Handloom artisans turn to mask-making to eke out a living; NGO promotes their creations

June 14, 2020 01:24 pm | Updated 01:24 pm IST

The mask symbolises survival as never before. For traditional handloom artists, the symbolism may be two-fold. The demand for their regular products hitting rock-bottom, some of them have turned their heddles and treadles to mask-making to earn a livelihood.

From their loom, the protective wear emerges with a unique watermark of craftsmanship, traditional and nature-centred. Characteristic features include hand-block-printed patterns that present pastiches of an artistry inherent in nature. So, expect to see prints of a peacock with a flared tail or a flock of birds in flight.

“Handloom-artisans from the country’s hinterlands are making these masks. Here is an example: handloom-artisans from the tribal community in Sittilingi Valley in Dharmapuri create wonderful designs, including breath-taking embroidery work. They usually operate as self-help groups of 10 to 12 and make handloom saris and other textile-related products. Due to the current challenges, they have had to give their regular work a pause. They started making masks a month ago,” reveals Kailash C. Sudarshan, founder-treasurer, Sampoorn.

Sampoorn, a non-profit associated with craftspersons of different stripes across India, seeks to bring visibility to the handmade masks made by artisans associated with them.

With the face mask set to become an accoutrement of workaday wear, mainstream textile brands and fashion houses are offering it. For a majority of them, business continuity is not the reason to make this foray. In contrast, some handloom-artisans seem to depend solely on the sale of masks to make ends meet.

“When someone buys these masks, they are directly contributing to these artisans’ sustenance. Besides, they are also helping the cause of sustainability. These masks are hand-made, hand-block printed and uses natural vegetable colours, and are environment-friendly. They can be washed and reused ‘n’ number of times. Priced ₹65 a piece, the sale proceeds go entirely to the artisans, except for the shipping charges for Sampoorn. The artisans ship these masks to us, and in turn, we courier them based on orders,” explains Sudarshan.

Reliance on a “virtual marketplace” to market and sell these masks is now total, due to persisting difficulties in organising regular bazaars to market these handicraft products.

“We promote these masks on our Instagram and Facebook pages,” he details. “If the Government offers standard operating procedures on organising bazaars with precautionary measures, as it has for many other sectors, these artisans would be able to sell their products directly to people.”

Sudarshan points out that the artisans and the Sampoorn team have their job cut out, as sourcing raw material and transporting the masks often hit roadblocks due to a shift in the COVID-19 status of various geographies, and decisions by respective regional administrations.

“Due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, Rajasthan sealed its borders for a week on June 10. We have asked the artisians in the Sittilingi Valley to go slow with the mask-making work; Tamil Nadu has some many cases and transporting things out of parts of the state is an issue,” Sudarshan points out.

“We depend on nature to source the raw materials, and lack of access to regular sources is another impediment. The process is also laborious and time-consuming. Taking the yarn and colouring it takes 18 days. In West Bengal and Odisha, there is a unique challenge. Severely hit by the super cyclonic storm Amphan, these states are still dealing with the aftermath, and the handloom artisans in these states still can’t consider restarting their work.”

For details, go to facebook.com/sampoorncrafts; and

@sampoorn on Instagram.

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