Hyderabad: Textiles have been one of the most elegant exhibitions of artistry in India. From the Chanderi, silk brocades of Varanasi to the tie and dye of Rajasthan and Odisha, the Chintas of Machhlipatnam and the Maheshwari saris of Madhya Pradesh, each tradition has a long story to tell — some literally and others as a form of a cultural narrative. But these handlooms and weavers are now facing the threat of being “completely wiped out” if the Handloom Reservation Act of 1985 is amended to allow machines to copy the designs.
Fighting the battle to keep the tradition alive are thousands of people from across India and some even from other countries. Actress Lisa Ray tweeted in support of the Change.org petition that hopes to let the Prime Minister know of the discontentment over the possible “repeal of the Handloom Reservation Act, which since 1985 has been protecting traditional handloom weaves”. One supporter from abroad even wrote, “I have taken group after group of foreign tourists to your country since 1997. It is an irreplaceable part of your culture.”
As the several petitions currently doing the rounds point out, handlooms are an integral part of our culture. And among those in the fashion industry fighting for the cause is popular designer and textile revivalist Ritu Kumar, who likens these textiles to historical monuments that we are gearing up to destroy.
“To begin with, the Handloom Reservation Act is in place to protect the weavers. Now to amend the Act and change the definition of it, just so that the powerloom lobby can get a piece of the pie, can prove detrimental to the huge community of weavers across India and the complete culture itself,” she points out.
Dr D. Narasimha Reddy, an activist and a member of the Cotton Advisory Board, predicts that close to 2.5 lakh weavers in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana will be affected. “If the Act is amended it would be complete death of handloom. How? For one, the lines between handlooms and the powerlooms will get blurred. As it is, the market for handloom is niche and the powerloom lobby will be taking that money away of weavers.”
For the consumers, however, their love to own and wear a beautiful piece of art is weighed against the high costs of the product as opposed to other cheaper varieties and options. This again is due to the policies in place that do not help the weavers and the wearers. And the saving of Handloom Reservation Act is just the tip of the iceberg, asserts Dr Naramsimha Reddy.
India has, over the years, gone from the original stance of encouraging natural textiles to promoting man-made fabrics. “Take for instance the taxes, we had 48 per cent taxation on polyester and man-made fabrics. Over the years, the taxes came down for synthetic and man-made fabrics, while the taxes for natural fabrics went up. So now, a metre of polyester will cost in one or two digits as tax is just 4 per cent, while cotton or other natural fabrics per metre will cost in three digits. And there are several levels to the issues that the handloom community faces, including the proper implementation of Handloom Reservation Act itself,” he says.
The handloom industry also earns India huge money in exports. According to the Handloom Export Promotion Council, the export of handloom products during 2009-10 was Rs 1,253 crore (US $241m) and showed a steady increase during the consecutive three years 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13 with Rs 1,575 crore (US $303 m), Rs 2,624 crore (US $532 m) and Rs 2,812 crore (US $521 m) respectively. But there was a decline during the year 2013-14 and export of handloom products had registered Rs 2,233 crore (US $372 m). While the US and the UK top the list, France, Belgium, the UAE, the Netherlands and Canada are some of the other export destinations for Indian handloom products.While powerloom will reduce the cost of production as the products are machine-made and can be mass produced, that is not necessarily a good thing.
The dilution has already begun
Designer Gaurang Shah, who is known for working largely with weavers and handloom products, says, “The beauty of Dharmavaram saris have already been diluted as they have become semi-powerloom. The handloom saris get their beauty from the time-taking process of making them, the variations that the weavers or rather the artisans give each of them. For instance, the whole 6 yards of a sari can be uniquely designed by a weaver, while a powerloom can only replicate a small fraction of a design over and over again on the sari.” Shah works with Jamdani Khadi and he knows the texture of the textile when woven by hand and the feel of the fabric that can never be replaced by a machine-made product.
“There is another problem here. When powerlooms make the saris, the production will increase, but the number of people buying saris is reducing. So if the demand doesn’t match the increased production, the day won’t be very far away when we will actually shut down the whole loom industry,” explains Shah.
Egological and local consumption
While the powerloom lobby is riding on the “Make In India” wave and the concern of “modernisation to meet the global market demands”, the idea of these activists and the lovers of handlooms is simple, these looms are synonyms with “India”.
“If we go ahead with this, we won’t be very far from ending up like China. They have wiped out all their arts and crafts and we are on the same path,” cautions Ritu Kumar. “We need to understand that what we have in the form of handlooms is an actual monument and you wouldn’t go and destroy a monument, would you? Talking from the fashion perspective, this is the USP of the country, internationally and nationally.”
Hyderabad-based Dr Sharmila Nagraj Nandula, with a PhD in handloom textiles, in her research paper points out, "The carbon footprint assessment clearly showed that every country in the world should start thinking in terms of buying local, which not only cuts carbon emissions but also helps the communities in the rural areas to take care of crafts and farming which is the need of the hour. The 100 per cent naturally dyed organic handloom cotton has the least impact on earth as it follows all the good earth practices in procurement, processes and disposal of waste.”
Dr Sharmila also has an argument regarding a very interesting aspect of these crafts. “My research shows that handlooms do great things to your mental and spiritual health, besides improving your physical health parameters. When you hold a piece of handloom in your hand, it is an experience. The fabric has a story to tell, a journey that it has taken from the very start and in the hands of weaver, for whom it is almost a meditative experience. The art needs to be protected and more importantly, needs patronage. When you are moving leather industries away from Taj Mahal to protect the monument, why not do something about these small artifacts that carry almost the same cultural weight?”
The solution is simple, she notes. “Let the handlooms and weavers be and not allow the powerloom guys eat into their pie. And that’s not very hard is it?”
Meanwhile, Dr Narasimha Reddy also has very simple suggestion. “We need to create a labeling system, just like how we have for food. We create standardised measures and let the consumer know what they are paying for. Right now, if you walk into a store and want to buy loom fabric, you are most likely going be kept in the dark about if the textile was made by a machine or a family of weavers. If we have a labeling mechanism in place, then the consumer who can afford can pay for the hard work of the weaver will do so and at least we won’t be killing all our weavers,” he says.