The role of traditional crafts in contemporary India: an interview with Rahul Jain

Feature Image: Drawloom for patterned silk velvet, Rahul Jain’s workshop, Varanasi, 2015. Photo courtesy Textile Art of India, New Delhi

‘I describe my work as a continuation of a heritage, a legacy, that is 2,000 years old’ (Rahul Jain, personal communication, June 2016)

 I had known about Rahul Jain’s work for a while, read some of his huge range of extensively researched books on Indian, Iranian and Turkish textiles, desperately trying to understand the complex weaves they document, and had heard about his inspiring work reviving ancient weaving techniques in Varanasi. An interview with the weaving connoisseur published by Live Mint revealed some of his views on craftsmanship and crafts in India, which had resonance with my own research, and led me to get in touch with him to probe him on these subjects further. I met him at his home in Delhi. I was immediately struck by his friendly and warm welcome and willingness to talk about his work with me. He spoke with such enthusiasm, articulately demonstrating his wealth of knowledge on Indian crafts, textiles and weaving techniques. And this was even more surprising when I discovered he had initially trained as an economist.

Jain was born and brought up in India and travelled to Washington DC to study economics and then work with the World Bank. As an escape from the pressures and stresses of this work, he decided to join a weaving course, learning on a basic table loom, which, he said grabbed his imagination. In 1990 he then went on to pursue a degree in weaving at Philadelphia College of Textiles, where he got the chance to pattern cloths mechanically with both a hand-operated loom and a state-of-the-art, computer driven machine, honing his skills and understanding of the difference between the two. A fascination with a handwoven waist sash made for the Mughal court was what initiated his research into Indian weaving. In 1993 he returned to India, and with the help of a master weaving technician, Anwar Ahmed, he established his workshop ASHA, near Delhi which later moved to Varanasi. While they achieved the complex weaves within the first few weeks, it took a lot of time and hard work to achieve and refine the textures, patterns and weights to match the quality of the Mughal or Safavid work.

Patterned velvet in three colours of silk pile on a silver-thread ground; Rahul Jain’s workshop, Varanasi, 2015. Photo courtesy Textile Art of India, New Delhi

While the vast majority of weavers in Varanasi weave on jacquard looms to produce the distinct and well-known brocade saris, Jain’s workshop is the only place, not only in India, but the world, where you will find drawlooms producing lampas, samite and velvet brocades, which are all the classic weaves of the old silk road. They would have been produced in workshops for great courts, churches, mosques and Buddhist monasteries in Tibet, for the top tier of patrons. This was indeed a ‘revival’ – not of techniques that had died out 10 years ago, but ones that had not been practiced for at least 100 years. So Jain didn’t have much to work with in understanding these techniques: ‘We had to deconstruct historical pieces and work it out backwards, a case of reverse engineering,’ he said.

A collection of fourteen pieces that Jain had developed in the workshop were displayed for a series of exhibitions in 1997, held in Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta and entitled Minakar: Spun Gold and Woven Enamel. They were all brocade silks inspired by the “cloths of gold” woven for the courts of Mughal India and Safavid Iran in the 17th and 18th centuries. As Jain goes on to state in the exhibition catalogue introduction, the pieces are not duplicates but are examples of the revival of long lost techniques, the ‘unique enameled quality of the historic cloths’. Jain emphasises the importance of communicating the back story to the limited, one-off pieces he makes for a niche, ‘elite’ clientele – the amount of work and thus the expense, mean these pieces will only be bought by wealthy collectors or museums, who take the place of what was Mughal royalty in the past. Therefore each piece is accompanied by academically and detailed documentation of motifs and techniques. Not being a weaver or very technically-minded, I will not go into the details of these weaves here, but rather urge weave enthusiasts to read Jain’s extremely insightful books (see below) as well as the Minakar catalogue.

Skill, Labour and Design

‘In a day’s work each drawloom needs 3 people and you weave 1 cm in a day. But that’s the kind of historical craftsmanship that informed the basic reference for what we’re doing.’ (Rahul Jain, personal communication, June 2016)

I wanted to know, if these techniques had died out long ago, how he found the weavers to work on these pieces, particularly considering the high level of patience and attention to detail you need for such a labour intensive technique- something our fast-paced society is losing. Jain responded saying that knowing the techniques himself was an important start. He also decided it was best to start with young weavers and ‘fresh minds’ so he could ‘mould them a bit’, as is the approach of a lot of business leaders with new employees. The drawloom weavers in the workshop learnt weaving from the age of 5 or 6, and began working in Jain’s workshop in their early 20s. ‘The information about how to use these looms had gone because we’re not a kind of culture that records so because I had to train them, I wanted to teach people who were very open,’  Jain said.

