Having worked with three generations of weavers, Sally Holkar has witnessed their transition from a bunkar (weaver) to a fashion worker. This metamorphosis from an unassuming weaver to a more poised creator who knows fashion and the art of selling has neither been easy nor swift.
Ms. Holkar, who established the Women’s Weave Charitable Trust — an enterprise to support income earning opportunities for rural women, is happy that women and the younger generation of weavers are becoming financially self-reliant, but she’s also worried that the young are not keen to carry on the tradition.
“They are aware of the downside,” she says. “We now have a trend where only one brother wants to be a weaver in the family; the others would rather become drivers or construction workers now.”
While her trust helps designers to pitch in with creative inputs, teaching them the essentials of marketing and helping popularise the handloom products, the enormity of the problems that the weavers face has compelled Ms. Holkar to search for avenues that will allow the artisans to earn their livelihood, even as it saves the dying craft.
“While the difference in the condition of the weavers has been a day and night change; there is still is scope for a lot more. The government has spent huge amount and the non government sector has worked tirelessly to increase the reach of health and education to these weavers, but there is a world out there. And these people are becoming aware of that. In small villages and hamlets where weaving was a cottage industry, run out of homes, you now see girls riding bikes and the younger generation keen to learn about fashion. They are aware of markets globally being just a click away and the reach of the Internet. It is now that we have to double the efforts to reduce the distance between the loom and the outside world,” she says.
And it is with this intention, Ms. Holkar, who is she married into the royal family of Indore and is credited with the revival of the traditional Maheshwari weave, is pursuing her dream to set up a handloom school. “It will be called The Handloom School, where youngsters between the ages of 18-26 will be given skill training; they will be taught English, which has emerged as the merchant’s language to negotiate and market their works and will be taught the basics of how to market their products at a global level.”
To be set up in Indore by the river Narmada, the school will have a unique twining programme with a local public school. “Students from this school will come to the Handloom School and will be trained in the art of weaving; in exchange they will teach our kids conversational English. It will be a symbiotic exchange,” Ms. Holkar explains.
The trust has already been working with designers from National Institute of Design and with designers including Sabyasachi Mukherjee, to give the traditional weaving techniques a fillip. “There are designers like Rahul Misra, Savio John and Paromita Bannerjee, who have been working with weavers and have put handloom on the fashion map; but there is still so much to do. Young weavers especially need a lot of attention, they need scholarships to go to premier design institutes like the NID, they need skill training and global exposure and they need to be taught to design and weave with end-target in mind,” she says.
Ms. Holkar also suggests on-the-ground intervention like a leg up from retailers for hand-woven textiles and workshops to enable weavers to learn the latest techniques and styles. “Why can’t we promote textile tourism? There are these beautiful and rare weaving techniques that exist in India that need to be showcased. A lot of foreign nationals are mesmerised by what they see in the villages of Kanchipuram or Maheshwar; for them it is something that they haven’t seen. We should organise textile tourism for our domestic travellers, give them an opportunity to see the craft up close and create an interest to keep it alive,” she reasons.
Unhappy that the fashion trend in India is mostly influenced by the soaps on the small screen, Ms. Holkar stresses on the need to “explain why handloom needs to be supported, why it costs more, and why we must not allow cheap fashion that we see on the tube to dictate our sense of style”.
The Handloom School to be set up by Sally Holkar will tutor young weavers on how to reduce the gap between their skills and the market