The textile industry must consider supporting the handloom sector, Sally Holkar told REHMAT MERCHANT, in the context of the inaugural exhibition of WomenWeave held in Mumbai recently.
WOMENWEAVE is a global, not-for-profit organisation, affiliated with The Dallas Foundation, for interacting with women weavers to promote the art and improve the quality of their lives.
For Sally Holkar, the torchbearer for the cause, it all began when she began interacting with the handloom weaving community of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh. For 20 years the connection continues. During this time she became a co-founder of Rehwa through which she was involved in the design, marketing, and quality control of handloom manufacturing.
A political science graduate from Stanford University, weaving was not a part of her educational or cultural exposure. But for Ms. Holkar, nurturing handlooms has been like having a baby: "I was not really clear about what would happen down the line, but the commitment was total." To revive an interest in handlooms she felt that it had to be contemporised: what are the designs and colours young people would like to wear? Then she raided the wardrobes of friends and family to look for interesting designs that could be given to the weavers.
WomenWeave had an inaugural exhibition in February at the Cymroza Gallery in Mumbai. The trendy natural fibre bags, the traditional Maheshwaris, the intricately designed saris, and splashy vegetable dyed fabrics this beautiful world of weave on display is the result of the toil of women from all over the country. The organisers call it "an exercise in creative sourcing and textile synergy" where groups of women from across the country come together displaying the talent and the art from their regions.
This is also a coming together of the aspirations of weavers with the efforts of promoters to bring to urban India a rich tradition that is in danger of dying out. A "piece of culture" could be had from Rs. 75 to up to Rs. 4,000.
The participants in the launch exhibition were the Madras Craft Foundation from Tamil Nadu. This non-profit society promotes the arts, crafts, and architecture of South India. The foundation had on display woven baskets from Chettinad. Chelna Desai, who has intensive design experience, worked with the Maheshwari weavers to produce contemporary handlooms for saris, wraps and scarves. The Assam Rural Development Association has women weavers from three different areas of the State under its umbrella. The association has brought to the fore a new way of producing natural silk, where the natural skill lies in eri work and muga. Interestingly, Assam has the largest number of women weavers who work under difficult circumstances and this exhibition was their first opportunity to be appreciated outside their native region. The Kishkinda Trust was formed to create an alternative source of income in the drought stricken areas of Karnataka, encouraging the natural fibre culture of the Anegundi and the Hampi areas. It had on show banana and corn fibre items and natural grass window blinds.
Today, people are not aware of the painstaking work that goes into the making of handlooms. Handloom fabrics are one of a kind, unlike the assembly line productions churned out by powerlooms. One threat to the extinction of weaves comes from the wide range of textiles that are available all over and the advantage of low maintenance. But powerlooms and handlooms are not competing rivals. Handlooms can never match the volume of production of powerlooms and in no way threaten the giant textile industry. The organisers in fact feel that a partnership between the two could be mutually beneficial. Says Ms. Holkar: "The textile industry could look at the weaves for design inspiration and could bring out special ranges." This kind of partnership would also afford protection to the economically vulnerable weaving industry. The textile industry could support them by adopting a certain weaving area or by giving them seed money.
Another threat to this cottage industry is from within. Traditionally, in this industry, the boys are trained in the skill which is then passed down generations. But the younger men are not interested in it anymore. They crave novelty and adventure. And they find it in being anything from peons or even factory workers. But on the flip side, the very thing that makes this profession unappealing to men being stuck at home makes it appealing to women. The Raja-Rani project was introduced in Maheshwar with the aim of transferring weaving skills from the men to the women. The idea here was also to create an equal partnership. That way, the tradition would continue if the men went away looking for greener pastures. And for the women it is a source of income close to home.
... and banana fibre bags
Weaving employs 12.5 million people and the government is the only organisation with some financial muscle that takes an interest in handlooms. But since most government officials handling the projects are men, their interest is not lively and innovative enough. For them it is just a job. Most of the work they supervise just lies around in the warehouses. Some interested officials do come by and do good work. But when they get transferred, the efforts are nullified. The other interested party in the fate of handloom is the banya, whose motives are commercially driven and exploitative.
Without outside help, the weavers have no access to raw materials and a way to market their goods. A well-disposed intermediary is crucial in ensuring the survival of the tradition. Marketing support and creative direction is needed to make handlooms economically viable. Says Ms. Holkar: "We have to get there fast. We are giving training and design assistance, and helping them preserve their tradition and integrating them with evolving design trends. And finally to taking the product to an appreciative audience."
WomenWeave, says Ms. Holkar, wants to look at the weaving world not only creatively, and with marketing savvy, but also through the lens of social welfare. When she was working through Rehwa, they looked at medical care, a housing colony for weaver families, and education for the children. Now they have started the "see to weave" project where they have drop boxes for people to donate old prescription glasses that can be used by weavers. It had been noticed that the better lit places are reserved for the men. And for the weavers, sight translates into income.
Some of the weavers were here in Mumbai along with their craft. Mehmood Ansari, 33, who has been weaving for the past 15 years, has also worked with Rehwa but now works independently. He supervises other weavers, and crafts and designs. Says he: "It sometimes takes three to four days to weave a sari. So it feels nice when someone is taking an interest in your work, interacting with you, and putting your craft out there." Says Chandrakanta, also a weaver, but now playing a more administrative role: "We earn so much more now that we are not selling material to the banyas. Where a banya gives say Rs. 100, WomenWeave will give Rs. 150."
Hura Bai, 50, started life as a razai maker. But today she is a weaver and is making Rs. 500 a week. WomenWeave hopes to train more women to become financially independent like her.
Says Ms. Holkar: "Weaving is big even in Latin America. We would like to connect a weaver in rural India to her counterpart in Mexico." WomenWeave is dreaming big: an international community of weavers, connected to each other through skill sharing and a love for the art.
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