Jain makes it clear that the owners of the work are the weavers themselves. However, while much of my own work examines innovation and creativity within traditional techniques, Jain stresses that because of the extreme high level of skill and complexity of the weaves, the weaver during the height of production of these pieces, was very much a labourer in a factory-based production – ‘a cog in the system’. The creativity lay (and still does in Varanasi) in the hands of the naqshaband, the designer who would draw up the patterns in a graph format, in a similar way to the process in Spitalfield’s silk brocade industry. Indeed, drafting patterns for woven cloths in the middle ages weaving industries, is thought to be where the term and idea of ‘design’ first emerged, and in turn, the separation from ‘designer’ who created the patterns for the weaves, and the ‘artisan’ who would execute them.

A Naqshaband’s design for a Varanasi weave in the office of AIACA

This led me to wonder what would motivate weavers to do this kind of work which didn’t allow for much creativity. Jain stresses an approach to the work that allows for it to evolve organically, and not in any way to force his workers to continue. ‘If they leave, they leave’, he says.

Admirably and surprisingly, considering all the hard work and time he has put into the project, he doesn’t try to hold on to it so tightly. It’s one thing trying to ‘revive’ an age-old craft which might appeal to the nostalgia, authenticity or tradition loving market, but it has to appeal to the ones who are creating it too. In Jain’s words, it needs to be the craftsperson’s ‘conscious and willing choice, it should give you a certain amount of self-worth, dignity, some amount of material possessions that you desire..’

‘The whole country’s moving to a time, an era where a lot more occupations are opening up. One of the villages where we have 3 looms, the younger kids are becoming cell phone repairers, because India has 5-600 million users. Now you can earn more repairing cell phones locally in a village, than lifting draw chords on a draw loom. You know what? I think it is your choice, because if you don’t feel that this art or craft has added anything to your sense of self-respect or sense of tradition, historical lineage, what good is it? Let go, move on, you have to be more flexible today,’ he insists.

Jain’s ambitious enterprise in bringing history back to life is indeed an inspiring and fascinating one, that makes one admire such a huge, ambitious project. But if reading this you might be sceptical, and wonder how such an ancient practice can fit with the modern world, Jain is fully aware of the issues that this might entail:

‘This is also a historical process that hasn’t survived from the past. Things change, things go. You’re not going to find many people who will stay with a group of people for that long.’

Jain takes a similar view on the problematic nature of ‘bemoaning handlooms’, saying that 90% of silk handloom weavers have moved to power because there’s a higher output and better wages

‘I’m saying – look, you know powerlooms – use them for what they’re worth. There’s no point in bemoaning – ‘oh but we’re losing handloom tradition’. It doesn’t make sense. What we’re losing we have to be clear about. We’re certainly not losing an art. If most of those people were wage labourers in the first place, they’re simply moving onto something that can give them a better life, what’s wrong with that?’ he asks.

This being said, Jain made it clear that he wasn’t criticising the efforts made into craft development, many of which have been successful and by ‘fantastic people’. The problem lies with the complex, often reconstructed and contested dichotomies between craft, design and industry, categories never really suited to the Indian context.

Picking apart some craft tropes

In a similar way to the application of the term ‘craft’ in diverse contexts from the hobby sort to the beer, coffee and food industry, to the higher-end ‘maker movement’ in the west, the term is as nuanced in India but in a very different way. Craft in India is the second largest employment provider after agriculture and hand skills can be seen everywhere – from the mala bead maker outside the temple, to the cobbler, tailor and silversmith in the bazaar, to weavers, potters and embroidery artisans working in their home, to huge handloom, block-printing or embroidery workshops making en-masse – the list goes on. But it is when craft becomes just this, large scale, that it is no longer ‘craft’. According to Jain, the true nature of craft or the hand-made, involves the knowledge, processes and tools that derive directly from the body of the maker, something that hardly exists now. He uses the backstrap loom as an example: ‘you know what, that’s not a loom, it’s the extension of the woman’s body. There is a true maker,.’ Block printing is another example of a craft that has moved from the limits of the body – sat at floor level tables, to long tables in huge workshops to fit commercial demands. Many discourses on the revivals of ancient crafts, are actually referring to a modernised version of an ancient technique. Jain suggests that as technology becomes more advanced and the involvement of the body decreases, the artisan becomes a labourer, the product is no longer truly hand-made, and the process turns from a craft into an industry.

