Over the years, India’s public position as a textile-rich industry has received more recognition through our presentation on a global scale and the world becoming a smaller place, thanks to social media. Handloom has always had its place in mainstream fashion, with prominent designers such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Manish Malhotra including block prints and weaving techniques in their collections.
At the Spring/Summer 2022 Milan Fashion Week, designer Vaishali S, who focuses on Indian weaves, showcased her latest collection, Ancestral Threads — a more wearable and mature collection that included West Bengali silks, lavish silks and cotton from Maheshwar, Karnataka, and the famed Kota Doriya. In fact, on the international front earlier this year, Dior’s creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri and Karishma Swali, Mumbai- based Chanakya ateliers and Chanakya School of Craft, collaborated for Dior’s haute couture Spring/Summer 2022 show in Paris to showcase art installations, featuring award-winning contemporary Indian artists Madhvi and Madhu Parekh.
“The Indian textile industry is one of the mainstays of the national economy with significant potential for both domestic consumption and exports. Currently, this sector alone contributes six per cent of the GDP. It is the second largest employer after agriculture, employing nearly 50 million people directly, and close to 70 million indirectly,” adds Amitesh Chandra Mullick of Aditri Looms and Craft, a New-Delhi-based platform established in 2018 with the aim of showcasing the rich cultural diversity of India through its handloom heritage.
Having said this, designers and startups are guiding the support for artisans in various ways. Khushi Shah of Shanti Banaras explains how they work with a community of over 100 workers daily, where they aim to empower and educate them about the intricate craft of handweaving and hand embroidery. The age-old tradition of hand weaving is unique, but the work that goes behind it is not given as much credit within the industry.
“We strongly support our artisans and their families too. We have launched a separate line of home furnishing to increase their employment opportunities in other markets as well. Our family has been a part of the handloom business for generations, some weavers have been working with us since 1994, and now the younger generation has taken over the business by continuing to work with us. All our artisans are based in Varanasi. Because of their deep knowledge of the craft, any design given to them is not supremely difficult to execute. They have worked with and even created some of our most exclusive designs and we work on a salary basis with them,” opines Shah.
National Handloom Day on August 7 was declared in 2015 with an intention to create awareness about the craft among the youth. Since then, startups, brands, and designers have taken initiatives to contribute to the handloom communities in India.
Rooted in culture and community, designer Archana Jaju is extremely passionate about traditional handlooms and the relationship they share with the artisans. “In my opinion, the artisans no longer require help. Today, there are so many brands that work with artisans across India and support them. Even the media has empowered and uplifted them in various ways. We, at Archana Jaju, are doing our bit by helping these artisans modernise their skill sets according to the current needs and requirements. We work with various crafts in each of our collections, which, in turn, helps them sustain their jobs and provides employment opportunities,” explains Jaju.
Inde Loom, Aditri Loom and Crafts, Karagiri, The Loom Art, Impresa, are some startups that currently work with the aim of helping artisans and weavers in domestic and international markets.
Inde Loom, a maker-to-market fair trade start-up, was established to improve the lives of rural artisans by helping them with design innovations. The idea came to founder Suren Chowdhary when he was travelling in remote villages in West Bengal, where he came across severely underpaid weavers. “Initially, we contacted the ministry of textiles and got the database of weavers who have won awards in the past 30 years. We could get data of 800 weavers with addresses and phone numbers, and we started contacting them. Currently, we work with 65 weavers only and we work in six art forms: kantha, jamdani, paithani, hand painting, pen kalamkari, and ajrakh. We invest in raw materials and pay them standard wages, which is roughly Rs 500-600 per day more than the national average by at least 30 per cent, and share 20 per cent of the profit from each piece sold,” he adds.
Chowdhary explains how Inde Loom initially faced challenges to help the weavers understand how a fair trade model works and most importantly, that they have to start adopting new designs, colours, and patterns as per the taste of the new generation, as the perception of handloom is just a light colour khadi fabric. “We were innovating designs in various art forms which were trendy, colourful and also we should be able to provide them with enough business so that they can sustain. So we have a lot of interactive sessions and helped them adopt the new way of handloom making that can sell globally and also adopt technology. We invested in a few smartphones that were given to weavers to discuss a new design as it is not possible to travel to remote places where they are located. Right now, we work seamlessly using mobiles, which they are happy to use as well,” he continues. Inde Loom also sells these products on international marketplace Etsy as well as through Instagram.
The main aim of startups is to remove the middlemen between the weavers and these platforms. “Working with Aditri gives the weavers an opportunity to sell directly to us, without involving the middlemen. This leads to a significantly better price realisation. It is a win-win for both craftsmen and Aditri. Aside from significant price realisation, other advantages include access to contemporary designs, repeated orders, an opportunity to showcase themselves — including global audiences and access to newer technology. We currently work with artisans from West Bengal, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, and Gujarat. As opposed to selling to middlemen versus direct with us, the profit margins of the weavers are easily 3-5 times more,” concludes Mullick.