Handloom Day is a good opportunity to stop and ask – why can’t we build on our unique strengths instead of blindly copying dominant trends?
India has the world’s largest number of handloom weavers and an extremely rich heritage of handloom products. Until only a few decades ago, we also had the most diverse cotton varieties, providing the most suitable raw material for handloom weaving.
Despite such obvious and impressive strengths, India has not been able to ensure sustainable and satisfactory livelihoods for handloom weavers. The grim reality today is that an overwhelming majority of handloom weavers are living in poverty, while many others have left the occupation based on intricate skills to toil as construction workers and rickshaw pullers. Several have also migrated out of areas earlier known as famous handloom centres.
What is more, the raw material base of the handloom industry – several region-specific cotton varieties suitable for handloom weaving – has been destroyed. Cotton cultivation is now dominated by American cotton varieties not suitable for handlooms and, more recently, by the problematic genetically modified BT cotton. As many natural forests have been destroyed and/or replaced by monoculture plantations, the potential of sericulture to support silk handlooms has also reduced.
In the WTO trade regime of very low tariffs, indiscriminate imports of mechanised imitations of handloom products have increased rapidly, taking away the market for original handloom weavers.
Thus the crucial areas of raw material supply and marketing are increasingly threatened. The internal structure of the industry has also seen changes which have increased the problems of small-scale, independent weavers who complain that the benefits of government schemes do not reach them at all.
Also, the gross inadequacy of government efforts to help handloom weavers is increasingly visible. The large-scale violation of its own laws to protect handlooms has been ignored by governments obsessed only by production targets and caring little for the protection of livelihoods. The framework of government policies is also very limited. It doesn’t care at all for the loss of precious indigenous varieties of cotton crop.
To ensure the sustainable progress of handlooms, several stages of the work, intricately related to each other, need to be protected. There is no sign of this in the government’s policy framework. There is the need to grow cotton varieties suitable for handloom weaving in different areas, to ensure decentralised spinning of this cotton and for tying up various other ancillary works.
Similarly in the case of silk handlooms, there is need to link up sericulture, ancillary works and handloom weaving.
Without bothering about such necessary linkages, government policies merely make a few half-hearted gestures here and there. The result is that at a time of great potential for handlooms, handloom weavers in India continue to face a livelihood crisis, poverty and deprivation. So their intricate skills are not being passed on to the next generation.
We only have a few years left to save handlooms from permanent decline. This is a critical time to take urgent decisions that can give a new lease of life to handloom weaving and related livelihoods.
The importance of handlooms
In the textiles sector, to meet diverse needs there is enough room for the co-existence of mills, powerlooms, handlooms and khadi. The most modern machines can co-exist with handlooms. However, handlooms should be given a place of pride in the textiles industry.
In a review of the inherent strengths of handlooms, B.K. Sinha (former development commissioner, handlooms) pointed out that due to manual operations, several combinations are possible in handlooms with intricate designs. “The functional properties like drape, texture, strength, wrinkle resistance, dominant stability etc. can be ingeniously manipulated through appropriate designs, exclusive types of fabrics used, counts and twists of warps and yarns, thick density, type of weave, type of fashion and process employed in printing.”
This review goes on to detail many kinds of clothes which are best woven on handlooms. “The clothes made from extremely fine material i.e. yarn count with 100s and above which are delicate, can be woven more safely on the handloom owing to comparative lightness of jerks. The polish of the clothes interwoven with gold or silver thread, can be taken out by extremely frictional action of powerlooms. On the contrary, handlooms are ideally suited for such work. Clothes with multi-coloured designs in which the weft is to be changed very frequently are most suited to handlooms. Clothes with embellishment in the border and heading and entire body with delicate designs in various colours which calls for individual schemes can be ideally woven on handlooms.”
Due to the widely perceived need to check greenhouse gas emissions, the case for handloom cloth is becoming stronger by the day. If handloom cloth can be linked closely to organic cultivation of non-GM cotton, its strength as eco-friendly cloth can become much stronger. This is going to be a big asset in the days to come.