With a Change of Garb, Smriti Irani Could Transform Handlooms From Irrelevant to Dynamic

It is ironic that we ignore the handlooms industry for this is precisely the sector that could make the 'Make in India' and 'Skill India' initiatives work.

Mohammad Ismail, a handloom weaver in Varanasi. Credit: Anandamoy/ Flickr

Mohammad Ismail, a handloom weaver in Varanasi. Credit: Anandamoy/ Flickr

Social media is full of jokes about how, in the best traditions of Indian patriarchy, Smriti Irani was found unsuited for higher education and told to go make clothes for her dolls. Other memes have her locking her textbooks in a cupboard and sitting down to weave lotus symbols on saris. The jokes reveal two deeply entrenched public perceptions: first, that managing textiles – despite being the largest employment sector after agriculture – is a demotion; second, and more surprisingly, that the textile ministry is all about handlooms and the traditional weavers that make them. This is gratifying, but ironic.

In actual fact, the handloom sector is a small embattled section of a ministry in which handlooms are totally overshadowed by the overpowering presence of the mill and powerloom sector. Their aggressive, organised and well-funded lobbies make sure that the voice and needs of the handloom weaver are completely ignored. Bureaucrats in charge of the sector change seats quite rapidly; it attracts neither eyeballs nor kickbacks. They seldom understand its complex nature. One senior bureaucrat called it a ‘sunset industry’, ignoring the fact that everywhere else in the world ‘hand-spun’, ‘hand-woven’ and ‘handmade’ have become desired designer labels. In New York, pure Egyptian cotton sheets retail for the equivalent of Rs 25,000.

The 17th century traveller Francois Pyrard de Laval wrote that Indian “cotton cloth was the first global commodity”, and “the growing of cotton, the spinning of yarn and the weaving and finishing of cloth provided employment and income to millions … Everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, is clothed from head to foot in the product of Indian looms.” Today, they are clothed in Chinese goods instead.

Always more savvy than us, China regularly imports Indian weavers to teach their own craftspeople our skills. Chinese Banarsis, pashminas, machine-made chikan embroidery and faux-Kutch mirror work are flooding the market and finding ready takers, even in India. Last year, when I was in China, it had just been announced that craft was one of the eight major sectors they were going to concentrate on over the next decade. Master craftspeople are given subsidised housing and work in luxurious fully-equipped environs – complete with air-conditioning and piped music. Their salaries reflect their perceived status in society. They are part of the professional middle-class, encouraged to think big and add value to their products, and given every means to learn to do so.

A tragedy on all fronts

Meanwhile, we in India ignore our own handlooms industry. It is ironic because this is precisely the sector that could make the ‘Make in India’ and ‘Skill India’ initiatives work. While we try to painfully acquire the skills and resources that other advanced countries acquired decades ago, we ignore this existing goldmine and the advantage we have of a foot in multiple centuries. Instead of investing in, developing and promoting our unique skill sets and knowledge systems, we are allowing them to die. For lack of equal opportunity, their owners are leaving the sector in droves.

The weavers in Nagpur – once a centre for wonderful handlooms – no longer weave saris because there are no longer skilled local artisans to make and repair the looms. And while we celebrate the wonderful Kashmiri shawl-makers, it is tragic that only 1% of the world’s production of pashmina yarn comes from India. And the quality is so poor that only 10% of this 1% is internationally graded as pashmina*. Shawl manufacturers in India, once the cradle of pashmina yarn, now import raw pashmina – from China and Mongolia, and even the UK.

Weavers and craftspeople are dismissed as ‘picturesque’ heritage and culture, or seen as part of a primitive technology that is irrelevant to a developing economy and will inevitably die. What a tragedy. Shortsighted, too, since the ‘modern’ skills currently being expensively promoted encourage wholesale migration to India’s overburdened cities, placing a further load on our already inadequate urban infrastructure. On the other hand, textile skills are based in rural India, with minimal carbon imprint, perfectly suited to rural production systems and social structures. They also – and this is crucially important – bring agriculturists and rural women into the economy, creating double-income households in otherwise poverty-stricken areas.

