Saturday, August 4, 2001

Is weaving a dying art?

by Zoya Das

THE advent of modern textile technology is said to have sounded the death knell of India’s traditional handloom industry. Thousands of weavers have been rendered jobless and are either languishing in utter penury, or else have abandoned the profession for good.

The other side of this story is that weaving units across the country have found a fresh lease of life, following the growth of the domestic fashion industry. Abandoned looms, long-forgotten skills and weaves believed dead are now being revived, thanks to a few committed couturiers.

So where does this place weaving as an art?

Roshan Kalapesi, founder member and patron of ParamparikKarigar, an organisation that works for traditional craftspersons, believes that people in the government who formulate policies for the handloom industry have no clue about India’s weaving traditions.

"If even one weaver is to be involved in the policy-making process, he would be able to give the right direction,"she says. "Till then, we’ll have to depend upon a few affluent women with business acumen to give a boost to the weavers’ dying art and make a market for their products."


Bela Sanghvi is one such entrepreneur who has not only been training weavers, but has also been providing them with technical support, design inputs and marketing options in an effort to revive the Patola weaving tradition of Patan, in Gujarat.

Similarly, Sally Holkar of the Indore royal family has been working for more than two decades with and for the Maheshwari weavers of Madhya Pradesh. If the Maheshwari saree has become a collector’s item today, the credit goes entirely to this young lady from the USA who has made India her home.

Then there are the weavers of Benarasi sarees in Uttar Pradesh who have found a patron in Smriti Morarka. Likewise in Kota, Rajasthan, Vidhi Singhania is working on traditional weaves while in Paithan, Maharashtra, Naina Jhaveri is supporting yet another community of saree weavers.

All these women are wives of prosperous industrialists and have contributed to the resurrection of India’s textile heritage in no small measure. Were it not for them, weavers would have remained either jobless or constrained in their creativity due to lack of finances.

These women found them work and the means to innovate. They introduced new design ideas, cost-cutting techniques and colours to suit contemporary market demands without compromising on the quality or identity of the traditional product.

Bela could even enable the Patola weavers to extend their repertoire to include the brocade weaving styles of the Mughal period. With improved techniques, she cut production time and labour cost. Of late, she has been experimenting with a combination of Patola and Aashawal styles for enhanced fabric quality.

"In this way, we have been able to create a larger pool of skills," she informs. "After all, market needs have to be addressed from design and technical angles. At the same time we recognise that the problems, techniques and skills vary from fabric to fabric, if we are to retain the purity of the product".

While Bela retails through Aavartan, Naina’s label is Swayam Siddha. The latter has also been adding fresh, contemporary designs and colours to the Paithani saree, which serves as a once-in-a-lifetime acquisition. "Once bought, at least three generations can wear it if it is properly preserved," she points out.

"Thirty years ago, gold-plated silver zari replaced pure gold threads in the Paithani, so as to make it affordable. But I feel that if one can spend thousands on a Versace or an Armani, even a gold-threaded Paithani becomes a good buy".

Vidhi’s contribution in popularising the Kota weaves is no less significant. Even as the sarees are of a fine net of cotton and silk yarn, they were considered too plain and unattractive till Vidhi introduced dark colours and checks in a variety of shades.

In time, she diversified into other uses for the Kota fabric, such as dupattas, turbans, patkas and scarves, which are hugely popular with Mumbai’s fashion designers. Vidhi also makes home furnishings such as lampshades, cushion covers, table linen, bed sheets and blinds from the Kota fabric.

Smriti, for her part, is working on ‘reconstructing’ several rare Benarasi weaves and ‘antiquating’ new sarees. It is a painstakingly delicate process and two out of 10 sarees get damaged by the chemicals used. But then, the demand for these is great, as it is always fashionable to wear "granny’s wedding saree!"