India's cultural diversity is perhaps best reflected in its handloom textile varieties. From Patola and Mashru in Gujarat, Gulbadan in West Bengal and Saktapar in Orissa, Chettinad and Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu to Narayanpet and Pochampalli in Andhra Pradesh, handloom weavers have for thousands of years created a tapestry of designs and textures that have been the pride of India. But today, much of this treasure is lost to time and to the advances in technology. This means not only loss of skills but loss of livelihood for millions of weavers for whom weaving is a way of life.
So much so that handloom weavers are starving to death in many parts of India. When weavers in Andhra Pradesh died of starvation in 1991, the late Pragada Kotiah, Member of Parliament from Chirala in Andhra Pradesh, who was passionately involved in the cause of weavers for seven decades, took the issue to Parliament with the help of the media (Frontline, December 6, 1991), and reached immediate help to the weavers.
A decade later, handlooms, which after the farm sector is the biggest employer, is once again caught in a vicious cycle of lack of demand, massive unemployment, dwindling incomes and starvation deaths (Frontline, April 27, 2001). This time, the problem has been compounded by the policies of liberalisation and structural adjustment pursued by the Government of India, which tend to favour the big powerlooms (by way of subsidies for machinery imports, removal of reservation of items for production by handlooms and scrapping of hank yarn obligation by the mills) against the handlooms. The resilience of the weavers, which had seen them through the last two decades, is also waning.
Pragada Kotiah used to emphasise the need to provide weavers with design inputs. For this he wanted designs of yore revived.
But several forgotten designs are to be found, not in India, but at London's Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, the world's largest repository of the oldest and most varied designs and textile pieces. Curating this treasure in threads is Rosemary Crill. A senior curator in charge of the textiles collection in the Indian and South-East Asian Department at the museum, she visits India at least once a year to study its handlooms and miniature paintings. She has written over 30 books and research papers, including those relating to the subject of the history and traditions of Indian textiles.
Rosemary is pained by the fall in demand for handlooms in India. She says: "Handlooms can be revived and sustained in India by the government aggressively creating markets for it within the country and providing design inputs for weavers."
Rosemary Crill spoke to Asha Krishnakumar at the V&A Museum about the 10,000-odd pieces of Indian textiles under her care (many of them not available in India), the deplorable situation of handlooms production in India, and ways of addressing the problem.Excerpts from the interview:
How many textile specimens from India do you have at the V&A museum?
We have about 10,000 pieces, most of them collected in the 19th century. We are collecting them even now to show the continuity of tradition. We buy contemporary pieces that relate to the old pieces we have.
Our earliest pieces were acquired around 1850. Most of our old collection is from the Great Exhibition that was held in London in 1851. Those pieces, the finest from India, would have been sent as examples of the best in weaving, dyeing, printing, embroidery, designs, texture and so on.What is unique about the V&A collection?
V&A has one of the oldest and most comprehensive collections of Indian art, particularly textiles. The uniqueness of the collection is that it contains a range of textiles of everyday use. They were collected precisely because that was what was being manufactured in India at that time. A lot of emphasis was given to collecting ordinary, everyday stuff. Fine textile specimens were also collected.
This basic idea of collecting daily-wear textiles was followed in all our collection efforts - whether collecting specimens from the Exposition Universelle, the textiles exhibition held in Paris in 1867, or from a special collecting trip made by a museum staff in 1880, with the brief to collect contemporary arts and crafts, including textiles from all over India. Apart from the very fine stuff, the museum staff also collected for us the very ordinary block printed textiles, simple indigenous designs in pure cotton, plain cotton cloth of varying quality and so on. This is really a unique part of our collection. Most of that is no longer made in India.
Our rarest pieces are the Mughal courtly textiles such as the 17th century embroidered coat, Mughal sashes and floor spreads. We also have textile pieces from South-East Asian countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia and also from China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan.
Is the collection open to anyone who wants to study it?
Yes. We give access to anyone who is interested in studying the collection.How do you preserve these textile pieces?
They are all kept between soft material in rows of drawers. Room temperature - neither too warm nor too cold - is maintained at all times. Otherwise no extraordinary effort is taken to preserve them. They are mostly in excellent condition - most of them even after 150 years. Not all the pieces are on display at the museum. In fact, most of them are stored inside because of space constraint.
What are the exquisite and rare Indian textile specimens in your collection?
Many of the things we have in our collection are still being made in different parts of India but not as well as they used to be earlier. For example, Gujarati embroidery is done even now... it never stopped. But when you compare a modern piece with the 19th century one or even the early 20th century pieces we have in our collection we find that the fineness has decreased sharply.
What do you think are the reasons for the fall in quality?
It is market forces. The market for high quality textiles, higher priced, has declined. This is because on an average, income levels at constant prices have fallen over the years and people, in order to make a living and both ends meet, no longer buy high-quality textiles. Hence, there is now no market for such textiles.
There is also much more competition from cheaper powerloom or printed textiles, and the unique and fine handloom varieties are losing out. The cheaper powerlooms and mill textiles seem to be preferred by consumers and producers. From the consumer's side, the cheaper varieties are easy on the price and easy to maintain. From the producer's side, they can be produced easily in large quantities and quickly too. So, both prefer the cheaper varieties. And the fine handloom textiles that require a lot of skill to make are becoming extinct.
There is also a lot of difference, particularly in terms of quality, between saris that were made earlier and now. A lot of the older saris were quite thick. They are very comfortable for daily wear. But now people prefer lighter saris which are easy to wash and maintain. So, more of that is being produced by powerlooms and mills. Take some of the fine saris in India, Chettinad saris from South India, for instance, are quite robust. But people do not seem to want to wear them anymore. Changing lifestyles (and moving to wearing salwars) is another important reason for the fall in demand of handloom saris.
