How to make a neoprene-loving generation admire and appreciate the beauty and purity of handspun is the challenge the handloom industry faces today. Making it “cool” seems to be the answer both metaphorically and literally!
By Asmita Aggarwal
The thing about textile historian Rta Kapur Chisti is that she is a rather invigorating mix of charm and wit so when she tells you she can drape saris in 82 different ways, you instantly believe her. The only way, she thinks Gen Z will really adopt textiles is “if we show them the magic of it” she exclaims, going by the increasing number of people, who register for her sari draping workshops. And handlooms need to be chosen rightly she asserts, as she speaks candidly on Handloom day, at an event organised by the Fashion Design Council of India along with the Ministry of Textiles at the Crafts Museum.
Most youngsters avoid handlooms as they tend to swell up making them look larger, but Chisti smiles and adds, “You need to choose right, maybe Karnataka or Mushirabad silks that retain their shape and drape well.” The problem, why handlooms haven’t made their way into young people’s hearts is because they grew up at the time when exports were booming and everywhere they saw easily available cheap fashion, taking them away from “real India”. “And slowly we all became an imitation as we stopped asking the question—who are we?” she confesses.
The esteemed panel of speakers also included Ritu Kumar, David Abraham, Madhu Jain, master-printer Ramkishore Chippa Derawala and Sunil Sethi Chairman FDCI, and they investigated the finer aspects of, ‘Can our Handloom Heritage of the Past be a Springboard to the Future?’ Interestingly, Derawala, who comes from Bagru, Jaipur and constitutes one of the 484 families living there for the last 500 years and indulging in block printing using natural colours and dyes. He believes a stamp is needed to distinguish an authentic product that is truly loom made and not power or mill manufactured.
Since 1980, Derawala has been involved in the family vocation and to promote the art, he even donated to the Crafts Museum the entire printing process of what it entails to make Bagru prints using traditional wooden blocks and fruit colours (made out of pomegranate peel, iron, jaggery, kali mitti and spoilt flour). “Natural colours look best on natural fabrics, our customers may have changed over the last three decades, but our themes haven’t. Unfortunately, the government still ignores this sector and what we need today is raw materials and to generate employment, as almost 400 families are earning through this laborious technique in my village,” he explains.
Doyen of Indian fashion Ritu Kumar, spoke about how GST was killing the handicrafts market and even though some in the audience suggested the way to make handloom popular is to offer it to government schools for uniforms, she wasn’t convinced. “We tried that with Indian railways once but the Khadi we got wasn’t up to the mark. So these experiments don’t really work,” she explained. She also spoke about the fact that when she began her journey in fashion she wasn’t looking at the West, but Indian handwriting and how beautiful it was, but till today her aim is to empower weavers so that they are able to sell on their own without middlemen.
Ragini Ahuja of the label Ikai felt social media intervention was a must to create a blueprint for handlooms. “It needs to be cool, so that young designers use handlooms and young people want to wear it. I want to use khadi, but I need guidance,” she suggested. What the market needs today is an interface between weavers and designers, and Mr. Sethi suggested “cluster adoption” where designers can work, stay and understand a particular region, (anywhere in the country) and its craft in totality at weaver centres. “But you must equip yourself to respect the technique and the master craftsman,” added Chisti.
Relatable is what sells, was also the mantra that was chanted, and many millennials are blissfully unaware about “textile education”, so most don’t know, online portals selling so-called “handloom” is actually far from it. “The Crafts Museum is starting the Hast Kala Academy, where they will begin craft appreciation courses, six months to a year. It would be the perfect way to learn about our heritage,” said Mr. Sethi. Suggestions were abound on the ways in which handlooms can be preserved from becoming extinct, Nitin Bal Chauhan, who started his career with an NGO, 2002, in Chamba, believes textile knowledge should be initiated in schools like yoga, as orientation must begin early. “The FDCI can pick best schools, and designers can educate children, at 15 and not when they become adults at 35 so that there is no disconnect,” says Nitin.
Most importantly, Handloom Day must not have a designated time period, it should be celebrated every day. “Our Indian saris have such memorable patterns and are so diverse from the pallu to the border and the pleats, each one is unique in terms of texture. Martand Singh was the first to see the potential of weavers and he felt we must present their point of view. We met when he was the director of the Calico Museum of Textiles. I still remember he told me to let us focus on the sari, it is here to stay for at least a 100 years,” she remembers. How right he was and way ahead of his time!