Handloom skills are unique to India, but the sector has dwindled by nearly 30% in the last 10 years. Intervention by NGOs has been effective but there are still many stumbling blocks for these revivalists.
“Amidst many issues faced by our handloom weavers, the GST has further affected the community, and handloom must be exempted from GST,” said Sabita Radhakrishna, a textile researcher and revivalist. While it is 5% GST for yarn and other raw materials, there is a 12% GST on products.
Radhakrishna has been actively involved in reviving an ancient weaving technique with the Kodali Karuppur sari, which was exclusively made for the royal families of Tanjore.
Weaving traditions are orally passed on from one generation to another, so there is often little documentation, even though this is the second-largest industry in this country, next to agriculture. “In the past 10 years, NIFT has introduced heritage weaving and documentation in its syllabus,” said Hemalatha Jain, who has revived the near-extinct, Patteda Anchu sari of Gajendragarh, Karnataka.
The extinct Goan textile legacy, Adivasi weaving, was completely restored and revived by Rohit Phalgaonkar. A teacher by profession, he came across the Gauda Adivasi sari when he was researching for his PhD (tribal art and folklore) a few years ago. “Folk songs had vivid reference to this sari and its colour and pattern. These tribes had even discontinued dancing, as the traditional sari worn was no longer being woven,” said Phalgaonkar. He restored the Gauda sari by making an exact replica, recreating the colour, design and form that was traditionally used, two years ago.
“I focussed only on the traditional red-and-white colour, and refrained from experimenting with newer colours,” he says. These chequered saris, considered sacred by these communities, was worn short above the ankles, with a knot on the shoulder. These were originally dyed in red and black, with dyes obtained from iron ore, rice kanji and vinegar. These saris were on sale for the first time in the tribal festival organised by the Goa Adivasi Sangatana in the beginning of 2017. He says that his revived saris were well-patronised in Chennai, Bengaluru and Mumbai.
All this work doesn’t come cheap. The cost of producing a Kodali Karuppur sari, for instance. is almost a lakh, says Radhakrishna. When she revived the sari with the help of weavers, dyers and printers in Kalakshetra, she could recreate only one sari.
Phalgaonkar points out that power looms have flooded the market with cheap goods. “We also have these semi-power looms, where a .5HP motor is used. Some weavers are reluctant to take up handloom, and they want us to accept semi-powerloom also as handloom.”
“For most of the weavers in the country, having creativity, innovation and hard work is not a problem. Funding and selling their products in the market is a problem,” said Phalgaonkar.
Has handloom become niche? Can only the upwardly mobile class afford it? “It is true that handloom is affordable to only a section of the population. Cotton is niche today. But it is the most suitable fabric for our country. But I think we must let it continue to be niche, instead of letting it die completely,” Radhakrishna said.