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Why India Needs To Get Back On The Handloom Bandwagon Once And For All

By Nivedita Rai:

A learned professor, while trying to make his class appreciate the nuances and varieties of the Indian subcontinent, once exclaimed, “India may seem diverse and different, if you travel by train or airplane but if you walk across the boundaries of states you can see vast similarities between the cultures, traditions, folk dances, songs, paintings, art forms and languages.” The border areas of two states represent a subtle blend of the seemingly contrasting cultures, so much so that, when you walk through the borders you might not realise the difference at all.

Every state in India is blessed with idiosyncratic virtues that sets it apart from its neighbour. It was for such varied heritage that mighty rulers of the world pledged to conquer India’s wealth and some of them even left their country to reside in the Indian mainland. Over the years, the cultural heritage of India has been strengthened by such influences from the world. For instance, Bihar is famous for the celebrated Madhubani paintings, Bengal for the recently discovered Kalighat, Rajasthan has quite a few to its credit, namely the Phad and Miniature paintings, Madhya Pradesh is famous for the Gond tribal paintings, while the distinct Kalamkari has made Andhra proud.

Talking about textiles and drapes, the emperors encouraged weavers and rewarded them generously for producing exquisite one-of-its-kind drapes. This led to a rich culture of looms all across the country. Baluchuri from West Bengal, Pomchampally from Andhra, Maheshwari and Chanderi from Madhya Pradesh, Tussar silk from Bihar and Ikat from Orissa are a few that instantly comes to one’s mind. Isn’t it amazing how the culture and tradition has been passed on undeterred over centuries for the present generation to bask in its glory? And this fact gives us the responsibility of becoming custodians of our rich culture so that the generations to come, do not lose on the heritage they have equal rights to.

Two women making Kalamkari paintings in Andhra Pradesh. Source: IndiaPictures/Getty
Two women making Kalamkari paintings in Andhra Pradesh. Source: IndiaPictures/Getty

Sadly, we the ‘custodians’ hardly know about our rich cultural past. India was called the ‘golden bird’ because it was the biggest producer of cotton and spices. No other country even came close in terms of competition. We were invaded and ruled by Mughals, followed by the British colonisation. The Mughals brought their culture to India and what we see now, is a beautiful blend of both cultures whereas the East India Company came with an intention to trade, extracting whatever it could, nevertheless, exposing India to technological advancements. They sourced raw material, mainly ‘cotton’ from India and made India a market for their machine-made products, eventually killing the vibrant handloom industry. Since then the handloom industry gradually vanished as the country got poorer. The emperors who had a charm for these exquisite products fled away, depriving weavers of the patronage they received. Weavers left their livelihood for other menial occupations. Demand decreased, the market failed and the connoisseurs and custodians lost.

India was also engulfed by the wave of machine age, assembly line and industrial revolution. After all, to feed and clothe its vast population, fast, rapid and cheap products were the call of the day. Hand-made products, especially handlooms, lost in the race, becoming a vintage.

Lately, many developed countries, in its awakening, decided that it’s time to switch to sustainable technologies and green products. The world is trying to shift to renewable and degradable sources of raw material in almost every sector, hence the need to implement this in the clothing and lifestyle industries becomes imperative, as it is one of the most highly polluting industries. Today, many European countries strongly value handmade and sustainable products, building a movement to revive hand-made in lieu of mass-produced products, making sustainable and ethical clothing the buzz word. IKEA has tied up with many small local companies like Rangsutra etc., hence our products have found their way to the plush European markets. Many small enterprises and big labels like Hermes are working with artisans from Indian villages to create unique apparels. These pieces then find their way to grand fashion shows where the world applauds its beauty.

indian handicraft
Source: Dibyangshu Sarkar/Getty

While the west turns towards the east and its art forms, handlooms and handicrafts, we have yet to move on from the mill-made products from the west. It is time that we join the pack and understand what we stand to lose, if we do not act in time. Pragmatically, keeping the rate of unemployment in mind, it makes sense to switch to labour- intensive small and medium industries which require hand-work, providing employment and income to many households. There are several recent ventures like Anokhi, Jaypore etc. that employ rural artisans and produce garments that comply with fair trade principles and qualify as ethical clothing.

Another problem faced is the lack of awareness and will to endorse such products. Consumers are unaware of hand-made products and in many cases, tend to compare them with mill-made products that are comparatively cheaper. A massive awareness drive is needed to educate the younger population about the benefits of handloom and sustainable products. The government has to play a major role in promoting and spreading awareness about the cause because it will be a great loss if the country fails to support its artisans. In fact, the Ministry of Textiles has done a commendable job in promoting Khadi and handloom products under the Indian Handloom Brand (IHB).

India is again standing at a place where it can command its worth, by teaching the world to live resourcefully and the world is turning towards it for the knowledge and resources. We need to conserve our resources, utilise the strength of young people and their skills, learn to respect artisans and move towards sustainable technologies and options. Myopic and short term gains might seem lucrative now but a foresighted approach will secure our future.

We undoubtedly need technology but we also need to understand that excessive reliance on machine-made products and complete negligence towards hand-made and sustainable products could lead us towards a doomsday of its own.

Featured Image Source: Noah Seelam/Getty

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