Woman on a backstrap loom in Montagnard village, Vietnam. Photo by James Speed Hensinger. Accessed through Creative Commons

 

In the handloom weaving industry, new technologies were introduced by the British for improving efficiency and scale, something that the Indian government continued into independence. The ambar chakkar, the multi-headed manually operated spinning machine is an example which Jain mentions in the LiveMint interview, using it as an example of government’s handicraft schemes being ‘quasi-industrial’. Mukund and Sundari have argued that the government, while well-intentioned, intervene on the basis that eventually handicraft and handloom will die out, and technological interventions are temporary ways of keeping people in employment, to tide them over until they will eventually find employment elsewhere. The small, decaying handloom workshop in Sircilla with only a handful of very old weavers, is an example of this, while the rest of the town has turned to powerloom.

The ambar chakkar spinning workshop at Udyog Bharti, Gondal. Read more here

Jain goes on further to define what he thinks is a true maker, giving the example of a bead maker he came across in Uttar Pradesh who was completely engrossed in the making of tulsi holy beads, sat on a small square mat with only a single tool. He compared this man to a famous artist, Alexander Calder, who also works with a single implement – a pair of plyers for cutting and joining pieces of wire and metal together to create his famous mobile sculptors. Both are art, both are a craft. But our society has made this ‘artificial’ distinction between ‘craft’ and ‘art’: ‘it’s an insult to the act of making that that guy sells (tusli necklaces) for rs 15, and this one (the large, steel ‘art’ mobiles) sells for 50 million dollars. It’s the same level of making let me tell you’.

The mala bead maker being truly engrossed in his work, like the weaver in Jain’s workshop can achieve high levels of workmanship which Jain argues inherently becomes an ‘art’ too. You also can’t get much more economically efficient than a single tool.

Jain thinks the more important question to ask of a craft, is not ‘will it live or not?’, but what we learn from the craft, what ideas can we take forward. Change is inevitable, indeed, the only constant, as much in the crafts field as in any other. Bordieu’s theory of the Habitus rings true here: The Habitus ‘situates ‘regulated improvisations’ within a generative practice – with changes in time come changes and developments in the practice of a culture that is always referencing the past’.

‘ ….is the question of saving the craft more important or is it what we learn from it today that becomes the key thing to preserve. I don’t see it necessarily as the drawloom surviving, I would like it to, but is there something else from this practice that I can help, you know share, have people take forward in some way that may be important today.’

References:

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Sundari, B.S, Mukund, K.,2001, Traditional Industry in the New Market Economy. The Cotton Handlooms of Andhra Pradesh

Books by Rahul Jain:

Textiles and Garments at the Jaipur Court, 2012

Durbar Royal Textiles of Jodhpur, 2012

Rapture, The Art of Indian Textiles,  2011

Tradition and Beyond: Handcrafted Indian Textiles, with Rta Kapur Chishti, and Martand Singh (editor), 2000

Mughal Patkas Ashavali Saria and Indo-Ground Fragments in the Collections of the Calico Museum of Textiles and the Sarabhai Foundation. Sarabhai Foundation, 2008

 

4 Comments

  1. Hello RUTH,
    Glad that You have written about RAHUL and what he has done to revive the near lost technique.

    All very well : WHAT YOU HAVE NOT MENTIONED OR TOUCHED UPON IS “WHAT HAS BEEN DONE FOR THE WELLBEING OF THE SET OF CRAFTS PERSONS THAT HAVE WORKED FOR HIM.

    Has their quality of Life improved at all.
    While the revival would have got Rahul his laurels in the world of scholars, has the crafts persons got a bit of the cake ???
    You as a writer are free to write romantic poetry about what fascinates You in INDIA.
    I would urge You to Do Something for the crafts person too

    You write , the reader reads and then WHAT ??? Look forward to a continued discussion on this topic , when we meet.
    Best wishes

    • Hi Erroll,
      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate hearing your feedback, and agree that its important to let the voice of the craftsperson come through in writing on traditional crafts and revival efforts in India, and to know what the impact on individuals has been. Rahul made it clear that it is likely he will not be able to employ young weavers after his current weavers retire, as most won’t want to do this work. He openly admits that the project might only last a few more years. But yes, perhaps we could have talked more about what motivates each individual weaver and what they have got out of it. I could have gone on longer, but I doubt most people would read more than 2000 words! Rahul brought up lots of interesting points, and I wanted to share our discussion, as a way of opening up debate and discussion… So yes, would be great to chat further!
      Best,
      Ruth

  2. Hello Ruth,
    Thanks for Your prompt reply .
    Well , RAHUL’s effort of revival will come to a close in a few years,.is a reality which we will have to accept .
    Find this happening with Ply-split braiding of camel girths too.
    The Young generation is JUST not interested to even learn the technique.
    More when we meet .

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