Women Designers Save Struggling Weaving Community in India

For centuries, traditional hand-made fabrics have captured the imagination of Indian women. Kanjeevaram, Jamdani, Benarasi, Ikat, Patola, Ilkal, Bandhani, Paithani… the list can go on and on. No southern bride would consider her trousseau complete without a Kanjeevaram silk, while her northern counterpart was partial to the rich Benarasi.

Of course, over the years, the popularity of these weaves has been on the decline. Call it changing trends or blame it on the cheap, machine-made fabrics flooding the market, the reality is that very soon future generations may only get to read about the ‘ethnic fabrics’ in history books or in Wikipedia.

To those not in the know, weaving traditions are generally home-based activities, passed down from one generation to another. They have been providing sustainable livelihoods to lakhs of families spread out in various corners of the country. The fabrics have a colourful history too. Take, for example, the Kanjeevaram. Legend has it that the weavers of this exquisite fabric are, in fact, the descendants of Sage Markanda, the celestial weaver for gods. It was the Chola king, Raja Raja Chola (985-1014 CE), who invited the weavers to the temple town of Kanchi in Tamil Nadu where this art-form has thrived. Even after the French siege in 1757 CE, when the town was burnt down, the craft reemerged strongly in the late 18th century, thereafter making the city of Kanchi synonymous with the weave.

Some have survived natural disasters – like Gujarat’s famed ‘Bandhani’. National award winner, Ameenaben, a tie-and-dye craftsperson from Bhuj, talks about the trying times Bandhani from the Kutch region has faced, “The 2001 earthquake devastated several of our villages. Hundreds of artisans had perished at the time. Those who survived had no tools as they were either destroyed or looted. But we had our art in us and that helped us build our lives again. These days the tie-and-dye fabric of Kutch is well-known.”

There are innumerable such stories of survival associated with our weaves. Unfortunately, these are perhaps the toughest times yet. For the battle is to be fought on twin fronts. First, there’s the threat from mechanisation and the open markets. With tough competition from neighbouring countries, the local handcrafted textile segment is being forced to compromise on quality in order to match the speed of delivery to the market. India will soon need to go the way of countries like China, Indonesia and Thailand, who have their own repertoire of traditional hand weaves, and have upgraded their technologies that help them produce in bulk.

There’s also the consumer, who is constantly seeking something new. The need of the hour is to bring innovation to the age-old skill to better suit contemporary needs and tastes. According to Delhi-based Rta Kapur-Chishti, the founder of Ananda Delhi Textile, an organisation that is committed to combining organic cotton farming and hand spinning to produce Khadi, “To keep these weaves and textiles alive, which put India on the world map of exotic fabrics, a lot of work needs to be done with the involvement of all stakeholders – from the corporates, the government and NGOs to the fashion industry, buyers and, of course, the weavers themselves.”

Change has already set in though it is slow. For example, today, six-yard sari weaves are coming out as salwar-kameez sets as well. The weavers of Paithani saris from Maharastra – developed during the Shaliyahana era, 2,000 years ago – are now making smaller length pieces that can be used to make ‘kurtis’ and western tops. This helps increase the buyer strength for this costly fabric made of pure silk yarn and embellished with gold zari embroidering.

Fortunately, select fashion designers have now taken up the cause of the struggling weaving community. Bengaluru’s Deepika Govind, Mumbai’s Krishna Mehta, Anita Dongre and Vaishali Shadangule, Aneet Arora from Delhi and the Ahmedabad-based Digvijay Singh are among those from the fraternity who are using handcrafted fabric only.

Soft-spoken and creative, Govind says, “Designers need to interact more with weavers. We need to go to them in their remote villages, sit with them, give them the means to get new designs and if they are unable to give us what we need, then be prepared with the next idea so that they can carry on working.”

The Bengaluru-based designer has made it her mission to work with the craftspeople to come up with a new collection every season. She used the Kanjeevaram fabric last season, presenting resort, office, party and festive wear. The conservative Kanjeevaram had never been shown in such radical avatars earlier. This season, she has used Patola from Rajkot, Gujarat. Calling the collection, Pop Patola, she has youngsters picking up her tops, saris and other designer wear. This is the kind of innovation needed to help not just the weavers but to woo the new generation into trying traditional fabric.

While Mumbai-based Shadangule, who hails from Bhopal, has been working wonders with the famous Chanderi, this season she has brought Khand (WHAT, PLS DESCRIBE) to the ramp. Another city designer, Dongre, has experimented with Bandhani, turning the humble tie-and-dye into haute couture.

“Just buying the fabric and designing apparel isn’t enough to help the weavers,” asserts Krishna Mehta, who works with the weavers of Gujarat. Passionate about her grassroots involvement, she is particular about sitting at the loom herself to weave the new designs, experimenting with colours and yarn. “Only when I get it the way I want it, do I ask my craftspeople to start the work,” says the designer, who has set up a block printing unit in Gujarat to give differently-abled craftspeople employment near their homes.

Most designers agree that the kind of variety they can get in hand-crafted fabric – be it in terms of colours, designs or texture – cannot be matched by its machine-made counterpart. No external embellishment, however costly, can compare with the beauty of natural weaves or hand embroidery. But as Kapur-Chishti points out, “Every designer has to understand and learn about our weaves and fabric before starting to design.”

Besides individual designers, there are some retail houses, such as FabIndia, Khadi Gramudyog, Akshara, Paramparik Karigar, Shrujan, Dastkar and others that are patronising weavers. Jaya Jaitely, social activist and Chairperson of Dastkar, has been on this crusade for years now. She goes to the remotest villages and gathers craftspeople to bring them into the mainstream by getting their crafts recognition. Through her Akshara project, craftspeople are not just educated but are also helped to channelise their learnings into their work. For instance, she has got weavers from West Midnapore in Bengal to learn calligraphy and use the art on fabric. The Chanderi weavers from Madhya Pradesh have learnt to weave the words “sada soubhagyavati bhava” (good fortune be with you forever) on the border of bridal saris. Muslim artisans from Varanasi can weave Urdu words in the form of birds on the ‘pallus’ (the long end of sari) of the Benarsi silks. Such simple, yet unique, touches lend a bit of glamour to the hand-woven fabric transforming it into contemporary designer apparel.

The fashion fraternity is unanimous that if more designers step in and favour the ethnic weaves not only will they contribute to the preservation of the vast textile heritage and ensure a livelihood for impoverished craftspersons, many of whom are talented women, they can also maintain their edge in the competitive market. A win-win for the weavers and the fashionistas!

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