– Introduction to the weaving of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
– Meetings with influential and inspiring people in the textile and craft world in Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Kanchipuram.
– Visit to Weavers’ Service Centres in the cities above and the Indian Institute of Handloom Technology in Salem.
– Visit to shops, designers and NGOs creating innovative designs using local handloom fabrics.
I’ve just arrived in Ahmedabad, via Pune on the same train I caught on my way down to Bagalkot two months ago, the Lokmanya Express. This time I was coming from Salem, about 80 km east of Coimbatore a big industrial hub known for its long history of textiles and now full of powerloom factories and mills. The train in fact started from there. I don’t think I’ve caught as many trains, buses, cars, planes and boats in the last two months as I have in all my travels put together! I’ve been exploring various handloom centres across the south.
Time to reflect on my experiences over the last few weeks…
First I visited Hyderabad, met with the highly eminent and admired Uzramma who co-founded Dastkar Andhra which has been successful in increasing the value of handloom in Andhra Pradesh, raising the status of the weavers, and positioning handloom in a sustainable ready market. Uzramma went on to found and direct Malkha which works more broadly to reconnect the various processes involved in cotton production.
Before industrialisation ruptured the chain of processes involved in cotton production – cotton farming, ginning, spinning, weaving, dyeing/finishing by creating large scale centralised mechanisation of these processes; and then liberalisation of trade in the 1990s meant cheap imports of raw materials put so many out of business, each process relied on the preceeding one, which neighbouring communities would provide, and were embedded in the social and economic life of these communities. Now workers in each industry are having to rely on unpredictable markets, exploitative middlemen and fluctuating cotton prices monopolised by big corporate brands. As well as making a big social improvement to the people involved in cotton production – a very important move in light of the recent series of farmers’ suicides in Andhra Pradhesh due to becoming deeply indepbted to money-lenders; Malkha is developing new technology to create a new cotton that is organic, comfortable to wear, breathable and durable unlike cotton that is mass-produced which is full of pesticides and has gone through aggressive machine production.
The result is beautiful, simple comfortable cotton dyed in rich natural colours and some finished with block printing or kalamkari. Currently saris, stoles, dupattas and fabric yardage is being produced but they are working towards developing a garment line. Malkha have big and great plans, look forward to see how they develop.
Another innovative initiative recently sprung up in Hyderabad is KORA. I met with Kora’s founder Poludas Nagendra Satish (known as Satish for short). Kora are doing something very unique to many other organisations working with craftspeople I’ve come across. Satish is a graduate from National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, as many other eminent design professionals are. Kora conducts research, design and teaching with a broad range of crafts communities in different parts of India. They believe in drawing upon local indigenous knowledge and skills to create ‘value added eco-friendly products which would create livelihood to hundreds of people’. Materials and skills are their focus, and to bring out the best qualities of these. They use materials that would otherwise be wasted. Some examples of products they’ve developed are screens made of detailed designs cut into thin sheets of goat leather and pressed between two glass panes inside a wooden frame, lacquer turned wood, narrative Bihari applique, embroidery, painted wooden fridge magnets, pottery and carved wooden panels. Kora don’t necessarily work with people from hereditary crafts backgrounds. Rather, they aim to bring crafts, sustainable employment and quality of life to as many people as possible. It is interesting to compare them to a Marketing agency like Dastkar Andhra, and many other NGOs whose main aim is the marketing of crafts. In this way crafts are adapted to suit contemporary markets, while Kora introduce existing creativity and passion for making and the resulting high quality, distinctive craft product, to while maybe a niche market, one that holds value in the above mentioned qualities.
Another of Kora’s approaches is to avoid the capitalist approach to crafts production, and focus more on the well-being of the artisan and artisan community. In poor, deprived areas, many men tend to drink their wages away on pay-day. Kora would prefer to first and foremost offer them good healthcare, clean water, good education for their children so to avoid the depression that causes them to spend cash on toddy, and improve the whole family’s quality of life. This is more difficult in communities of craftspeople that have been exploited by middlemen, and so only trust those who will pay a good wage, and don’t trust what is not an immediate benefit to them. Changing the mindset of those trapped in this system is a difficult challenge.
Empty looms due to hangovers and a sense of depression in the weaving industry was evident in Sircilla, a small town 80 km north of Hyderabad. I had met by chance a man who ran a skills development business that is funded by the government. The government is currently investing a lot in upskilling the textile sector in general, both handloom and powerloom as well as garment production and other areas. Gowardhan kindly offered to help with my research and put me in touch with Vashu in Sircilla, who also works in skills development, owns a loom shed in part of a Textile Park inaugurated in the 1980s by the Chief Minister of that time, and seems to do a lot of other things too. His grandfather, a traditional weaver, started a successful weaving business and this has continued and expanded down the generations and which Vashu seems to be upholding well.
As this post is getting a bit long, I’ll leave it for now and continue on Sircilla in the next, watch this space …