The signature handloom sari survives with the help of the much debated Handloom Reservation Act. Open visits the famous weavers’ hub of Chanderi to get a glimpse of the making of a masterpiece—and the woes of the weavers
The softly shimmering legacy of many hands lingers in its weave, the gorgeous rustle of cotton and silk hails its arrival: the handloom sari, timeless showcase of India’s heritage textile, gathered from all over the country to drape the Indian woman. From Delhi living room conversation piece to subtle South Indian wedding showstopper, the handloom sari has always kept standards high. Parrot green, frighteningly pink, marvellously magenta, from Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu to Sambalpuri in Orissa, it wends its way into trousseaus, staple sari collections and 100 Sari Pacts (the most recent trend in sari preservation has women vowing to wear a hundred saris and commemorate the traditional garment). Its weavers are craftsmen, their outlines blurred by the sheer number of people involved in the creation of one long, winding stretch of cloth.
In the middle of India, emerging from a long stretch of plains as an elegant cluster of stupas, forts, palaces and temples, Madhya Pradesh’s Chanderi became a hub for some of these handloom weavers several generations ago. “I’ve been working for 20 years. My father also did this work, and his father before him, they are Kabir Panthis who came from Rajasthan and he wove masuriya saris (kota doria or masuriya is a stunning Rajasthani textile),” says Mahavir Kohli, 38, one of the 350 plus weavers who live in a prominent basti which makes Chanderi famous. “It takes at least three days to make a sari, depending on the type of sari. Before it was very difficult, our feet would slip—now (he shows us a device providing grip) we can control the machine better.”
The large frame of the loom clack- clacks around us, shuttling back and forth in the comforting, mesmeric rhythm of a repetitive process. Kohli has been using this improved version for the past two decades. It can be manned (or womanned) by one or two people at a time, depending on the nature of the work, producing a few metres daily after the crafts people work through the light hours, with small breaks. There are a few daily labourers, but these are rarer, he says. White is his favourite colour, he tells me; popular in Gujarat and in the south. From all over India, Chanderi gathers material and prodigiously weaves saris; cotton from Coimbatore, zari from Surat in Gujarat, various other materials from Bangalore to Benares. “All-India sari,” he agrees, laughing. These materials are procured through suppliers, who warehouse locally at several outlets (he names enterprises like Gopilal and Sons, Gobind Stores, Rachna Sari House).
“The powerloom weavers of Benares are using the name of Chanderi and selling it like our saris. Customers don’t know the difference, sometimes,” says Kohli. “They copy our designs and give better rates, and the customer wonders why ours cost more; why will they buy our Rs 12,000 sari instead of their Rs 3,000 sari?” He shows me how a powerloom sari spoils when one thread is cut; and how the fineness of handloom fabric supersedes anything the machines can provide.
“My whole family works with me. My wife, bhabhi, three young daughters and 18-year-old son.” Kohli’s wife finishes her household chores, then returns to weaving when she can, she tells me. His shy teenager Dharmendra works with him, and just failed his last exam; his father will train him now to continue in his trade. He in turn was trained by his brother, who received formal training.
Their simple house is a bright pink inside, and there is a high shelf lining a wall bearing pyramids of steel utensils, plastic footballs balanced atop them, Ganesha idols and fake plants. Next to it is the loom itself, a large, expansive thing, strung with weights—cloth bags filled with stones—and multiply bound by string, all of it framed with wood. Here is their lodestone, the centre of their weavers’ universe, the hearth to which they return at all times of the day. Outside, the lanes are smelly, the pigs root through garbage a few yards away from their dwellings, sewage flows past the bright green walls decorated with wedding announcements.
Here is the truth: they cannot afford the saris they spend their lives making.
What’s more, they recently avoided losing out their precious corner of the market. In Chanderi, few of the weavers know much about the dangers the Handloom Reservations Act recently faced, as is often the case. Thirty years ago, the Handlooms (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act listed a quaint list of items reserved for handloom production: the saree, towel and gamcha, angavastram (‘a grey or bleached cloth of plain weave with border with extra warp in the borders’), lungi, bedsheet, jamakkalam durry, dress material, barrack blankets or kamblies, shawl or pankhi, woollen tweed and chaddar. The litany may sound like it comes straight out of a historical novel, but the Act is nevertheless relevant today—in that it will keep the powerloom lobby, powerful and capable of choking other industries, at bay. Keeping these items out of the legal preserve of powerloom companies that seek legitimate inroads into a market which conservationists would say they have already encroached on, the Act protects the legacy of handloom weavers and their products. ‘When someone threatens to raze the Taj Mahal to build a temple, we are angry, but we are also confident that such madness will never happen,’ Dastkar founder Laila Tyabji wrote in The Hindu recently. She cited the increasing demand for millions of metres of handloom— and the 20 million handloom workers (versus 3 million in the infotech sector) plus its low carbon footprint which make it a valuable contributor to the economy.
