Crafting a Future is a must-read book on hand woven Indian textiles, and what the future can hold for craftsmen. Despite its deceptive coffee table book type appearance, it is, as Laila Tyabji in her foreword puts it “a scholarly book”. It traces the history of cotton, silk and wool, in the Indian context, interspersed with several evocative photographs.
The section on cotton deals with khadi, muslin and indigo dyeing as well; the section on silk covers tussar, mulberry cultivation, and ericulture of the Northeast, the wool section covers fine pashmina as well as the coarser wool of Uttarakhand and Kutch. Executed as a kind of travelogue, between 2018 and 2020, the book engages, informs and forces one to ponder as well. Its matter is encylopediac; with exhaustive information on the subject, but the writing style is informal and very relatable.
In her introduction, while writing about her visit to the Kalakshetra weaving centre in Chennai, Shah writes “anyone who has ever worn kanjeevaram sarees would swear by their soft buttery feel and wonderful drape. The new sarees looked attractive, but did not drape like the old kanjeevaram silks. On looking closer, I realised that the difference was the yarn… the highly twisted machine made yarn which is strong but not supple, unlike the handspun yarn.”
The book is relevant from several perspectives, not the least being economic — around 200 million artisans depend on the crafts sector for their livelihood; around 30 million are involved in the handcrafted textile sector. Comprehensive, it deals with the related activities too, of spinning, dyeing, embroidery, and retail, and also gives details of the main establishments in each region, and their niche expertise. The immense research involved, impressive facts and figures, and huge geographical area covered is worn lightly; the book is an engaging page turner and an easy read. This is despite being a veritable authority on the subject; there are practical examples of the success to be achieved, interesting stories of various projects, and analysis of how government institutions lost their relevance in the field.
The section on fashion links the relevance of the hand crafted tradition to environmental concerns and sustainability. The need for patronage, which is how the tradition flourished in bygones ages is highlighted.
The listing of the prevalent types of weave centres in each Indian state is fascinating; from “kani”, “tilla dori”, “namda” in Kashmir to “settu mundu” in Kerala; from “jamdani” “kantha” and “baluchari” in West Bengal to “patola”, “bandhani” and “ajrakh” in Gujarat. Shah does not forget lesser known weaving techniques like the backstrap looms of Arunachal Pradesh, or the “bomkai” and “kotpad” weaves of Odisha.
One of the most endearing aspects of the book comes out in the clearly visible love for the artisans that the author has. Her lifelong passion for handcrafted textiles is not based solely on the product, but equally on the process of construction, and the practitioners.
Francis Pyrard de Laval wrote in the 17th century, “Everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, is clothed from head to foot in the product of Indian looms”. One realises the immense potential we still have, 400 years later, in producing quality handloom fabrics. Shah’s Crafting a Future gives us the facts and inputs on the subject to make this a reality.
Crafting a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices
By Archana Shah
pp. 276, Rs.1,495