Has Indian handloom's newly acquired chic rubbed off on its weavers?

Photos: Sanjay K Sharma
The bylanes of Kotwan in Uttar Pradesh are a sensory delight. Unremarkable at first sight, the tiny village outside Varanasi is dominated by weavers, their rhythmic clacking at the looms offering a surreal score on a sultry afternoon. The slow cadence of the handloom is as a bass riff that accompanies the surer, faster tempo of the powerloom. This fascinating scene could well be the potted story of India’s handloom industry — one that straddles the seemingly incompatible worlds of tradition and technology. 

Indian handloom seems to be enjoying its moment in the sun. Brands such as Ekaya Banaras and Raw Mango have become cult favourites in the luxury market. Designers such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Gaurang Shah, Masaba Gupta and Anavila Misra never cease to pay tribute to “lost” Indian weaving traditions. Newly-wed actor Anushka Sharma, only one among many handloom enthusiasts in Bollywood, dazzled the world in a gorgeous red Benarasi sari. Social media trends like the Travelling Sari and the #100SareePact are pointers to how the sari, and handloom by extension, has become hip. It is not unusual to see a preference for silk and Chanderi dupattas, Benarasi saris and raw silk lehengas over chiffons and nets. 

“But is this really revival?” asks Mayank Mansingh Kaul, textile curator and writer. “We look at designers adopting a particular weave, but what is that doing for the weaver community?” Kaul, a protégé of textile revivalist Martand Singh, believes that while some weavers may see prosperity, it does not necessarily mean social mobility or dignity. “Which is why most young weavers don’t want to take the family tradition forward,” he explains. This is particularly true of pockets such as Venkatagiri in Andhra Pradesh and Gadwal in Telangana, where IT jobs have lured young people away.

Though India has a rich and varied handloom heritage, it faces crippling challenges from both technological advancements such as the powerloom as well as a declining demand for authentic products. Varanasi may be only one of many weaving clusters in India, but it is an archetype of the vagaries that govern the handloom industry. 

Inside Chhedi Ali’s house in Kotwan, a lone bulb illuminates a small room with three handlooms. Two karigars sit inside a small ditch and operate the loom with steady hands. Chhedi, a member of a century-old weaving family, laments the “imposition” of labour laws and creeping new aspirations. “It was easier to find labour before to work on these handlooms. Today, they want more money and they want to work fewer hours. How can I survive like this?” In the weaving hierarchy, Chhedi is a weaver who runs a loom. A master weaver commissions a design to him, the graph-maker provides the design on a sheet, the card-cutter creates the template and, finally, Chhedi and his labour weave the fabric. Chhedi is at the lowest rung of the chain. “I know my kids want to break out of this. But we never sent them to school and this is their only alternative,” he says.

His wife rushes in with a bright magenta sari, its golden thread catching the light thrown by a small window. Each such sari takes 15 days to be created, to make which a karigar sits at the loom for nearly 10 hours a day and earns a paltry Rs 150 a day. To the untrained eye, the sari could pass for a pure silk weave, but Chhedi explains that it is faux katan, a version of the silk thread mixed with acrylic fibre.

Though India has a rich and varied handloom heritage, it faces crippling challenges from technological advancements such as the powerloom.

Further inside Kotwan, Mohammad Azam’s bustling office is a hub for traders. The weaver hierarchy, once free of this category, is now inundated with wholesalers and traders. Jaya Jaitly, founder and president of the Dastakari Haat Samiti, points to their presence as having fractured the weaver ecosystem. “The various haats that were set up by the government were essentially to cut out the middle-man and let the weaver interact directly with buyers. Today, most of these spaces are dominated by traders,” she says.

Jitendra Kumar of Loom to Luxury, a label that works with weavers in Benaras and supplies abroad, believes that because traders don’t want to lose profitability, they don’t like taking risks. “Traders don’t want innovation and they don’t work with the weaver. This eventually means that an artisan loses pride in his work.” Some brands are aware of this problem. A spokesperson for Nalli, a South Indian apparel chain with 34 stores in India and abroad, for instance, claims that it “constantly tries to source direct from the weavers in order to keep our margins very low and increase the profit we can share directly with the artisan.” 

Azam, a master weaver who has a couple of handlooms besides powerlooms, believes that he produces more than the market demands. “As a result, I have to often sell at a loss.” He estimates that only 5 per cent of Varanasi’s looms are handlooms. “Even those weavers who have handlooms will also have at least one powerloom,” he explains. His office is filled with saris in myriad hues, a spectacular treasure trove for anyone interested in the Benarasi weave. As he pulls out sari after sari, it is apparent that most of his stock is “art silk” (which may have some degree of pure silk fibre or be completely acrylic), created on the powerloom. For every 10 of his saris, just one is created on the handloom with pure silk thread and pure zari.

