Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
WOVEN ART : June 20, 1999
The challenges ahead
There is no doubt that India's textiles constitute one of the richest sources of textile designs in the world, drawn upon increasingly by textile designers, product designers, and fashion designers from all nationalities. Many of these designs are in easy global access: from books, museum collections, the web and as commodities. But contemporary Indian designers have a unique advantage. They are surrounded by a living tradition and skilled crafts people making experimentation and change easy, relatively inexpensive, and literally at their fingertips.
The contemporary Indian textile scene is a complex one, consisting of handlooms, powerlooms and the modern mill sector. By far the most vulnerable of these sectors is the handlooms. In the Seventies and Eighties handloom textiles, which had been languishing, were given an extra impetus in design and renewal. An awareness that many traditions were dying out, brought about the establishment of a network of weavers' service centres under the aegis of the Office of the Development Commissioner Handlooms. These centres worked at the revival of skills and were promoted to help with technical questions of weaving, looms, and dyeing. Under the guidance of Pupul Jayakar the centres were called upon to participate in major national programmes and international exhibitions highlighting their achievements. They motivated and acted as a catalyst in change. At the same time many young educated women throughout the urban centres began to open boutiques for saris and apparel. They researched and innovated in colour and design. Many regional saris moved from a regional market to a broader market through these efforts. Designer handlooms blossomed in variety and quality, with a strong tie to traditional design, particularly in saris.
The success stories in apparel and furnishing from handlooms are many, and stretch from Bengal to Tamil Nadu covering nearly every state. They include areas not only of weaving, but also block printing, other resist techniques, tie-dye, and embroidery. Each success was usually driven by a person or persons with a commitment to helping the weavers or women's groups to utilise their skills to adapt to changing markets which they no longer understood because the direct link between maker and consumer was lost. Each person was driven by an abiding interest in textiles and a desire to present the richness of that tradition to a larger market for the benefit of the weaver, embroiderer or dyer. Most of these women and men were not designers but because of their interest and taste they became designers. They also hired designers as their projects progressed so they could get the maximum from the textile.
Amr Vastra Kosh
The Rehwa Society headed by Sally and Richard Holkar is one success story which is a model on which many revivals could take place. In Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, Sally and Richard have nurtured the dying art of Maheshwar-weaving over the last 20 years into a thriving business run today as a co-operative by the women weavers themselves.
How did they do it? First by giving the weavers the confidence that they would stand behind them and help them to help themselves. The Holkars taught the weavers how to organise themselves and the basics of business. Design continues to be an ongoing process but has been most successful when the designer sat on the loom with the woman to see the difficulties and challenges of each design. Today Rehwa has a wide range of sheer fabrics with a wonderful play of opaque and translucent textures with exquisitely designed borders. Their markets are urban India for saris, salwars and the most contemporary fashion as well as for home furnishings, mainly for export. They sell through exhibitions and home sales and to boutiques and exporters.
Ritu Kumar's story with embroidery and printing revival of Calcutta textiles is well known. She acquired design skills along the way through experience. Ritu's shops in the metros represent a high quality of traditional embroidery and printing skills on contemporary salwars, shirts, scarves, saris and leatherware. In various parts of the country designers with a sense of business and commitment work to keep our traditional textiles ahead of modern, changing demands: Suriya Hassan in Hyderabad with her ikat, himroo, paithani and Machilipatnam kalamkari textiles; Laila Tyabji, who worked to make SEWA an embroidery success; The Housegos at Shades of India who again work with embroidery; Neeru Kumar and Asha Sarabhai who have succeeded in Japanese inspired textiles; the Singhs at Anokhi in block printing, Satya Paul in screen printing; William Bissell at Fab India who is following in his father's footsteps to work to bring Indian handlooms to middle class contemporary urban Indians, Rakesh Thakore in textiles for fashions, Shreela Debi in weaving from Bengal and many, many more.
In the Eighties Martand Singh, textile designer, worked with the Weavers Design Centre to inspire the weavers to produce an exquisite exhibition of printed and woven textiles with animal and bird motifs that take the conventional range of traditional motifs into a truly contemporary rending. He proved that our weavers and block printers are capable of expanding their vision. In certain areas of the country in Andhra Pradesh and Varanasi, a few master weavers have greatly increased their awareness of the market place and the need for good design. They have begun to innovate and even to hire designers - a team with all the ingredients of success.
