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The saga of Indian hand-woven fabrics

On August 7 every year since 2015, India celebrates (it would perhaps be more appropriate to use the word ‘observes’) National Handloom Day. The Indian handloom industry is the largest cottage industry in the country. The sector is very important in terms of its size and employment potential. It provides direct and indirect employment to over 13 million weavers and is the single largest economic activity, second only to agriculture.

Indian hand-woven fabrics have been known since time immemorial. Though India was famous even in ancient times as an exporter of textiles to most parts of the civilised world, few actual fabrics of the early dyed or printed cottons have survived. Yuan Chwang, the Chinese traveller to India (629-45 CE), describing the muslin of Dacca, equated the cloth with “the light vapours of dawn”. It is said that the muslin from Dacca was the finest, and the degree of fineness was such that it could be drawn through a ring of a middling size. Poets of the Mughal durbar likened muslins to baft hawa (woven air), abe rawan (running water) and shabnam (morning dew). A tale runs that Emperor Aurangzeb had a fit of rage when one day he saw his daughter, princess Zeb-un-Nissa, clad in almost nothing. Upon being severely rebuked, the princess explained she had not one but seven jamahs (dresses) on her body. Such was the fineness of the hand-woven fabrics.

During British rule, the handloom textiles of India faced unforeseen competition from the industrially produced textile good of the United Kingdom. According to one account, the British wanted to sell their own cotton goods, and therefore destroyed the local industry. In Dhaka, the community of weavers disappeared; so did their muslin. They even say the British cut off the thumbs of the weavers so they wouldn’t make muslin anymore.

After Independence, the Government of India has taken various steps to protect and promote the handloom industry, but in an open market economy, with imitations flooding the market, it is fighting, according to some, a losing battle for survival in competition with the products of powerlooms that work faster and produce cheaper cloth. But the brighter side of the story is that many

handloom motifs and patterns cannot be replicated on power looms or in textile factories. The handlooms survive today largely because, as Pupul Jayakar said, the women of India wear saris; and shall stay alive till our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters continue to wear them.

Indian handloom is not a single brand or product. There are regional, State- specific and local variations, fabric produced on different types of looms and based on various colour and design technologies. In addition to some of the well-known ethnic handloom textiles such as balucheri, banarasi, chanderi, kanjeevaram, kota, paithani, pochampally, patola, some of the lesser known connoisseur products include bommkai, kantha, mekhala-chador and risa-rignai.

Among the latter category comes the lesser known, and perhaps forgotten ones such as bleeding Madras, RMHK (Real Madras Hand Kerchief), which has been produced in south India, especially in Chirala (in today’s Andhra Pradesh) and the adjacent areas. Real Madras Hand Kerchief is 36 inches wide and woven in lengths of 24 yards. Each yard is marked by a stripe, to make the square handkerchiefs. It was directly exported to Nigeria, an African Kingdom. The people of Kalabari in Nigeria made it as their custom to wear it on special occasions, such as birth, puberty and death. The word Madras used for the robes made of RMHK, was actually a unit of measure. Six Madras are required to make a robe.

In the mid-1980s, Nigeria faced a serious balance of payments crisis. Consequently, stringent curbs were imposed on imports. However, Patel to Patel trade (a euphemism for smuggling) of RMHK across the border from the neighbouring country of Benin to Nigeria continued for some time. But subsequently, as the foreign exchange crisis deepened, the borders were sealed and smuggling of RMHK across the border to Nigeria became impossible or at least risky.

That is when a delegation of Indian-origin importers of RMHK in Benin came to meet the Union Minister of Textiles to seek his assistance in overcoming their predicament. Their question was: how can the Government of India assist them to facilitate smuggling of RMHK to Nigeria across the border from Benin. Of course there was no obvious solution.

But to cut a long story short, the real cruel joke about RMHK is that it is neither ‘real’, nor ‘Madras’ and not actually a handkerchief. It is not real, because its designs are surreal. It is not Madras, because it was mostly produced in Andhra Pradesh; and handkerchief was not the purpose for which it was produced, it was a measure.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 4:19:06 AM |

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