Three years ago, when National Handloom Day was inaugurated on August 7, Border&Fall’s social media commentary — while appreciating the effort to make the craft more accessible — discussed how the initiative felt contrived. Today, despite continuous government investment and Textile Minister Smriti Irani’s 2016 social media campaign #IWearHandloom that is still going strong, public awareness and chatter on social channels grow slowly. My initial sentiment that perhaps not all is to be celebrated? It still remains.
I will always remember a quote that textile historian Rahul Jain gave to Mint in 2015, stating, “If equitability was a real concern in India, say, via a wage increase that reflects a 21st century valuation of traditional crafts, skills and labour, a lot of private players in the field would simply exit. Their profits would fall dramatically.” This remains the singular issue (and answer) to the entire plight surrounding handloom: if we were to pay higher wages to weavers, we would have a healthy socio-economic handloom community. However, it is not in the best interest of most designers to petition for this change.
The irony of this conflict of interest is responsible for much of my apprehension towards celebrating a day even as inequity continues to exist. Understandably, a National Handloom Day is too public-facing, fleeting, and topical to address this kind of change, but I do think a smart and strong digital campaign funded by the government could do much to address a necessary perception shift.
The weaver’s tale
Renewing a widespread interest in handloom has the power to change the lives of millions. One such invention was khadi denim, which I called “potentially revolutionary” when Border&Fall first reported it in 2014. It stood to be a unique proposition within the nine billion dollar denim industry. I sincerely thought it was revolutionary, as did Levi’s, which bought out the production and began to market it. Apparently, soon after, The Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) sued Levi’s for use of the word khadi, and it was pulled off the shelves. This June, it was publicly reported that KVIC sued FabIndia for selling products with the khadi tag. That a government-run organisation (which itself uses semi-mechanised processes to make khadi) is prohibiting the use (and sale) of products claiming to be “handwoven and handspun” is preposterous. This is a handloom reality being swept under the rug, of little interest to Instagram or the Ministry of Textiles.
Meanwhile, Bollywood, a perennial favourite for mass information, has also tried its hand at bringing handloom into its rhetoric. August 7 saw the “logo launch” of the Anushka Sharma and Varun Dhawan-starrer Sui Dhaga (where the former plays an embroiderer, and the latter a tailor). Stencils of the film’s logo were sent to artisans across the country to be embroidered using native techniques. The resulting styles ranged from banjara and gota patti to kasuti. That handloom day factored into a big ticket movie’s launch strategy is interesting — a sign that it is on people’s minds, even if only as a possible PR stunt.
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Among the design community though, National Handloom Day saw a weak show. However, a lack of hashtags does not necessarily mean a lack of support. Santanu Das of Kolkata-based Maku Textile respects the initiative and would have engaged, but states, “I manage my social media myself, there is only so much I can do.”
A model wearing Maku
At Raw Mango, where I serve as Strategic Director, we had multiple conversations on the importance of the day as a communication tool. Much internal dialogue resulted in a well-received digital campaign highlighting the contributions of handloom heroes such as Martand Singh and local farming communities. We also conducted candid interviews asking people a range of questions including, “Do you know what handloom is?” and “Do you wear handloom?” Answers, respectively, were “mostly no”, and “no”.
What’s in a name?
Designer Rajesh Pratap Singh, who works extensively with handloom states, “the day is good to raise awareness — any excuse to revisit this conversation is a good one, even if it is as formal as this. It is much more than a Valentine’s Day. If this is what is needed to bring about a discussion on handloom, then why not? What comes of it is another story.”
It is telling that today, weavers are still called “weavers“, whereas designers are felicitated with the decency of a full name. It is a contentious space, and one of the concerns with National Handloom Day is that it will further sweep the overwhelming reality of this relationship under the rug. For this reason, it can feel slightly disingenuous to some. For others, the reality is that handloom is a way of living and working, with no special reason to highlight the human condition to such “PR lengths”.
Despite all this, some believe that India already has a leg up. Santanu Das believes that government policies have, in fact, helped. “We are better off than our neighboring countries,” he opines. “I went to Bangladesh and felt sorry for their craft sector in terms of access to market and sense of quality. For us in India, handloom and craft are part of the mainstream market and today handloom is a buzzword — at least we have made this happen.”
The writer is the Founder of Border&Fall and Strategic Director for Raw Mango.