Over the last few months, everyone from designer Ritu Kumar to Ashoke Chatterjee, former president of the Crafts Council of India, has spoken up in defence of the handloom, in petitions ranging from rabble-rousing to prematurely mournful. The dust seems to have settled for now. The Office of Development Commissioner for Handlooms at the Ministry of Textiles held a meeting with all stakeholders in Delhi on 17 May, focusing on the need to improve the earning of handloom weavers. Mid-May, the foundation stone of seven handloom common facility centres was laid in Varanasi, the very heart of the powerloom industry. Those bigwigs seem to have faded into the distance—for now.
Back in Chanderi, little seems to have affected the work of craftsmen. They are still all about the Kareena pallu—now a specialty item featuring a showy motif adopted by the Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor. It has come to be associated with her, in visuals which decorate everything from the huts of weavers to the government handloom training centre’s entrance. (Her visit with Aamir Khan, several years ago, is hailed as one of the high points in Chanderi’s image, by adoring locals.) Here, the other name they all know is that of Scindia, who has provided them with solar light, which they say works effectively to supply them with power; Scindia and his party are arguably something of a religion in these parts, Kohli and his fellow weavers remind me.
“Go to Chanderi and you will see that the handloom weavers are doing as well as ever,” Raw Mango founder Sanjay Garg told me when I spoke to him over the phone about my trip to Chanderi. Perhaps one of the most esteemed names in the contemporary handwoven textile industry, Raw Mango is renowned for its use of colour and trendy design, and employs more than 450 craftspeople. Kohli’s neighbour in the basti, Bhagvan Das, is one of its suppliers. At one point a full-time weaver, he is now a middleman, and like most, he has a family steeped in the handloom culture. A cluster of people spill between his rooms and courtyards, crouching religiously against looms, dipping their feet into the hollow beneath the level ground they use as a seat. Das is meticulous about the details of his work, spreading out his wares with the delight of the salesman but evidently missing the work of a craftsman. “This is a branding problem,” he says. “[Powerloom weavers] are using our brand, the brand of Chanderi, in other places.”
An understated tourist destination, Chanderi is often missed on the route to nearby Orchha and Khajuraho, but those who pass through—lingering as we did at the picturesquely located Tana Bana government guesthouse, surrounded by utterly Buddhist stretches of plains— are struck by its quiet winsomeness. At Koshak Mahal, a stunning sandstone palace made up of four buildings of equal dimension, its chhatris crumbling, the ASI (Archaeological Society of India) workers who mind the monument say they have opted out of weaving work. “The work never ends. At least with this job, we can go home and be done. We get Rs 5,800 in salary per month here, and not much more if we do that work.”
As the controversy over the potential repeal of the Handloom Reservation Act has raged on over the past few months, the debate has centred on whether handloom workers really need the help. When we visit the government handloom training centre, another scenic, crumbling old building, the instructor reminds us that this is a vocation, one that he struggles to sustain as a teacher. His mother has just died, and he is solemn as he describes his work. “Every three months, we get students, and there are 10 looms for them to work on. Usually there are 14 students, sometimes up to 20. The government subsidises this, and they go on to work here and elsewhere.” There are only three students when we meet him (it is afternoon and they may have fled the heat, of course), and he has the noble aspect of a lone ranger. Reminding him of his mortality is the adjoining mausoleum of a showroom. In its glass cases are swatches of handloom, volumes of colonial-era treatises on textiles and an odd placard in French.
Slightly more cheering is the Scindia- funded NGO Chanderiyaan, housed in Raj Mahal, an arresting old building bustling with 350 odd weavers. This ‘digital cluster’ features computerised designs, a jacquard loom-enabled process which speeds up the process to something in the vicinity of a sari per day (the jacquard loom is a mechanical loom invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard), and higher wages. Students from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad often train here, and you can order their wares online. The contrast of the old building against this modern enterprise, huge looms crowded against its pillars as they slowly churn out the livelihood of these artisans, is unmistakeable: here is our urban compromise, it almost seems to say.
Nearby in Maheshwar, American hand- loom preservationist Sally Holkar’s Handloom School and Women Weave help train countless locals in the art of their forbears. Hers is one of many initiatives which will take the form forward. Kohli’s young son Dharamvir trained at her school, and he is less reticent when we get away from the family, and walk along the ramifications of Chanderi’s fort. He shows me stylish designs he has come up with on his smartphone, and tells me has been to Good Earth in Khan Market, one of the tony outlets for goods like his. His three friends giggle as they pose for us. They look out at Chanderi, and point out its sights, knowing they must keep leaving it—and keep returning.
At a time when ‘Make in India’ is a global campaign, spare a thought for the hands behind the less marketed ‘Woven in India’.