Going beyond cultural heritage

There has been a visible effort by the state in recent times to increase awareness about speciality handloom products and to make them things of aspiration for customers. This is being done through aggressive promotion of the process, the product and the context. Various reasons are being invoked to advocate the cause of handlooms and it is imperative to scrutinise them carefully.

One such notion equates handlooms with a culture that ensures a continuity of tradition. This idea has become part of the public policy-framing and provides a legitimate basis for the state to support the sector. But the notion of tradition as a single, linear entity is being strongly contested today. The narratives dominant in defining culture/tradition in a particular way are seen to have submerged the identities and histories of large sections. The discounted and, at times, forcibly stifled identities are fighting for their rightful place in history. Against this backdrop, when we promote handloom as a traditional industry, it is not surprising that large sections of our population choose to ignore it.

Another problematic idea we invoke is the need to accord special merit to handloom products because they are produced using human labour and hence superior to those produced using a machine. Mechanical production has made many things easy and has become the sine qua non of our modern existence. However, the space for aesthetic fulfilment is left free. ‘Hand-made’ products find a place in filling this gap. They allow the design of a unique product to suit individual image.

The growing popularity of designer handloom products can possibly be understood from this perspective. However, there is a need to examine if the increasing presence of designers is adding any real value to the process. A designer collection showcases the personality, the unique ‘self’ of the designer that can probably be adored and imitated. The process, though finding a respectable mention in this whole presentation, may get short-changed in the long run. It only serves the purpose of embellishment, and is treated more like a final dressing of an exotic dish. Fashion links handloom to ‘identity’ in a modern sense, which usually translates into the specific persona of either the designer or the individual consumer.

There is a need to free the handloom industry from the limited narratives linked to preserving cultural heritage and the merger of the industry with individual fashion. Handloom should be revived as a skilled occupation that offers livelihood with dignity for both the weaver and the physical environment around.

B. Syama Sundari is coordinator, policy research and advocacy at Dastkar Andhra, an organisation that provides support to promote handloom weaving as a viable rural livelihood