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Death knell for handlooms?

Radhakrishna, Sabita, a free lance writer contributes regularly to national newspapers and journals. An Executive Committee member of the Crafts Council of India, having previously held positions as Vice Chairperson and Joint Secretary she also serves in two Educational Trusts for children. She has been guest faculty at NIFT, Chennai and was the first to introduce the boutique concept there; at present she is a senior consultant at The Craft and Research Centre, Kalakshetra. Sabita has authored three cookbooks; 'Aharam' on traditional Tamil cuisine won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award. Her book on Indian textiles will be published shortly.

Associated with National Television her script for Doordarshan 'Beyond the Storm' won the Transtel West German Award for the best documentary in 1986. She has been on the Central Board of Film Censors. Her play on the travails of the weaver 'Song of the Loom' has premiered in Chennai.

July 2008, Craft Revival Trust
Changing lifestyles and market structures mean that weaving is not a viable profession anymore. What's the way out?

Hand-woven fabric is the product of Indian tradition, the inspiration of the cultural ethos of the weavers. With its strong product identity, handlooms represent the diversity of each State and proclaim the artistry of the weaver. It is not thread alone but the weaver's imagery, faith and dream that create heritage fabrics which have undoubtedly placed India on the world map. Handlooms rank second only to agriculture as an industry. The handloom sector boasts of 3.4 million weavers according to a census conducted by The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) in the year 1995-96 whereas in 1987-88 it was 4.3 million and the drop of nearly a million is all too significant and in the present scenario rather bleak.

The Kancheepuram sari with its korvai designs may become a museum piece sooner than we think, so also the cotton korvai saris, with the weavers disinterested in weaving them. A cotton sari fetches the weaver Rs. 270 per sari as against Rs. 2,500 for a silk sari. A master weaver in Kancheepuram quotes the example of an MNC which sends buses to pick up young adults who are the children of the weavers. Even if it is an unskilled laborer's job, he can pick up around Rs. 250-300 a day and what's more, there is "prestige" attached to a factory job! What's worse is that our Southern traditional weaves are being pirated through importing weavers from Tamil Nadu. For most handloom weavers it means sitting at a loom for 12 hours at a stretch and even longer if it is festival or wedding season. Many of those interviewed swear that they will not subject their children to work in a profession which drains them. Most of them develop orthopedic problems and then it is too late to move to other professions when they are past the prime of life.

Indirect impact
"The adversities that the farming sector continues to face have considerably affected the survival of many subsidiary activities and are a strong contributing factor for the downfall of the weaving industry. This indirect impact cannot be ignored," says Dr. Shyamasundari of Dastakar Andhra. "While the weavers have encouraged their sons to be educated in professional courses, they have overlooked the fact that actually it is weaving that supported their education making them engineers and doctors." That the exodus of young handloom weavers from their traditional occupation is steady is all too apparent. Cheaper synthetic fabrics flooding the market is one of the reasons and of course the failure to access and adapt to newer markets. The market which was originally located in rural areas has shifted to urban areas. The weavers were selling their products to co-operatives but it is these co-operatives who have not been able to locate ready markets.

One of the interventions by the Government is the Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY); specially formulated to help the 19,500 weavers engaged in the production of low cost saris and dhotis for Free Distribution Scheme (FDS). The weavers, who in the past were capable of creative weaving, sank into a blissful state of complacency, knowing fully well that whatever they wove, or however bad the quality, it would be accepted. The number of saris and dhotis woven were much more than the number of beneficiaries and as a result, the godowns of Co-optex began to swell with stocks of these saris and dhotis. Consequently, the FDS had to be discontinued in 2001.

Left stranded
Nearly 19,500 weavers were rendered jobless and faced severe socioeconomic problems. Highly skilled weavers, like the ones from Virudhunagar, who were weaving 80s by 120s, did not know how to recall their skill. It was a time of great unrest and these handloom weavers were in a state of flux. It was a Catch 22 situation. With powerlooms dominating textile production all over India, and encroaching on the handloom sector's traditional market, the handloom weavers, in a desperate situation, drifted towards powerlooms, finding that work here was an easy substitute. Children were sold as bonded labor to bosses and without money to release them the bondage looked permanent. They went into building construction and brick making besides other jobs. Even older weavers took to new occupations and traditional skills were fast languishing. The situation looked grimly bleak.

A proposal was charted out for a special project which would help these weavers learn new skills, regain lost ones and gain exposure to the countless possibilities of fine weaving and the project planned in different stages such as identification of the project implementing agencies, skill and technology upgradation, entrepreneurship development, and infrastructure development. The State Government sanctioned 25.36 crores for the Project. NIFT became the implementing agency. Training has been imparted to the weavers and new designs have been developed in saris, dress material, shirtings, and household linen. New markets were located as also export markets.

With the government doing what it possibly can, beneath all the fluff, there are layers of discontent voiced by the weavers. The main grouse is the fear that they would be left midway with new schemes that they find bewildering and the inability to access new markets based on past experiences. Besides, the psychological impact that a complete turnabout would bring is not really understood by the so called guardians of the traditional vocations. A great degree of sensitivity is required when working in these areas.

Pawns in a game
Cut to the Varanasi weavers. A BBC World TV broadcast focused on the plight of weavers in Varanasi facing the impact of Chinese "Benares brocade saris" imported at a fraction of local prices. Again this is a story of utter poverty and despair and the weavers not wanting to remain tied to a crippling tradition. Thousands of weavers around Varanasi became pawns on the chessboard of a capitalist system of merchants, brokers and bureaucracy.

Vilas Muttemwar, Congress Lok Sabha member from Nagpur, raised the plight of the region's weavers in Parliament, saying about 20 lakh weavers in Vidarbha were seriously hit by the government's "casual ad-hoc policy and unhelpful attitude" towards problems relating to supply of yarn, credit support and other related facilities. "As a result, a large number of weavers are on the brink of starvation," he maintained.

Uzramma of Dastakar Andhra says that the handloom industry portrays a vibrant scenario even though it is in a state of flux. "The point to be made is that the State does not recognize its tremendous potential, not only for rural employment, but as a viable economic activity which does not need the huge investments of infrastructure and capital which conventional industries require," she says.

So what are the options left to craft activists who are concerned at the plight of the weavers and a craft tradition which is languishing? Says Ashoke Chatterjee (former President, Crafts Council of India), "our finest craft skills need immediate protection, which means reaching the weavers at the apex of a pyramidal supply chain. The active participation of the trade is recommended, difficult though this may seem in the light of current attitudes and past experience. The present condition of decline in weaving reflects the changing social structures, values and most importantly changing markets. Simultaneously, working with authorities, NGOs and activists in and around Varanasi, or other affected areas, one could attempt a relief fund to address immediate survival needs of families affected by death, debt and starvation."

The only solution as I see it is to lobby for the languishing craft and handloom weaver through press reports, the electronic media, plays, short films and whatever is needed to address the existing problems. Our Indian fashion designers have a wealth of traditional material to dip into and they could harness traditional skills to showcase their designs which could give the Indian weaver exposure in international markets.

Without action the death knell sounds loud and clear.



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