Until recently the general view of the future of handlooms was gloomy. Though people saw the production of cloth on the handloom in India as a matter of pride in its heritage, they also saw it as an aberration in an industrializing economy. It will inevitably decline, was the general view. However, even today handlooms still produce twelve percent of the country’s cloth, while the share of the mills is only around fourpercent. Ninety-five percent of the world’s handloom fabric comes from India. The handloom industry even today is one of the largest employers in the country, certainly in rural India the largest after agriculture.
In the last few years there has been a surge of interest in the handloom, and new ways of looking at it. New initiatives, new support organizations have sprung up, seminars and workshops are being held, hand weaving is finding new constituencies, particularly among the young. These fresh viewpoints are contesting the gloomy picture of decline that in the last century hung like a dark cloud over the handloom industry. Perhaps the prophecies of doom were premature: Today at a time when climate change and the energy crisis are pressing concerns, when mass production is losing its glamour, the handloomcan be seen as an ecological, energy-efficient way of making cloth rather than an anachronistic remnant of pre-industrial manufacture, a sunrise, rather than a sunset, industry.
My own experience in the field of handloom weaving is twenty-seven years long. It began when I met the cotton and tassar weavers of south eastern Adilabad district. As I watched them at their looms I realised how important itwas to have the least possible distance between the different stages of cloth making, andhow nature, industry and society could be in harmony if these were close to each other. In Adilabad the yarn for tassar fabric was made in villages near the tassar looms, but cotton yarn for cotton weaving came from far away. Cotton fields were all around but the cotton was taken away to be spun in distant spinning mills. My colleagues and I listened to the stories of our weaver friends and tried to put the different bits together to make a picture. There were weaver families in Bhimaram village who had given up weaving when the import of cotton yarn from England stopped in the Second World War.Until then all the cloth needed by local families had been made here. A few families still wove what people wanted –thick cotton coverings for winter, bedsheets and sarees, but the yarn for all these came from far away.
“You have to know the past to understand the present and shape the future” as the saying goes. The weaver families of Adilabadgave us our first glimpse into the past world of local cloth making for local use. Their memories were one part of the larger jigsaw of the history of the Indian cotton textile industry. From history books we learnt how the cloth that ‘clothed the world’ began its journey from the cotton fields to millions of spinning and weaving households, passing through small weekly markets, carried by traders to the big trading posts from where it went East and West all over the ancient world. We began to look at the whole chain of cotton cloth making, starting with the plant. We learnt how local cotton cloth making which had once flourished had now almost disappeared. We learnt how the American variety of cotton had replaced the desito suit the spinning machinery that replaced hand-spinning, andhow that machinery broke the close relations between cotton cultivation and textile production. And we began to understand how these changes had almost destroyed what had been the primary industry of the subcontinent for thousands of years. We wondered: surely there were lessons for the future in the small-scale, low-energy local cotton cloth making of the past?
Does the making of cloth on the man-or-woman-worked loom have a place in India’s future, not just as a reminder of our glorious tradition, but as the anchor of a dispersed, decentralized, people-owned industrializationthat bypasses the need for fossil-fuelled electric power?A model of industrialization that would capitalize on ‘Indianness’, the mix of characteristics and circumstances that are unique to India? As for example Japan capitalized on its heritage skill of miniaturization? Isn’t the wooden hand-loom the quintessential expression of the Indian genius for incorporating flexibility and diversity in large-scale manufacture? Today, in a world where the engines of growth of high-energy industry are sputtering to an end, the handloom as part of an alternative mode of industrialization looks like a serious possibility.
