Handloom is haute

Published: Thursday 30 April 2009

But the market is still too far for India's weavers

BY LATE 19th century, commentators of various political hues had begun writing the Indian weaver's obituary. The impoverished Indian weaver was the central figure in the writings of nationalists like R C Dutt and Dadabhai Naoroji. Cotton from Manchester was blamed for this ruin. A few decades later, Gandhi made khadi and charkha the emblem of India's freedom movement. Khadi became the uniform of a large section of freedom fighters. Worn by the nifty Jawaharlal Nehru, it even became a fashion statement--unintentionally perhaps.

Independent India locked khadi and handloom in emporiums. The handloom, however, proved more resilient. The loudest cheers at the Lakme India Fashion Week in early March went out to the models donning handloom outfits--one would assume for the apparel. Today, in many wardrobes, a Benetton or a Tommy Hilfiger shares space with a jamavar or a khadi silk jacket. Why go that far: you would not be labelled a jholawalla today if you wore a khadi kurta with jeans. A handloom spaghetti top would even be considered chic.

For the 17 million craftspeople in India, all this is good news. But there are some knots that must be disentangled. While the Ministry of Textiles regularly announces credit card schemes for weavers so that they can finance the orders they get, government exhibitions don't have the backup needed for bulk supplies. Fancy stores like Cottage Industries Emporium rake in foreign exchange, but not much of it goes to the producer.

But a whole basket of attempts does bring the weaver into focus. These include the entrepreneurship-based models of Fabindia and Anokhi, and non-profit initiatives like those of Urmul in Rajasthan and Dastkar Andhra and smaller, extre- mely localized ventures like the Charkha Weavers cooperative run by dalit women in Karnataka. Many weavers' cooperatives have also found out it pays to cater to urban fashion demands.

What are these demands though? Does the weaver get to interact with the market or do entrepreneurs still mediate between craftspeople and their consumer? The capital's Dilli Haat once provided an avenue for face-to-face interaction. But even here the trader has overwhelmed the artisan.

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