To address the issue of “pure” handloom, the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA) introduced “Craftmark”, a label that certifies a sari or piece of clothing as 100 per cent handmade. A handful of brands such as West Elm, Ten Thousand Villages, Fabindia and Mrignayanee subscribe to it.

Most weavers, though, are unaware of it. The fact that the textiles ministry also has the “Silkmark” and “Khadimark” further complicates matters for both buyer and artisan. No single organisation represents the cause of the weaver, a space filled by multiple NGOs working to uplift these communities. “Implementation is difficult because of a lack of integrated policy and programmatic approach towards this sector as a major industry and employment generator in our country,” says Madhura Dutta, executive director, AIACA. The Varanasi Weavers & Artisans Society helps weavers innovate with the fabric and weave and gives them a platform to sell directly. While they do not sell a single powerloom product, a large seller like Nalli has close to 15 per cent of its stock created on the powerloom. 

But how can you resent the powerloom? When we moved from the telephone to the mobile phone, everyone celebrated this as progress. One has to accept the case with handlooms, too,” says Hasin Mohammad, a National Award-winning master weaver. His multi-storeyed building in Pilikothi in Varanasi has seen visitors such as Martand Singh, Jaitly, Rta Kapur Chishti and couture designers such as Manish Arora and Rajesh Pratap Singh. His photograph with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former textiles minister Santosh Gangwar hangs prominently on the wall. 

Hasin is one of the few weavers who has stayed true to the Benarasi weaving tradition and offers largely “pure” fabric. “Silk fibre costs have doubled in the past four years. While the government offers us subsidised resham (silk thread) through the National Handloom Development Corporation (NHDC), the bureaucracy involved makes it unviable,” he says. For instance, to get his hands on silk fibre that sells cheaper at an NHDC outlet, he first has to stand in queue. If he is lucky and the fibre is available, he has to get a demand draft made for the amount. Then he has to deal with an exhausting amount of paperwork. “I prefer to just source my stock from the market,” he says.

Hasin also believes that while the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is making the right noises about handmade fabric, it isn’t doing as much to actually support it. Thus, “Make in India” and a focus on Khadi on the one hand; on the other, slashing of the budget for handloom from nearly Rs 6 billion to Rs 3.86 billion. The Goods and Services Tax, too, wreaked havoc in this largely unorganised sector, where a lack of knowhow and assistance from the government to negotiate a complicated system severely limited cash flow among artisans. Three stores run by the Central Cottage Industries Corporation of India in Mumbai will shut in May, because of losses of nearly Rs 350 million every year. The Cottage Industries channel was a lucrative option for weavers because the government would buy directly from them. 

Jaitly, however, believes that for every instance of a dying weaving community, there is one of prosperity. “The handloom scenario in the country is complex and layered. In fact, Varanasi is one of the more successful examples of an entrepreneurial set-up. But if we only focus on reviving ‘pure’ handlooms, we will be ignoring the need to take handloom to the mass market,” she says. She cites the example of the gamchha, a simple garment that Jaitly persuaded weavers to fashion into a sari. “We should promote weavers to create those unique Odiya gamchhas instead of only reviving the fine ikat. It is about making handloom chic and wearable and, more importantly, accessible.”

Loom to Luxury’s Kumar agrees with Jaitly: “Sympathy is not going to make a weaver’s business sustainable. One has to work with the community to instil a sense of professionalism and entrepreneurship.” Loom to Luxury’s focus is on the export market, where norms about sustainable business practices and fair wages are strict. “In India, the designer market is minuscule. The wedding market is much bigger, but it is curtailed by a lack of awareness among consumers.” Kumar began tours of Kotwan to educate buyers about the labour involved in creating one piece of fabric. “The trouble also is that most policies only focus on the artisan. We need to look at all 16 people associated  — dyers, graph-makers, cardboard-cutters, karigars — and create a process that thrives at all levels.”

The short-sightedness in the way artisans are viewed tends to do more harm than policy, believes Raw Mango’s Sanjay Garg. “There is an elitist mentality about weaving. Why do we expect only weaving families to take this tradition forward?” Garg believes that weaving should be a profession that a person can acquire and succeed at, rather than merely inherit for a lack of alternatives. Raw Mango, for instance, employs 450 weavers across India, all of whom work exclusively for them and get job security in return. Garg says, “There is only one way forward — to create an equal level of makers and takers.” But the road to equality was ever a long, uncertain one. And the fabric of our country rich, complex and challenging.

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