8 lakh looms across the coun­try. It con­trib­utes nearly 15 per cent of the cloth pro­duc­tion in the coun­try and also to ex­port earn­ings. About 95 per cent of the world's hand-wo­ven fab­ric is from In­dia.

En­abling poli­cies

Recog­nis­ing the glo­ri­ous his­tory of the in­dus­try and its rel­e­vance to present times, the gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to resur­gence of hand-wo­ven

tex­tile and also its weavers. In 2015, Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi de­clared Au­gust 7 as the Na­tional Hand­loom Day to mark the day the Swadeshi Move­ment was launched in 1905 and ded­i­cated the day to the weavers of the coun­try, mak­ing good on his poll prom­ise of the 5Fs: farm to fi­bre, fi­bre to fab­ric, fab­ric to fashion and fashion to for­eign.

The prime min­is­ter also launched the In­dia Hand­loom Brand (IHB) on the same day to en­dorse the qual­ity of the prod­ucts in terms of raw ma­te­rial, pro­cess­ing, weav­ing and other pa­ram­e­ters be­sides so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal com­pli­ances for earn­ing cus­tomers' trust. The IHB soon made its pres­ence on the so­cial me­dia to con­nect with cus­tomers, es­pe­cially the youth, to pro­mote high-qual­ity hand­loom prod­ucts, help build cus­tomer aware­ness and carve a dis­tinct iden­tity for it.

Since as­sum­ing charge of the Union Tex­tile Min­istry in July 2016, Union Min­is­ter Sm­riti Irani has led by ex­am­ple with her I Wear Hand­loom cam­paign on the so­cial me­dia, which was started last Au­gust. The gov­ern­ment has also ini­ti­ated sev­eral steps to re­vive hand­looms. It has laid stress on in­creas­ing weavers' earn­ings, which would in turn at­tract the younger gen­er­a­tion to this pro­fes­sion. These in­clude or­gan­is­ing weavers in clus­ters and pro­vid­ing basic in­fra­struc­ture by set­ting up com­mon fa­cil­ity cen­tres.

To boost hand­looms, the tex­tile min­is­ter re­cently brought to­gether lead­ing de­sign­ers in a unique pub­licpri­vate part­ner­ship. More than a dozen of them were as­signed hand­loom clus­ters for prod­uct de­vel­op­ment and train­ing weavers to upgrade their skills.

The other mea­sures in­clude en­cour­ag­ing weavers to sell prod­ucts through e-com­merce; pro­mot­ing ed­u­cated youth from weavers' fam­i­lies as weaver en­trepreneurs, who will get mar­ket in­for­ma­tion, pro­duce and mar- ket cloth directly; link­ing hand­loom with fashion and tourism to ex­pand the mar­ket and in­crease earn­ings; and in­volv­ing the pri­vate sec­tor in de­sign de­vel­op­ment and mar­ket­ing.

The Tex­tile Min­istry is mak­ing con­certed ef­forts to pitch In­dia as a global sourc­ing cen­tre for all fab­ric, mak­ing hand­loom In­dia's niche con­tri­bu­tion to the in­ter­na­tional fashion in­dus­try. Ef­forts are on to upgrade hand-weav­ing tech­nol­ogy in terms of weavers' com­fort, pro­duc­tiv­ity and qual­ity. To en­sure con­ti­nu­ity of the hand-weav­ing heritage, nine Indian In­sti­tutes of Hand­loom Tech­nol­ogy lo­cated across the coun­try im­part spe­cialised train­ing in hand­loom weav­ing to the new gen­er­a­tion.

Re­spond­ing to the chang­ing con­sumer de­mand in the mod­ern world, hand­loom weav­ing in In­dia is evolv­ing each day. Sev­eral char­ac­ter­is­tic in­no­va­tions like heavy case­ment, re- cy­cled rugs and jacquard wo­ven fab­rics in thick cot­ton and silk fab­rics are a pop­u­lar choice to­day. Hand-weavers of­fer a vast range of dec­o­ra­tive and fur­nish­ing fab­rics for homes in cot­ton and silk. More than 50 per cent of hand-wo­ven ex­ports com­prise home tex­tile prod­ucts. Celebri­ties and de­sign­ers con­tinue to make fashion state­ments around Indian hand­looms glob­ally.

The de­cen­tralised na­ture of hand­loom pro­duc­tion and its non­pol­lut­ing ef­fect on en­vi­ron­ment make it a pre­ferred sec­tor in com­ing years. With a low cap­i­tal-to-out­put ra­tio, this sec­tor's strength lies in its unique­ness, a wealth of tra­di­tion, flex­i­bil­ity of small pro­duc­tion, open­ness to in­no­va­tion and adapt­abil­ity to sup­pli­ers' needs.

(The au­thor is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist and colum­nist with four decades of ex­pe­ri­ence across var­i­ous me­dia streams.)

About 95 per cent of the world's hand-wo­ven fab­ric is pro­duced in In­dia.

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