People seem to think so. The handloom industry is finding vigorous support among civil society. People have been roused to activism to stave off anti-handloom measures, providing a voice for the industry which otherwise lacks the means to counter propaganda by the powerful lobbies of the textile mill and powerloom sectors.A recent example of the new activism was the campaign in April of this year to convince the Government of India not to repeal the Handloom Reservation Act of 1985. This is how it began: A post on Malkha’s Facebook page on April 7 alerted people to an effort by powerloom interests to invade the space reserved for handwoven products, through repeal of the Handloom Reservation Act. “This Act” the post said, “ is the only protection handlooms have against their designs being unethically copied by powerlooms and sold as handlooms! Request all handloom supporters to raise their voices”. The post was rapidly shared on 60 other Facebook pages.Dastkar put up apetition on change.org ‘Save Handlooms – Don’t Repeal the Handloom Reservation Act!’ asking for signatures and in a matter of days 17,449 people signed. Responses such as these to the petition came from all over the country and from Holland, Estonia, Germany & the UK:
“Each weave has a cultural tradition and a story, each linking us to our social and cultural roots. If we remove the protection and incentives for handloom weavers to continue weaving their traditional products and saris, we would suddenly be bereft of both our past and our future”.
“India’s traditional textiles are a national treasure and one of the reasons why I always want to return to India”.
“Don’t repeal this act, that allows India to produce incredible textile works of art. As a nation you should be proud of the skill of your weavers and should protect and promote them and their work”.
“I’m signing this because the handlooms textiles make India unique in the world, and they are one of the main reasons why I have taken group after group of foreign tourists to your country since 1997. It is an irreplaceable part of your culture”.
BJP Member of Parliament KirronKher made a passionate intervention in Parliament on behalf of handlooms, echoed by a letter to the Prime Minister on Malkha’s Facebook page:
“Dear Prime Minister, Minister,Textiles and Secretary, Textiles, Government of India:
We, handloom supporters, handloom wearers, believers in a bright future for handlooms, weavers of handloom fabrics, and the sizers, winders, warpers and others who depend on handlooms, await a statement from you that you will NOT change the Handloom Reservation Act. About 15,000 – yes fifteen thousand – of us have signed a petition online for this, and more are signing every day. Ms KirronKher has raised the issue in Parliament.
Public opinion is clearly in support of handlooms.Yet there is no formal assurance from you that you are not planning to take away this protection from the Handloom Industry of India. If big corporate industries have the right to protection of their brands, why not handlooms?
Please make a statement urgently: are you for or against the handloom industry?”
Well, there was no response from the Prime Minister or the Minister for Textiles, but on the sixth of May the Press Information Bureau issued a statement on behalf of the Ministry with the heading “No change in items Reserved for Production by Handlooms”. Relief and satisfaction was shared on social media and in comments on the change.org petition: “This is a vote to protect culturally important and environmentally friendly methods of production from being hijacked by big business for big profits. Glad to hear the bill will not be repealed for now – keep fighting!”
This was only the latest battle in a long and continuing war for the rights of the hand weaving industry. Throughout the twentieth century,and in the opening years of the twenty-first,handlooms have come under attack by mills and powerlooms. Wealthy mill-owners openly campaign against it and powerlooms cannibalise handloom markets by faking handloom products. In the later years of the century anti-handloom policies were been enacted by the State, particularly the NationalTextile Policy of 1985. Hearsay has it that this policy was written at the behest of a powerful business house, whose interests in synthetic yarn have long clashed with the interests of the handloom.
The policy was fiercely criticised. Lakshmi Chand Jain called it ‘perverse’ and accused it of sounding the death-knell of handlooms. K Srinivasulu, reviewing the policy in 1996 in the Economic and Political Weeklylambasted it. But the anti-handloom trend of State policy continued in the new Textile Policy of 2000. As Asha Krishnakumar wrote in Frontline magazine in 2001 “The latest Textile Policy has its roots in the 1985 exercise which was a clear departure from the policy followed since Independence, which recognised the employment potential of handlooms and provided it adequate safeguards from the mill and powerloom sectors. The 1985 policy made a significant departure from this …”Asha Krishnakumar is one of the journalists and academics who have pointed out the folly of such short-sighted policy initiatives in articles and papers. However, it seems that such criticism can be, like water off the proverbial duck’s back,easily brushed off by policy makers.
