By Moin Qazi*
India has been home to a variety of arts and crafts which have won it a coveted place in the cultural heritage of the world. Khadi was the symbol of the freedom struggle and handloom weaving was one of the core elements of Gandhi’s philosophy of self-reliance. After independence, handloom industry was seen both as an employment provider in large parts of rural India and a vehicle to protect cultural heritage. It is really tragic that the handloom sector is going through a painful phase. What was once an abiding symbol of India’s glorious cultural legacy has left many of its tradition bearers in a state of penury. It is time for the government, businesses and entrepreneurs to infuse new economic oxygen before these traditions become extinct. Ironically, the most authentic connoisseurs of Indian arts and o crafts are foreigners who are genuinely interested in patronizing them so that they withstand the onslaught of the changing state of affairs.
While the origin of handicrafts is rooted in history, we have to link their future with the dual realities of culture and economy as they are not just the interpreters of India’s art but are also valuable earners of foreign exchange. They evoke the myths, legends and history of the people.
It is a challenge today to use traditional skills, techniques resources and personal creativity and imagination without retarding the creative process involved. To celebrate a craftsman’s perception of design, one must view some of our indigenous craft tradition which has evolved through an instinctive knowledge of the functional needs of a community. While the artisan continues with his craft, marketing remains a paramount problem.
The traditional arts and crafts saw a period of efflorescence during the reign of Mughals. When the British arrived in the early part of the 19th century, a certain utilitarianism came into the art that commercialised the woven products and Indian handlooms became the cynosure of connoisseurs’ eyes all over the world.
Handlooms are an important sector in our country, employing over 6.5 million families.Handloom products of our country are well known across the world. Each state has its unique weave, style, pattern and material that they produce with pride. Even within states, there is a host of varieties due to different communities that reside within.
One of the earliest acts of the new government in India after the country attained its freedom was to set up a national board for the identification of and development of crafts. It was natural that the ideal master-craftsmanship with its emphasis on quality and excellence should be reinstituted. In place of the warm patronage of dynastic rulers, and the sustenance provided by the guild, the new state regime had to step into the void. Competition from the power looms in the late 1950s further hastened the end to their already precarious livelihood. Realising the predicament faced by the weavers in the post-independence period, the All India Handicrafts Board stepped in to provide a buffer to the weavers. In 1965, the board instituted national awards to craftsmen. They were a public recognition of talent, skill, and above all, the creativity of these flag bearers of a hoary tradition.
The reason for the present local co-operative being in bad shape is the poor working conditions. Poor wages have led to dwindling of the original strength of enrolled weavers. Only those unable to find work elsewhere continue to remain here. The guilds need to follow in the footsteps of Sholapur, where handloom weavers have kept abreast with newer innovative designs and diversification on an extensive scale. The designs and quality of Sholapur sheets, wall hangings, and bedspreads are unsurpassed, and the handlooms are selling faster than corresponding mill-made products.
Weavers have traditionally been organised into communities that have sustained their art and skill by preserving their traditional knowledge through oral traditions. Their craft is both an artistic tradition and a source of income and livelihood.’ The weavers and the workers who engage in this art are traditionally skilled and have been doing the same work for generations; it is a matter of culture and pride for them.
One-fourth of the total cloth production in the country is from the handloom sector. In terms of employment, it ranks next to the agricultural industry. With the development of technology, power looms are providing increasing competition, and handlooms are getting deprived. India is one of the few countries that have still a significant sector which employs artisans who weave for a living and produce almost 40 percent of the cloth in the country. Handloom production is also eco-friendly, has a small carbon footprint and is easy to install and operate. If it is revived and made lucrative, it would lead to a slowdown in rural migration. Also, 75 percent of workers are women, and 47 percent are from BPL families.
According to veteran Laila Tyabji, crafts revivalist and one of the founders of Dastkar, a non-profit organisation working with Indian crafts and artisans, designers need to be aware that there are hundreds of marvellous regional Indian weaves and techniques. Tyabji says: “Very few existing indigenous Indian handlooms are suitable for applications that textiles are used for internationally, whether tailored garments or upholstery fabric. We ourselves in Dastkar concentrate primarily on our vast domestic Indian market, which still uses and wears these kinds of materials, developed over the years to suit our climate and wearing styles. Targeting an Indian consumer and tweaking and modernising motifs, colours and applications to suit is more comfortable for rural craftspeople than entering an unknown and competitive foreign market.”
The artisan is not only a repository of a knowledge system that was sustainable but is also an active participant in its re-creation today. Though the craft has been saved from near extinction, the grouping of artisan communities into modern-day guilds or co-operative societies has helped only in a limited way — it has turned despair into a sense of hope.
Any effort either by the government or the people for the promotion of a craft can yield concrete results only if it is a sincere exercise in which the craftsmen remain the key focus. However, more often than not, such efforts are generally short term. They provide only a cosmetic treatment and are a mere band-aid, the critical issues being just brushed under the carpet. Indian craft has suffered primarily because of a lack of a visionary approach from the cultural administrators. As long as intensive patronage is lacking, such efforts do more harm than good. An equally important issue is the preservation of the dignity of the craftsmen. It is no wonder that the population of craftsmen is dwindling. Official surveys published by the Office of the Development Commissioner (Handlooms) report that the number of weaver families reduced from 124 lakhs in the 1970s to 64 lakhs in 1995, and further down to 44 lakhs in 2011.
The problems range from high raw material cost to the slow process of weaving that increases the price of the cloth produced by the handloom as compared to the power loom. The cost of raw materials has become prohibitively expensive; the market abounds with cheaper machine substitutes and, most importantly, the young generation seems entirely uninterested in learning the skills due to inadequate income in this sector. The difference between handloom and power loom fabrics is sometimes hard to tell, and according to a report, 70 percent of the fabrics sold as handloom are actually made on power looms. Better marketing, design as well as credit availability to handloom weavers are essential for the revival of the handloom sector.
A women craftsmen, a moulder of icons was once asked from whom she learnt her knowledge. She replied “from time as the most ancient, the parampara. We are the holders of sight and skill. We carry it in our wombs”.
In pursuing technological dreams, we should not forget the power and creativity of the human hand. Let s be alive to Albert Einstein’s warning: “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”