Hanging by a Thread


Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

India has been home to a variety of arts and crafts which have won it a coveted place in the cultural heritage of the world. Handloom is one of the most exquisite textile traditions of India, and hand-spun and woven fabrics were for centuries an integral part of India’s rich textile tradition. Under colonial rule, which coincided with the Industrial Revolution in Europe, India was reduced to becoming a supplier of cotton to the textile mills of Manchester, Birmingham and Lancashire. The handloom weaver was virtually wiped out from the market as the country was forced to accept cloth of inferior quality manufactured in England.

The weavers’ craft is threatened with extinction by power looms which offer a cheaper and faster way to produce the same goods; it can take weaver weeks to create what the machines can produce in a day. Moreover, machine products have a much sophisticated finish. As a result, many weavers’ clusters across the country   are languishing.

The history of Indian textiles is as old as the gods, as colourful as the civilization from which it emerged.  Sage Markanda, it is said, was the weaver of the gods, who fashioned the first fabric from lotus fibre.  Even today, the weavers of Kancheepuram claim descent from him.

A complex social structure, a cultural and religious life strewn with rituals, ceremonies and festivals dedicated an elaborate textile vocabulary.  Religious traditions also demanded the finest fabric to clothe the deities. Under the patronage of kings and queens, these traditions evolved further to produce grander, more elaborate textiles.

Weaving flourished during the Mughal period from the early 16th to mid-18th centuries. For centuries India was a hub for the silk trade. Under the Mughals, Indian weavers worked alongside masters from Persia and Central Asia, assimilating new skills in weaving and ornamentation. The Naqshbandi art of tying designs into looms emerged from this cultural contact as did the floral designs of Kashmir.

It is tragic that what was once an abiding symbol of India’s glorious cultural legacy has left many of its tradition bearers in a state of penury. It is time for the government, businesses and entrepreneurs to infuse new economic oxygen before these traditions become extinct. Ironically, the most authentic connoisseurs of Indian arts and crafts are foreigners who are genuinely interested in patronizing them so that they withstand the onslaught of the changing state of affairs.

While the origin of handicrafts is rooted in history, we have to link their future with the dual realities of culture and economy as they are not just the interpreters of India’s art but are also valuable earners of foreign exchange. They evoke the myths, legends and history of the people.

The traditional Indian saris have been abiding allies in women’s attire: The patchwork riot of intricately hand-woven colored silk for winter, the shimmering brocades for a big wedding and the pastel chiffons made for important occasions. It is a challenge today to use traditional skills, techniques resources and personal creativity and imagination without retarding the creative process involved. The shimmering threads twisted   on rickety frame of sticks and string, takes months to emerge into a complete sari. The weavers are too poor to invest in power looms, and too naive to bypass the exploitative middlemen and build links with the market. According to an estimate, most weavers don’t get 5%of the price tag of the goods they produce. Middlemen take away a huge chunk.

Handloom is an important sector in our country, employing over 6.5 million families. The industry is expected to employ 17.8 million by 2022. Indian handicraft is also witnessing huge demand in domestic as well as international markets, with exports alone amounting to $3.5 billion in fiscal 2017.

Reeling under competition from machine-made imitations, Indian textiles declined in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In the mid-twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi converted the dying art of spinning into a symbol of self-reliance and freedom.  It was a new lease of life.  One of the earliest acts of the new government in India after the country attained freedom was to set up a national Board for the identification of and development of crafts. It was natural that the ideal master-craftsmanship with its emphasis on quality and excellence should be reinstituted. In place of the warm patronage of dynastic rulers, and the sustenance provided by the guild, the new state regime had to step into the void. Competition from the power looms in the late 1950s further hastened the end to their already precarious livelihood. Realizing the predicament faced by the weavers in the post-independence period, the All India Handicrafts Board stepped in to provide a buffer to the weavers. In 1965, the Board instituted national awards to craftsmen. They were a public recognition of talent, skill, and above all, the creativity of these flag bearers of a hoary tradition.

The reason for the present local co-operative being in bad shape is the poor working conditions. Poor wages have led to dwindling of the original strength of enrolled weavers. Only those unable to find work elsewhere continue to remain here. The guilds need to follow in the footsteps of Sholapur, where handloom weavers have kept abreast with newer innovative designs and diversification on an extensive scale. The designs and quality of  wall hangings, and bedspreads unprogressive centres like Sholapur in Maharashtra are unsurpassed, and the handlooms are selling faster than corresponding mill-made products.

Weavers have traditionally been organised into communities that have sustained their art and skill by preserving their traditional knowledge through oral traditions. Their craft is both an artistic tradition and a source of income and livelihood.’ The weavers and the workers who engage in this art are traditionally skilled and have been doing the same work for generations; it is a matter of culture and pride for them.

One-fourth of the total cloth production in the country is from the handloom sector. In terms of employment, it ranks next to the agricultural industry. India is one of the few countries that have still a significant sector which employs artisans who weave for a living and produce almost 40 percent of the cloth in the country Handloom production is also eco-friendly, has a small carbon footprint and is easy to install and operate. If it is revived and made lucrative, it would lead to a slowdown in rural migration. Also, 75 percent of workers are women, and 47 percent are from BPL families.

The artisan is not only a repository of a knowledge system that was sustainable but is also an active participant in its re-creation. To celebrate a craftsman’s perception of design, one must view some of our indigenous craft tradition which has evolved through an instinctive knowledge of the functional needs of a community. While the artisan continues with his craft, marketing remains a paramount problem. Though several crafts have been saved from near extinction, the grouping of artisan communities into modern-day guilds or co-operative societies has helped only in a limited way — it has just  turned despair into a sense of hope.

A plan for the promotion of a craft can yield concrete results only if it is a sincere exercise in which the craftsmen remain the key focus. However, more often than not, such efforts are generally short term. They provide only a cosmetic treatment and are a mere band-aid, the critical issues air brushed. Indian crafts have suffered primarily because of a lack of a visionary approach from the cultural administrators. An equally important issue is the preservation of the dignity of the craftsmen.

It is very difficult for the buyer to distinguish between a machine-made and hand-made product in the absence of an authentication mark.70 percent of the fabrics sold as handloom are actually made on power looms.

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence. The basic argument is that work should not become stultifying and drudgery that it evokes little interest in the worker. It will be harmful both for the individual as well as the business. At the same time work should not become such leisure that it loses seriousness and doesn’t provide a challenge to the creative faculties of the worker. Hence the work should be such that it provides creative leisure enhancing both the physical and mental well being of the individual.

“The craftsman himself,” says Ananda Coomaraswamy, a man equally competent to talk about the modern west as the ancient east, “can always, if allowed to, draw the delicate distinction between the machine and the tool. The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s fingers; but the power loom is a machine and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work”. The Indian philosopher and economist J. C. Kumarappa sums   up the matter   as follows:

 “If the nature of the work is properly appreciated and applied, it will stand in the same relation to the higher faculties as food is to the physical body. It nourishes and enlivens the higher man and urges him to produce the best he is capable of. It directs his free will along the proper course and disciplines the animal in him into progressive channels. It furnishes an excellent background for man to display his scale of values and develop his personality.”

A craftswoman, moulder of icons, was once asked from whom she learnt her knowledge. She replied,

From time as the most ancient, the parampara. We are the holders of sight and skill. We carry it in our wombs”.


Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment  and a member of NITI Aayog’s National Committee on Financial Literacy and Inclusion for Women. He is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at moinqazi123@gmail.com.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Jul 2019.

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