Transiting From Cheap & Tacky to an International Must-Have


Textiles are literally a text and palimpsest of our past, present, and future. Handlooms are a part of India's history, economics, aesthetics and culture. If we lose them, we lose a part of ourselves, warns the Chairperson, Dastkar Society for Crafts & Craftspeople, Laila Tyabji.


Travelling to China recently for an international crafts conference and fair where craftspeople from all over the world were participating, it was a joy to see the quality of products and how exciting and innovative they were. The Indian craftspeople and exhibits, carefully handpicked by the Crafts Council of India, held their own, and ended up winning three of 15 awards. Virtually everyone was marvelling at the beauty and diversity of Indian textiles.


When I was asked to write this article, the name of the e-magazine sounded familiar. It took me back to 2003 and an exhibition called Fibres of Fashion, organised by the Fashion Design Council of India. There too, a jury consisting of Raghavendra Rathore, Anshu Modi, Meera Muzaffar Ali, and Anchal Jain of Promostyl awarded seven of the 12 prizes to Indian grassroots textile craftspeople! Sweeping the awards despite competing against 70 participants from the mill and industrial sector was a taste of success in the mainstream market for the winners. What is usually only a pipe dream for rural artisans, came true.



For the Berozgar Mahila Kalyan Samiti group from Bihar especially, it was a huge jump from being bonded labour in Bihar to sharing a common platform in a 5-star hotel with crystal major Swarovski! For once, a level playing field, Indian weavers have the skills to conquer the world. India is so fortunate to have this treasure house. Over nine million textile craftspeople are still part of India's living heritage, practicing hand skills unmatched by any other country. They also have an extraordinary repertoire of motifs and designs going back generations and distinctive to each tradition. Weavers and spinners create textiles in hundreds of different techniques and traditions unique to each community and area - a cultural and economic strength whose full potential remains untapped and that still has a contemporary and global appeal.

 

Another advantage we have is that all over the world, 'handmade' and 'handloom' are becoming sought after international brands. Eco-friendly and organic handwoven and handmade fabrics have the value of a designer label in today's environmentally aware global consumer consciousness. Simultaneously, new markets and buyers are emerging. The skills to make India a global handloom hub exist but they are dying for lack of proper infrastructure and planning.


I remember a song that Saliya weavers in South India still sing - of forefathers that wove on looms of silver and ropes of bronze. Ancestral records tell of temple gifts encrusted with 20,000 pearls and their equivalent weight of gold ornaments; of the attempts of rival kingdoms to lure weavers to their courts. It is a far cry from those days of affluence, power and prestige to the sad cry of one present day weaver: "It is the grave pit, not the loom pit."


Every year in India, some traditional weave or pattern disappears. Not just the intricate and labour-intensive expensive patolas, jamdanis and balucharis, but everyday local weaves that in price and practicality should hold their own with mass-produced mill fabric, were it not for lacunae in marketing and availability that vital interaction between producer and consumer.


Cotton was "the most important manufactured good in world trade," with the Indian subcontinent the "pre-eminent centre for cotton manufacturing in the world till the 19th century." Cotton originated in India and Indian textiles were found in the tombs of the Egyptian Pharoahs. They were a sought-after export to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and part of the fashionable attire of both European and Mughal courts. The demand and consumption of Indian cloth, both domestically and internationally, from the 16th century onwards, led to growing prosperity in the sub-continent. "The growing of cotton, the spinning of yarn and the weaving and finishing of cloth provided employment and income to millions." How surprising to learn that Delhi was known for its cotton weaving and ancillary skills such as dyeing and block printing, with 35 different varieties of cotton cloth produced between the 13th and 16th centuries. How sad that none of these survive in our polluted industrial jungle.

 


Eventually we will realise that we have lost most of the colours, textures, sounds, flavours, folklore and imagery that made us distinctive and special. Textiles are literally a text and palimpsest of our past, present, and future. Handlooms are a part of India's history, economics, aesthetics, culture. If we lose them, we lose a part of ourselves. Yet, weavers and craftspeople are dismissed as primitive and redundant in developing economies, even as the developed world rues their own loss of these traditions.


The Indian handloom sector is not just the largest source of employment and income generation next to agriculture, it is also the one area of acknowledged skill, creativity and expertise where India is not just at par with, but unique in the rest of the world.


