As urban India moves away from handlooms and takes the high road to fashion, it has left in its wake a cultural legacy and shattered lives…

The wedding season is still in full flow. A striking aspect of weddings these days is not just the homogenisation of customs. For instance, mehendi and sangeet, formerly common only in the north, are now part of almost every wedding, barring the most traditional.

There is something else that strikes you as a change, especially in marriages taking place in our cities, marriages amongst the middle and upper classes. From the days when the bride and the women wore some of the most intricately woven Indian handloom saris – from Banarasi to Paithani to Kancheepuram to Jamdhani – today there is another kind of uniformity that has replaced this richness and variety. Hand embroidered saris and wedding outfits on chiffon or georgette are now virtually the norm. What has happened to Indian handlooms?

Indian handlooms and the handloom weaver are paying for this change of taste in urban India, a market that helped weavers to survive. From the days when even the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, promoted handlooms by wearing strikingly beautiful saris from all over India, hand-picked and especially woven for her by master weavers, to today, when handloom fairs in different cities barely clear accumulated stocks of handloom products, India has travelled a long way. And on that road have perished not just craftspeople but a cultural tradition that was distinctive.

Chandra Shekhar and his wife Swapna are two of the 43.3 lakh handloom weavers in India, the majority facing severe hardships. They live in the village of Pochampally, around 50 km from Hyderabad. The weave that takes its name after their village is distinctive; it is a kind of tie and dye ikkat that involves dying both the weft and the warp. The planning has to be meticulous, the dying process has to be accurate and the weaving requires immense concentration on every inch that is woven.

Historic event

Pochampally is known not just for its weave; in 1951 Vinoba Bhave stopped at the village while on a padayatra in Telengana. On entering the village, 40 landless families surrounded him and spoke of their desperate lives. During a meeting in the village, he asked if anyone could help these families. Vedira Ramchandra Reddy, a local landowner, stood up and volunteered to donate 100 acres of his land to the landless. Thus began the Bhoodan Movement through which Vinoba managed to get thousands of acres of land donated voluntarily for landless peasants in many states across India. Pochampally now has the prefix, Bhoodan, to its name.

Chandra Shekhar and Swapna are one of the over 3,000 families living in this village who survive on weaving. For hours of work needed to complete one cotton or silk sari of breathless beauty, Chandra Shekhar and his wife, both working together for over seven to eight hours a day, can barely earn Rs. 3,000 a month. They have two daughters who go to school. There are months when there is no work because there is no demand for the fabric. They are literally asked not to weave because there is too much stock with the merchant or the cooperative society.

Almost every day, the number of weavers is declining. The men go and seek work in Hyderabad. The women turn to embroidery or garment making. And the children, who are getting educated, are unlikely to follow in their footsteps. In fact, most weavers would prefer that their children do something else.

Multiple causes

The crisis of these weavers is not just due to lack of demand, but also because of high yarn prices and the import of cheap substitutes. The sector has survived on government subsidies but that too is not as readily available. Even if the present generation of weavers is given some assistance to continue, there appears to be no guarantee that the craft of weaving handloom material like the Pochampally ikkat will survive another generation.

Not many realise that the majority of weavers are actually women. One reason could be the decline in income from weaving. As a result, the men seek other work while the women stay back and weave. This means young women, with the potential to pursue other interests, are forced to remain at the loom. Women like Swapna, now only 20, who regrets she could not continue her education. “After marriage, I started doing this work. It is hard work and we are not getting wages up to our expectations,” she says. She says she has studied up to 12th standard and wanted to study further. She realises that she cannot take up any other work because she does not have the qualifications.

Ironically, in the same village, another young woman, Latha Venkatesh, is the Sarpanch. Smartly dressed in a pale yellow sari, Latha has also studied only up to 12th standard. But she comes from a political family and some suggest she inherited her post from her husband, who was Sarpanch. Latha speaks enthusiastically about the steps she wants to take to improve life in the village, such as dealing with the water problem and “giving self-confidence to the women”. She acknowledges that the weavers of Pochampally are facing a crisis and that the majority of the men are migrating to the city.

One could argue that in many countries traditional weaving and crafts are now a niche activity, available as exotic products for tourists. But handlooms in India have a different story. They have been the source of livelihood for millions across the country. If you look at a map of India, and mark the different types of handlooms available, you will touch almost every state and from the northeast and Kashmir to the southern tip.

Furthermore, the skill involved in producing these special handloom products, such as the silks of Kancheepuram and Benaras, the Kosa and Moga silk from Chhattisgarh and Assam respectively, or the Jamdhani from Bengal, the Bhagalpur silk, the Chanderi from Madhya Pradesh and the Tussar and Ikkat of Orissa, is part of a special cultural capital that ought not to be squandered. In the rush of modernisation and globalisation, we are erasing something very distinctive and special, something that has been accessible to ordinary people and is not restricted to the realm of high design and fashion.

Can today's generation find reason to use handloom the way our parents' generation used khadi, as a statement rejecting colonialism? Or is that completely unrealistic? Having visited Pochampally, watched Chandra Shekhar slowly and painstakingly dying the yarn for the next sari he would weave, marvelling at the varied designs and colours that emerge from the semi-darkness of his house, one hopes that this can still happen.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

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