Perhaps it is the absence of representation of the handloom industry in Parliament allows anti-handloom policies to be passed. Since the death of PragadaKotaiah, Member of Parliament and firebrand handloom activist, the handloom industry has been without a spokesperson among policy makers, leaving the field open to lobbying by influential interests. ‘Lobbying’ is defined by Wikipedia as ‘ the act of attempting to influence decisions made by officials in a government, most often legislators’. Lobbying is an expensive activity, where obviously the handloom industry is at a disadvantage.
While the handloom community fails in lobbying, even its successful campaigns cannot seem to turn the policy tide in its favour. In 1999, protesting against anti-handloom recommendations of the Sathyam Committee which was set up by Parliament to form the basis of a new Textile policy, a large rally of weavers from Andhra Pradesh,Kerala, Tamil Nadu and U.P.led by the RashtriyaChenethaKarmikaSamakhya (the Weavers Union ofAndhra Pradesh)reached Delhi. In response the Prime Minister of the time, AtalBihari Vajpayee, in a statement in Parliament, assured the weavers that the committee’s recommendations would be rejected. They were not. The Textile Policy of 2000 further eroded the rights of the handloom to a level playing field.
The handloom industry’s struggle for its rights and entitlements is one side of the picture, and it’s true that the numbers of looms has declined by almost a third in recent years. On the other side is the undeniable fact that the handloom industry remains today one of the largest employers in the country. There are pockets of thriving handloom activity and new initiatives.Public figures such as Sonia Gandhi and ShabanaAzmi have always appeared in handloom fabrics while a younger generation takes a cue from VidyaBalan and Priyanka Gandhi. These women represent the classic Indian middle class woman, a strong supporter of handloom fabrics. School teachers, college professors, women in corporate offices and in the public sector prefer to wear handloom fabrics. The nature of the market itself has changed with internet, and for busy working women there are a host of websites offering genuine handloom products. Campaigns for handloom have been taken up on Twitter and Facebook.
New ideas are sprouting. The Malkha initiative produces cotton yarnspecifically for hand-weaving in small, decentralised spinning mills usingunbaled cotton lint, and is woven into the iconic Malkha fabric. Motivating young persons from weaver backgrounds, The Handloom School in Maheshwaroffers a ‘work-study program …in design, textile technology, business, and sustainability’. The program enables young weavers to see that they can ’earn a dignified and equitable livelihood’ at their looms.RtaKapurChisti runs well-attended classes for young women in how to wear handloom sarees. Gunjan Jain and Sanjay Garg have brought a contemporary design sensibility into traditional handloom fabrics.
A new alliance keeps the looms working; markets and civil society are voting for the handloom.Handloom support organizations and weavers’ own collectives have sprung up in the last twenty years such as Desi and Charaka in Karnataka, Malkha, Dastkar Andhra, Kargha and Chitrika in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, Vriksh in Odisha, Womenweave in Madhya Pradesh, Khamir in Kachch, UrmulMarusthaliBunkar Vikas Samitiin Rajasthan. These new entities have rejuvenated earlier weaver cooperatives or made new ones. They’ve bridged the gap between production and market, setting up attractive shops and providing research, design, promotion and training for handloom producers. Together with weavers themselves and with concerned people they have joined up to form active movements in support of the loom. Students, people associated with the ‘green’ movement, academics and ordinary Indians from all walks of life are looking for informationon the history and present situation of the industry. Friends of Handloom and Handloom Now have recently held seminars and workshops which have been surprisingly well attended.
The sound of the shuttle racing from side to side on the wooden loom can still be heard all over the country. “There is nothing more exhilarating for a fabric-lover to enter a village for the first time and hear the vibrant sound of looms clicking away into the 21st century”, wrote Katherine Joseph in 2010. That sound bridges the past and present of the handloom industry and signals its relevance to the future. It was the clatter of the looms ofAdilabadthat started the trend of thought that led eventually to decentralised cotton yarn making specifically for the handloom, the first time it’s ever been done. Malkha fabric is the result, woven on what is possibly the most efficient cloth making technology ever invented: the traditional handloom.
First published in the Financial Chronicle, December 2015.