sulabh swatchh bharat

Saturday, 16-February-2019


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

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. Few years back, 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.
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.

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.
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.” 
Need to recognise the value of existing indigenous technologies, skills sets and knowledge systems. If we can do it for yoga, we can surely do it for handlooms, to benefit hundreds of millions.