While international agencies, economists and activists agonise over the conflicting interests of unemployment, the depletion of natural energy resources and the degradation of the environment through industrialisation, handloom continues to be a viable alternative. With a simple, inexpensive spindle or loom, and the inherent skill of the hands, a spinner or weaver can both support a family and enrich the national economy and export trade.


Nevertheless, the handicraft sector loses more and more people every year an estimated 15 to 20 per cent a decade. The earnings are minuscule - most of India's weavers still earn less than the stipulated minimum daily wage. They have no social security, insurance or provident funds or even social status.


Paradoxically, while weavers abandon their looms for other secure, even if unskilled jobs, the contribution of the handloom sector to employment and earning and GDP is still huge, showing its possible potential. Fabindia, a retail house based in Delhi, consumes 11.2 million metres of handloom fabric a year, or about 10 lakh metres a month at a total value of 112 crore. It generates 100,000 man days of employment and creates over 86,000 jobs, compared to 34 jobs for 24 lakh metres in the mill sector. Many of these jobs are in the rural sector, otherwise deprived of job opportunities.

 

Access to credit, market information and the appropriate raw material has huge economic consequences. Those of us working with handloom today know how the scarcity of appropriate locally grown raw cotton has impacted production and prices as cotton fields in traditional weaving clusters become industrial zones. More and more handloom weavers are leaving the sector.


The story of Dastkar's intervention with Berozgar Mahila Kalyan Samiti (BMKS) in Bihar, and their transformation from bonded labour to a several crore rupee turnover is an apt reminder of the dependency of craft traditions on many external factors including market linkages, access to finance, design and market information, raw material. Today at the height of their demand, they are again facing problems due to the unavailability of raw tussar, once found wild in their forests.


How can India once again clothe the world? And how can we remove that tag of tacky, running colour? How can we reverse this perception of Indian goods being "literally and metaphorically cheap"?


There are two urgent steps, and they have to run in tandem. One is the need for Indian craftspeople to professionalise - stabilise their production, upgrade their systems, keep abreast of contemporary trends, innovate and re-invent themselves periodically, learn how to present themselves, and have available information, catalogues, costings, and swatches. At the China craft fair, the Indian stalls had beauty, technical virtuosity, unique and awe-inspiring motifs and designs, but the products were almost too familiar. They lacked that little contemporary twist that the Thais, Indonesians and Malays have learnt to give. The embroiderer/designer Asif Sheikh was the exception, and his products made the transition from the craft fair to the exhibition hall and ramp.


The second is the support of the government, media, policy makers, and other movers and shakers. These amazing traditions and people have been such an integral part of our heritage for so long and we take them so much for granted that they are practically invisible - either in government economic policy and schemes, or on our television screens and social media. We never project their skills and potential, only the disaster stories that result from our lack of support. Why shouldn't craftspeople have the same credit facilities and investment as other parts of the economy? Why don't we promote silk and cotton cultivation and plant the right crops for their raw material needs?


It's not just government policies and practice. It's our own preconceptions and assumptions. Why do we rate a software engineer higher socially and professionally than a Banarsi master weaver? Why the kneejerk assumption that folk art should always be sold at craft haats and bazaars rather than at art galleries? Why will a customer bargain over a `600 handcrafted and hand-embroidered jooti when she will pay `4,500 for a pair of Nikes without blinking?

 

When I was developing the 20 ft high appliqued and embroidered wall hangings for the Taj Hotel chain recently with craftswomen from Banaskantha, everyone who saw the wall hangings was struck dumb in wonder at the beauty and intricacy of the work - they were real works of art. When people saw the images on Facebook, everyone wanted them. But normally these women are condemned to making hundreds of identical cushion covers, for which they earn less than 100 a piece, simply because their full potential is not realised.


We automatically dumb-down craft and give it a status lower than that of other creative and professional skills. Why don't we have a projection of Indian crafts and textiles matching the 'Incredible India' campaign?


Insidiously, there is an increasing marginalisation of traditional skill sets and knowledge. In the lemming rush to Western modernity and technological skills, both traditional communities and the urban middle class are busy throwing out the baby with the bath water. The baby in this case is actually one of India's unique strengths as it searches for its own identity in a world that is increasingly uniform and technological.


One of the paradoxes in a nation full of paradoxes is India's attitude to its crafts and craftspeople. For most foreigners, they are one of our glories, making India uniquely distinctive and different. Other countries, especially the West, lament the loss of such traditions as they review their own two-century cycle of industrialisation and mass production, accompanied by de-skilling and mass unemployment. The Chinese have long had their eyes on our craft skills and have been importing Indian craftspeople from Kolhapuri chappal makers to Kanchipuram saree weavers and stone carvers for over a decade, to teach their own craftspeople their skills.


