Discussion on India’s handloom heritage swings between extremes. Some influential minds would have us believe the fabric is doomed to extinction, given the versatility, speed and economy of computerized production on powered looms. A contrasting conviction is of millions dependent on India’s second largest source of livelihood, serving a huge market at home and abroad, and creating what for some is ‘the world’s greatest fabric’. There is another argument, less heard yet probably of greatest import. It regards the handloom as symbolic of an alternative paradigm of human development, placing human and planetary wellbeing at the centre of concern. In this perspective, the Indian handloom is more than a tool. It emerges as a composite world view, as a culture, and as resource of wisdom and innovation that can respond to contemporary challenges with extraordinary creativity. A middle path must find its way through the debate and into the market place, where the user is judge and jury. So, who needs or demands hand-made fabric? Can demand be built over competition from mass-produced imitations and alternatives? What does ‘handmade’ actually mean in this age of mixed skills, materials and technologies? The answers should belong to the buyer and the weaver, yet both voices are stifled. The extinction argument is the one proclaimed loudest, by lobbies claiming to speak for the consumer, yet without any mandate from her. Their political clout is not matched by activists and aesthetes, inspired by the ‘charkha century’, or by the discipline of alternative economics that is largely unaware of the craft sector’s antidote to jobless growth.
Research-backed, demand-driven handloom strategies are nowhere in sight. The sector’s last marketing genius was Gandhiji. He changed the tastes of a nation through a handloom revolution that gave the last century its grandest design story. That message echoed after Independence. Pioneers like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar made the hand-made indispensable to defining who we are and who we want to be. That is, until globalization and ‘liberalization’ cloned Indian dreams into Shanghai and Silicon Valley fantasies. The handloom became an embarrassment when technology could deliver facsimiles at fractional cost, and to uniform, mass-market standards. In shops stacked with mass-produced imitations, few discerned the difference. So why care? Heritage should now move off the body and into museums.
These arguments led a few years ago to an outrageous decision (fueled by lobby pressure to scrap the Handloom Reservation Act 1985) to fix electric motors on handlooms. The announced intention was to reduce drudgery, lift earnings and liberate the poor weaver. At one stroke, millions of handlooms would become power-looms and heritage skills lost, perhaps forever. India’s weavers suspected crocodile tears. Protests across the country finally led to a PMO assurance that handloom definition would “remain in the purest form”. Soon, a handloom blitz was launched from Varanasi, a new Prime Minister’s constituency and home to the ultimate symbol of India’s craft genius. Fashion galas have followed, all with the objective of ‘lifting global handloom demand’. Politics has forced the doomsday scenario into the wings. There, its whispers continue unabated.
Market demand is and will remain at the heart of this issue. Given the scale of the industry and the market, the absence of serious research over almost seven decades is truly astounding. A fabric some consider the finest and others regard as terminally ill has been produced, sold, imitated, dumped, defended and promoted at highest levels without clear demand evidence or supply response. At a mega Mumbai event, a design icon demanded to know why all the fuss? There was, she claimed, no lack of demand for handloom quality, either at home or overseas. “There is zero resistance on price. Buyers pay for quality. I can sell whatever I make, and I can sell it all at home. I don’t bother about exports”. Her constraints were all in the supply chain, and in the appalling poverty that claims most Indian artisans. Bottlenecks in yarn delivery, transportation, poor market knowledge creating confusion on consumer preferences, inadequate access (to credit, design, IPR and technical services), a Reservation Act that is seldom implemented, dumping from East Asia, dreadful conditions of work and living — all offered testimony to decades of schemes that have failed to deliver. The need was management, not 5-star hoopla.
If the future is a land we cannot visit, another generation of weavers must resolve the argument. Some are indeed exercising the option of exit from a hereditary profession. So do their peers elsewhere. Others long to remain in the tradition of their forbears, but with hope and dignity. Both demand new knowledge and access to its sources. Investment in entrepreneurship is a first essential. Professionalism could at last bring an end to the dreadful tradition of handloom fabric promoted as a rebate opportunity, signaling a product to be bargained down and treated as charity, not as ‘the world’s greatest fabric’ with USPs that youth can recognize as simultaneously economic, social, political, environmental, cultural and even spiritual. And not just at the high end: the humble gamcha has a hugely profitable local market.
Cynics continue to suggest that anything the hand can do technology can do better, even as jobless growth stares India in its face. Should this argument be used to dismiss other advantages of hand, eye and mind? Indigenous knowledge is increasingly respected as India’s priceless intellectual capital in agriculture, water, health, well-being, education, housing, combating climate change and in the arts. If technological and managerial advances do not torpedo other sectors of Indian creativity, why stop at weavers? They have welcomed change, innovated technologies and served global demand for centuries. Why assume that the great textiles of the future will not emerge from those who created the greatest 20th century fabric? If cutting-edge indications are needed, listen to Nandan Nilekani: “Our mental models are outdated. Export led growth, ‘make in India’ and big firms are yesterday’s stories. The future lies in our domestic market….. In the new world order everything is micro, millions of small procedures aggregating their capability by using technology”. That is a truth young weavers across the country recognize. It is the opportunity they are demanding. It should be theirs.
First published on July 16, 2016.