Amr Vastra Kosh
The global export market with its demands of quality, deadlines, colour and design is driving a large segment of our textile industry. Many small companies like Nirmal Mirza's Wooltop Weaves and Sunita Namjoshi's Synergy with their teams of designers are creating new demands for handloomed and powerloomed home furnishing and are carving out good export markets for themselves. Foreign designers have also entered this market in sizable numbers. The appearance of many new stores in our urban centres like Good Earth in New Delhi with an innovative use of high quality textiles for the urban furnishing and apparel markets are propelling change and innovation.
Textiles remain a vibrant sector, but its challenges are many. Most of the handlooms are still loomed by regional groups of traditional weavers who have for generations woven a particular type of sari or textiles for the same regional market. Although there are the above success stories, many of our handloom weavers are still languishing today for design input, colour and a fresh new approach to the yarn and structure itself. They face a highly competitive market in demand and price as their consumers now have access to a variety of textiles from all over the country. Their traditional consumers bought out of exigency (that was all that was available), out of pride in their traditional craft (a force which still impels buying) and out of a need of the person to establish her/his definite local, regional or caste identity, a need which has begun to diminish.
From revival of the traditions or at least good awareness of these traditions during the Seventies and Eighties into expanding urban domestic and export markets, Indian textiles have now reached a plateau. Few people have managed to push textiles beyond this threshold. Those who can understand the future and have the perseverance to work to fulfil this vision will be doing India's textiles monumental service - for they will be the major catalyst of change.
What are contemporary textiles about? First of all they are about yarns. Yarns make texture. India has a wide variety of traditional yarns from indigenous silks like tussar to hand-spun cottons. Where are the researchers and designers working to harness these yarns - to bring them into the wider market place in abudance and to experiment with improving and expanding this range of yarns so that they are accessible in quality and quantity? What work is being done to combine ancient techniques with new technology?
Textiles are about structure and technique: The wide range of structures used in traditional handloom textiles have not been adapted except in part, to augment existing practices within the handloom, powerloom or mill sector. Practices from one area are very slow to be adapted by another area even when no modification has to be made to the loom. Earlier structures are not being fully tapped as weavers go for the ordinary and most easily accomplished structures. The jacquard loom, an easier, less labour intensive solution to complex design is the major newcomer to the field.
The global market has made demands on the Indian textile industry, particularly the mill sector. Few mills have risen up to the global challenge. The most obvious success story is Himmatsinghka Seide; a modern weaving unit primarily for silk in Karnataka, with a marketing office out of New York and a family designer with a professional background. They have understood the need to leverage Indian textiles into the highest quality market segment drawing strength from tradition, technology and innovation. Other mill brands like Amara, Harmony and Arvind mills have their design studios and are working to present their own range of contemporary designs.
One assessment of the situation has been made by Seema Chandna, a contemporary Indian weaver/ designer trained in New York with experience in a Japanese company. From her Bangalore studio she sells her woven designs around the world. She looks at technology and tradition. "Fine contemporary textiles," she says, "are the result of the human spirit and new technology working hand in hand." Looking at the results of the industrial revolution on textiles, she feels it was not the machine or the factory that led to the decline in quality design and innovation but the separation of the person who thinks about weaving from the person who weaves.
Like any art form, textiles also link the past to the present. "Contemporary textile designs," she says, "reflect our spirit, our consciousness and the vibrancy of the society in which live. As society changes, textiles will change with them." But she feels that we must evaluate our attitudes towards our skilled traditions to see that the traditions endure and thrive. Towards this she points to Japan's attitude to their traditional textiles as an example for India to study. Japan, in comparison, also has a very rich textile tradition - the art of kimono-weaving, indigo dyeing, the textile crafts of shibori (tie-dye) and Kasuti (ikat) etc. This still exists today, but it is highly appreciated and valued. The country has a traditional respect for its textile craftpeople and honour them with the title "National Living Treasure". Today, Japan is by far the world leader in innovative modern textiles. Consistent investment since the Seventies to develop their technology - rich products, mainly fibre technologies and yarn spinning techniques, has given Japan the most sophisticated technological base for textile manufacture in the world. This modern industry, co-existing alongside an active folkcraft tradition, has put Japanese textile production in a unique position. In terms of attitude, technology and tradition, Japan is the closest thing on this planet to a textile paradise for designers.
In India she feels the textile industry is too segmented and antiquated with each area working individually - without much connection or relevance to each other. "We need synergy and more collaborative efforts to move ahead," she says. "The individual craftperson and designer should work along with the technological minds found in larger mills to innovate new developments of yarns and techniques in context to the present Indian society and living conditions. We should draw upon our past traditions, adapting them to create redefined textiles for today, instead of a prevalent thoughtless replication of the past".
Copyrights © 1999, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.