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.
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.
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.