A hundred hands

Four women who work closely with traditional weavers talk about why the #IWearHandloom initiative is a start in recognising the importance of handlooms

Published - August 06, 2016 04:44 pm IST

The Seepu Reku is a motif comprising a neat row of zari lines resembling the teeth of a comb.

The Seepu Reku is a motif comprising a neat row of zari lines resembling the teeth of a comb.

I bought an off white-and-lime green linen sari at the just concluded Crafts Bazaar in the city. Of course I think it is gorgeous but what matters more is that, whenever I wear it, I will carry a part of Kumaon with me, a part of its flora (the colours are derived from walnut shells and perhaps a dash of marigolds) and a part of the remote village where loving hands wove it.

Each handloom product has a story. And, if you listen carefully, you will hear about the agony and the ecstasy of keeping the thousands-of-years-old tradition going.

The exquisite creations that we so casually buy and throw on are works of art made by people who live incredibly difficult lives. However none of that pain or pathos shows in their beautiful creations.

We may have romantic notions about handlooms but those in the know such as Vijayalakshmi Nachiar, Rashmi Bharti, Rema Kumar and Ahalya S say that blood, sweat and tears go into keeping that romance alive.

Ahalya S., Founder of Kanakavalli

For years now, I have made the handloom my own. I almost always only wear a sari, a Kanjivaram mostly, basking in its beauty and grace. It is not only a piece of heritage but also celebrates the skill of talented weavers who are sustaining the handloom industry. For me, the handlooms are an indicator of an identity. That’s the thing about the handloom. By virtue of being such an intricate part of the country’s cultural vein, handloom is an industry that is contemporary and relevant. And after all, as the second largest employer of human resources, this sector is a true celebration of the idea of skill, talent, and the possibility of transference of skill in the most natural way possible. The handloom industry is unarguably organic and reveres nature and environment.

Vijayalakshimi Nachiar, Co-Founder Ethicus

Handloom, to me, evokes warm memories: of childhood days; mom and her many beautiful saris; grandparents and their Khadi outfits; trousseau shopping and timeless classics; my son sleeping in a cradle recycled from his granny’s sari. Stories of our freedom struggle, of people and places, our rich culture and a glorious heritage of legacies passed on from mother to daughter. A fabric woven by the efforts of hundreds of hands. But each product is unique, singular and individual. It is a fabric of our past and for our future. Let’s make it sustainable. It’s time to ring in a new Swadeshi movement, to feel proud of our culture and to be protectors of our national heritage. We need to create new products and innovate. It needs new vigour. It’s time to get our youth involved. Promote it. Embrace it. Be conscious of your choice.

Rema Kumar, textile designer

When I am with the weavers working on their looms, my eyes are glued to their hands moving dexterously with the shuttle, winding the yarn around the bobbins, meticulously fixing an occasional broken yarn. Then my gaze roams up to their faces single-mindedly focused on the job at hand. And I wonder what goes on in the head while the hands mechanically go through the motions of weaving. I wonder if he is actually thinking about the unfolding design, or trying to figure out how to manage the next meal for the family or pay his child’s tuition fee, or the next instalment on his loan … When the weaver is a woman, I am in awe of her multi-tasking. Her day begins before the crack of dawn. She finishes her household chores, weaves, spins, winds bobbins, sometimes dyes yarns, takes care of kids, goes the market and, before she knows it, it’s already time to cook dinner. She is as tightly wound up in this cycle as her yarns are around the bobbin. To me, every piece of handloom is special because of its human touch. It speaks volumes about a weaver’s dreams, desires and hopes. We get emotional about everything, especially in these days of media frenzy. Then, why shouldn’t we get emotional about our handlooms? Why can’t we give it the respect and appreciation it truly deserves?

Rashmi Bharti, Co-Founder of the NGO Avani

I always found handloom fascinating. But only when I shifted to the mountains did I realise how much hard work actually goes into it, right from growing the fibre till the finished product. So many people are involved in creating the material, design and colour. Weaving is a big source of livelihood in the country but today the weaving communities are some of the poorest. We as a society have failed in valuing them as artists.

This I-wear-handloom initiative will bring handlooms into focus. But just wearing handlooms is not enough. We need a bottoms-up approach. I was in a village in Karnataka that once had 400 skilled jacquard weavers. Now there are only around 40 left. Traditional weavers have left weaving to become domestic help, security guards, etc. Weavers are perennially in debt and they call themselves ‘coolies’. They don’t have the money to become entrepreneurs. Few government schemes reach the weavers. Many of the schemeshave been planned by people who have no real understanding of the weaving fraternity and their problems or requirements. Weavers with amazing skills have been abandoned. There are no follow ups. And we must realise that the weaver is only one person in the cycle. There is also the farmer, the spinner and the dyer who are equally important. Unless we address the ecosystem, we cannot save the handloom.

Must-haves for handloom lovers

I won’t presume to know all the handloom saris in this country. So I will only list some favourites that hang in my wardrobe. Maheshwari, Chanderi, Venkatagiri, Mangalagiri, Gadwal, Daccai, Balucheri, Benarsi, Tussar, Tangail, Dhaniakali, Kanjivaram, Dharmavaram, Arani, Negamam, Chettinad, Mysore Silk, Sambalpuri, Bomkai, Khadi and a sari woven in the tradition of the Bengali gamcha, besides one woven by a shawl weaver in Uttrakhand. I DO NOT have a Paithani but it is on my bucket list. I also own handlooms that are printed in age-old traditions such as Kalamkari, Sangner, Bandhini, Leheriya, Sungudi, Bagru and Ikat and saris with traditional embroidery like Chikan, Kasuthi and Kantha.

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