Apart from scaling up existing weaver communities, there is huge scope for creating ancillary skills that service them: (i) The cultivation and production of raw material (cotton, silk, hussar, linen, jute and wool yarn); (ii) pattern making, embroidery, block and screen printing dyeing; (iii) making of tools and equipment, including looms, spindles and shuttles; (iv) warping of looms, cutting, tailoring, accessorising, washing and dry cleaning; (v) packaging, entrepreneurship development for marketing; and, of course, (vi) cultivation and development of all those exciting new fibres such as banana leaves, nettle and water chestnuts.

This would create additional employment in crafts pockets, as well enable greater professionalism and more productivity in the existing crafts community.

Dastkar’s own intervention with Berozgar Mahila Kalyan Samiti in Bihar, and the transformation of rural spinners and weavers from bonded labour into a several-crore-turnover enterprise, is another example of undervalued traditional skills becoming a lucrative source of employment and earning. However, today, at the apogee of their demand, they are again facing problems due to the unavailability of raw Tussar, once found wild in their forests. This is a reminder of the dependency of craft traditions on many external factors: market linkages, access to finance, design and market information, appropriate raw material – all of which are necessary to build a prosperous India.

New ways of seeing

In order to realise the potential of our own unique skill-sets, creativity and expertise, we need to relook the whole way we deal with the sector. We need to realise that though handloom weavers number in the millions, each family is a unique specialised unit, working in hundreds of different traditions, often with their own special techniques and design directory – and with their own individual needs. To lump them together in generic government cluster development schemes or textile parks does not necessarily work. They should be treated like other entrepreneurs, with easy access to resources and investment.

A Kanjeeveram sari weaver with the potential to weave a brocaded wedding sari worth a lakh rupees is quite different from a weaver in Barabanki making coarse cotton bedsheets. Their raw materials, R&D requirements, production capacities, design references, storage needs and even potential markets are all quite different. To position them together in an open-air Handloom Expo is dumbing down the potential of both. One needs the hushed exclusivity of a carefully-lit showroom, saris wrapped in fine muslin covers, being reverently unfolded one by one; the other needs wholesale orders.

One major factor in the decline in the numbers of young craftspeople leaving the sector (an estimated 10-15% every decade, an acknowledged fact, taken from the census and handicrafts board figures of the last several decades*) is the conflict between the need for formal education and learning the family craft skill. Either they become unlettered artisans, placed very low in the social and professional hierarchy, or – if they do opt for formal education – they lose their inherent dexterity, but often do not qualify for alternative occupations.

If craftspeople are to be on par with other professionals, they need skills other than simply craftsmanship, skills like entrepreneurship, merchandising, finance, IT know-how, access to technology and contemporary design. Where can they acquire these skills? How do we embed these functions in crafts communities, without impacting the cultural and social subtleties of their traditions and ways of life?

One example is comprised of the young craftspeople of Kutch and Kashmir, who have perceived the advantages of learning the terminology and practice of design, graphic communication and entrepreneurial skills, along with English and accountancy, as a way to upgrade and value-add to the skills they have inherited. Institutions like Judy Frater’s path-breaking Kala Raksha Vidyalaya, the Craft Development Institute in Srinagar, the Handloom School and now the Somaiya Kala Vidya, have given them the confidence and ability to use their creativity in new ways. They look at their traditions as a calling card, not a cage. We need to replicate these modules all over India sensitively, taking weavers and handlooms into the global marketplace and 21st century.

Philosopher historian Ananda Coomaraswamy said a century ago: “The most important thing that India can give to the rest of the world is simply its Indianness. If it were to substitute this for a cosmopolitan veneer, it would have to come before the world empty handed.” Politicians, bureaucrats and economists, trying to turn us from ‘developing’ to ‘developed’, need to recognise the value of existing indigenous technologies, skill sets and knowledge systems. If we can do it for yoga, we can surely do it for handlooms, which would benefit hundreds of millions.

Hopefully, Irani’s pugnacious, proactive nature will find an outlet combating the dominant view of handlooms as an irrelevant, outdated part of our past. If nurtured, they could be such a dynamic part of our economic future.

  • These statistics are from a report previously accessed by the author.

Laila Tyabji is the founder of Dastkar, an NGO working for the revival of traditional crafts in India.