The Handloom Weavers of India

For centuries, India has been renowned for its textiles. Back in the day, the Europeans sailed all the way to the subcontinent for its regal apparels as much as for its spices.

The fabled weavers of Kancheepuram and Banaras created attires of such grandeur and magnificence, their work was deemed as magic.

Those were times when machines were still just ideas. Each and every piece of garment was crafted by hand, with a lot of dedication and effort. The weavers were held in very high regard by everyone in the courts of Kings.

But time is an unpredictable friend. You never know what lies for you in the future. For the handloom weavers it wasn’t all cheer and merriment. The industrial revolution came around and people started inventing machines for various purposes.

In reality, it wasn’t the advent of machines that hit the weavers, it was the wars. The traditional weavers did fare pretty well until the First World War or as it was called back then, the Great War.

Britain, who was a part of the Allied forces, exploited Indian resources to support the armed forces. Handloom weavers were not efficient enough to produce clothes to match the demand, hence new machines took their place. The machine spun clothes turned out to be a profitable trade for the colonial powers, especially England. With clothes being manufactured at home in Manchester and in India, the crown had a steady influx of coin.

This went on, until the freedom struggle gained real momentum. Under M.K.Gandhi’s leadership, many Indian’s gave up “western” clothes and started donning hand woven, khadi clothes instead.

Post freedom, the trend changed again. Poverty was at large and the population was steadily on the rise. Powerlooms seemed the most viable option as production rates were high and price of garments was relatively low. In the last 40 odd years, fast fashion has almost completely taken over the textile business, pushing the traditional artisans out of business and into hardship.

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Textile Minister Smriti Irani dons a hand woven silk saree from Bihar

Although the handloom industry is the second largest employer in India, over the years the number of hand loom weavers has dwindled drastically. The high cost of the yarn and decrease in demand meant that the weavers don’t make even minimum liveable wages through their trade. Many have given up their traditional business and resorted to doing other jobs to earn their daily bread. As per the Ministry of Textiles, there were 43 lakh handloom weavers in 2015, less than half of what it was ten years ago.
Research by The Indian Express showed that, as of 2015, powerlooms accounted for nearly 60% of the fabrics manufactured, with handloom making up just over a tenth of the total fabric production. But of late, many responsible entrepreneurs have started investing in the handloom business. Even though power looms produce apparels at much cheaper costs, they do not have the uniqueness the hand woven clothes possess. Each piece of garment is hand crafted intricately and to perfection. Not for nothing is it called slow fashion. Take saris for example. It may take anywhere between a few months to almost years to craft one, based on the design and material. The hard work and dedication that goes into making these saris can be clearly visualized when compared with those made by machines.

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Actress Vidya Balan graced a charity event in a simple yet graceful hand woven cotton saree

The government, NGOs, and certain national and international private organizations have now taken an interest in reviving the trade and improving the lives of the practitioners. The Make in India initiative is playing a major role in this process. It is an opportunity not only to create something which is gorgeous, but also to create more job opportunities, especially in the rural sector.

Reviving this trade is significant because it is a part of the Indian culture. Passed down for generations, this art and its traditional techniques cannot be allowed to fade away. Each piece of art, each square foot of garment has its own unique story which needs to be retold.

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