Always a savvy march ahead of other Asian countries, the Chinese realise that in any globalised consumer economy, the country that holds the cards is one that has both an industrialised and a handcraft base. They know that consumers, as they become more sophisticated and demanding, want exclusive one-of-a-kind products rather than run-of-the-mill high-street brands, and that these can only be made by hand.


Increasingly, other Asian countries too - Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines - have realised that indigenous crafts can give them an international edge; that crafts and craftspeople using natural materials handcrafted in uniquely local traditions, have an appeal both as merchandise and as a part of the new eco-tourism boom.


Only India views its 10 million-plus craftspeople as a liability rather than an asset! A senior bureaucrat scarily referred to it as a "sunset industry" and instead of investing in the sector, the general wisdom is to prop it up with subsidies until it disappears all together. And slowly but surely, it is disappearing. Few craftspeople want their children to be craftspeople. We have lost over 25 per cent of our craftspeople in the last two decades.


Nevertheless, (and here is another paradox) crafts sales, both domestically and in the export market, are increasing at 15-20 per cent each year. Hardly a setting sun!

 

The liberalisation and globalisation of the last two decades have brought widespread economic benefits but also made consumers look westwards once more for their style icons and status symbols. Sadly, international brands and trends now dictate how India's new middle class dress and live. The little black dress has taken over from the saree. The message has even trickled down into rural India.


While economists and activists agonise over unemployment, carbon footprints and the depletion of natural energy resources, craft is an obvious alternative. With a simple, eco-friendly needle, palm leaf, spindle or loom, and the inherent skill of her hands, a woman can support her family and enrich the national economy and export trade.


India is extraordinarily, magically, exuberantly, rich in textile of all kind - ranging from the vibrant and varied weaves being woven in every part of the country to the equally varied skills of block printing, bandhini, patchwork, applique, and embroidery that are used as surface ornamentation in different pockets. We need to take pride in and showcase these. But, because these craftspeople are village-bound, unorganised and illiterate, their voices and needs are never heard.


The raw materials they depend on like yarn, bamboo and cane, lac and leather are being exported or diverted to the industrial sector. Financial credit, social security schemes, R&D, and investment ignore them. As a result, our craft skills, mainly due to lack of sensitive patronage and guidance, have become somewhat static and stratified. Ethnicity and cheap tourist souvenirs, rather than a vibrant contemporary creativity have been what the local retailers and consumers seemed to want, and that is what craftspeople have been making.


I think we have to also get over this hang-up that "export" is the fix-all, fit-all solution for Indian craftspeople. I think optimising Indian market is the first step. Most Indian craftspeople simply don't have the capability and infrastructure to deal with the quantities, quality checks and time schedules of export, and constantly changing trends and tastes of the international market. They feel much more comfortable making pieces in dozens and fifties for a customer they understand. Our rapidly burgeoning domestic market should be the foundation and bread and butter, export the icing on the cake.


Given that the Indian customer is becoming increasingly sophisticated and discerning, one of the challenges for Indian weavers and craftspeople is to re-invent themselves and give their products a new look and appeal, without destroying their own unique identity. We have lost over 25% of our craftspeople in the last two decades. And paradoxically, crafts sales, both domestically and in the export market, are increasing at 15-20% each year.

 

Contemporary Indians get terribly excited when an Indian enters space, wins a beauty contest, or gets a silver medal at the Olympics. Sania Mirza entering the tennis best 100 has us agog. But few appreciate our unique distinction of having literally millions of existing master craftspeople practicing skills that exist nowhere else in the world. Sadly, the mushrooming malls that have become the aspirational symbol of emerging new India, do not include crafts and craftspeople.



An extraordinary article by Prasenjit Chowdhury in the Times of India began: "The smell of affluence makes me light in spirit whenever I visit a mall." That smell of affluence is still sadly absent in the lives of Indian craftspeople. Until Indian crafts reach the malls and the mainstream middle-class Indian buyer, and until craftspeople are celebrated along with Page Three designers, the story of Indian crafts in the millennium remains incomplete. As the textile scholar Lotika Varadarajan once said, "To sacrifice craft traditions at the altar of modernity is tantamount to adding yet another dimension to the poverty of the mind."


Losings handlooms, we lose the warmth of our traditions, the uniqueness of being Indian. We also lose a huge international opportunity.