You have been visiting India to look at Indian textiles. What is your assessment of the situation of the handloom sector there in terms of products, weavers' lives, the market for handlooms and so on?
There is a major problem. Handlooms are losing out badly in several parts of India. The skills are vanishing. Something has to be done.
What do you think can be done? In your assessment what role can the government, non-governmental organisations, academia, media and so on play?
This is a difficult question. Most important is to create a market for handlooms. Unless people are persuaded to buy them, they may prefer the mass produced stuff. I met some groups in Andhra Pradesh last year. They seemed to be vocal but I really do not know if they are getting anywhere. To keep the handlooms going, government help is basic. You can have commercial enterprises, professional designers, individual people trying to create a Western market for handlooms and so on, but that is only marginal. The government needs to push handlooms. There is need to create demand within the country.
Pochampalli Ikats from Andhra Pradesh is a good example of the way handlooms has to be marketed. As an outsider that seems a successful set-up. May be it is not as successful as it appears. But from outside I think they have got it right.
They are using traditional skills, sticking to old designs, making them by hand and in huge quantities. These real hand-made Pochampalli Ikats have a fantastic market overseas.
The crucial issue is to sustain the market for handlooms. It is not enough for some fashion designers to showcase the products in fashion shows abroad. What do you think should be done in order to revive traditional skills and to increase and sustain overseas markets?
Absolutely. You need proper professional design input with changing fashion trends so that it is not just a fad for one season. You need continuous development of design and quick adaptation to changing demand. There is a need to liaise with the markets to understand what the people want and so on. There are a lot of professional aspects that go into it and not just the weavers' skills.
Do you work with or help groups in India in reviving designs and marketing handloom products?
There are some initiatives from individual groups or fashion designers to revive particular designs or products. They do come to me and I help them with accessing old Indian crafts and designs. Ritu Kumar from Delhi, for instance, who has done a lot of work in Masulipatnam, is interested in reviving and maintaining old crafts. She took detailed photographs from our collection of the old and extinct printed and painted pieces to show to her craftsmen in India, which they could then copy and revive. It also inspires the craftsmen to see how good arts and crafts were 100 years ago and feel confident that they can do it now. There is also a crafts group in Kolkata which is trying to revive the beautiful Indo-Portuguese Bengali embroideries of the 16th and 17th centuries.
We have also helped in the collection of Indian textiles at the Calico Museum in Gujarat. It has some pieces similar to those we have at the V&A.
The main issue in reviving handlooms in India is to create markets. How do you think markets can be created?
Of course, creating markets is basic for the survival of handlooms. The fall of handlooms market in Chirala is a good example of market failure. Traditionally, there were two types of markets in Chirala. One is the export market to the Gulf countries, and two, the local market for the ordinary people who wear them everyday. Both markets have disappeared. In the case of the huge local market people have moved away from the hand-made textiles to the cheaper powerloom-produced synthetic varieties.
Do you know of any example, from anywhere in the world, where traditional skills have been revived and sustained which can be a model for the revival of Indian handlooms?
There are several localised examples in the world. For example, the Chinese model of the revival of indigo dyed textiles - the tie and dye stuff - is instructive. It is very popular here in England. Localised examples like that can be a good model from which to learn.
In India, one of my biggest dreams is to revive "mashru" textiles (silk-satin fabric with ikat designs) in Gujarat. The weavers there can do it easily. It is still done in some places like Patan in Gujarat. But it is of very poor quality (in terms of material and designs) now and is done by hardly a couple of people in Patan when I was there last. All it needs is for someone to create a market for it. It can be revived easily.
I can think of a number of traditional Indian textiles that can have a Western market. But one has to think of the home market. Now, there is some interest among a certain section of people in India to buy handloom saris, traditional designs and so on. But that is not enough. It is good that State emporiums promote local textiles and handicrafts. But the quality is not good enough; it has also taken a downhill over the years. The Orissa State Emporium, for instance, has beautiful ikats. But the quality is not very good. It is also a vicious cycle - you do not get good quality stuff, so there is no market for it. Hence, there is no impetus to put in more investment to produce good quality stuff.
Who do you think can break this vicious cycle?
What is needed is more design input and market for the products. Government can do a lot in this to revive and sustain handlooms. It should not be seen just as an exercise in supporting handlooms. Interest needs to be created, making handloom production more challenging and interesting.
Some individual people are making a difference at the local level. But they are all small-scale efforts that need to be done on a larger scale throughout the country.
With such wonderful skills and exquisite textiles produced by handloom weavers there is really no reason why weavers should die of starvation as is happening in many parts of India. What is the reason for this, and how do you think this can be addressed?
It is terrible. I have not heard of this but this should never be allowed to happen. Those who commit suicide or die of starvation probably are weavers who produce handlooms of lower quality for the ordinary people. The finer quality, expensive handlooms can be kept alive. But the problem is sustaining the lower- quality handlooms at the lower end of the market. People who normally go in for handloom saris at the lower end of the market are moving to the cheaper ones that are also easily maintainable, from the powerlooms and the mills. That is the real problem. This trend needs to be reversed. But I do not know how one can do it.
Changing lifestyles is also a reason for the decline in the demand for handloom saris.
Do you have any suggestion to reverse these trends which are detrimental to handlooms?
I do not have concrete suggestions for the revival of handlooms. But I can think of a few things that may help. The government should play a central role in reviving and sustaining handlooms. First, by subsidising handloom production and also by creating a market for it. Reviving and sustaining local markets is very important. Second, reviving old and extinct designs and textures would really help. This can be done by interested groups. Third, the scattered groups of handloom weavers across the country need to be mobilised to address common problems. I am confident that with appropriate efforts handlooms can be revived and sustained in India.