Passionate designers, spirited entrepreneurs, a government push, support from NGOs and the Prime Minister as poster boy… the handloom sector is in revival mode.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s penchant for khadi and handloom may have been just the last-mile push that the industry, which has been inching back for half a dozen years, was looking for.
For instance, Poonam Pandit, an NIFT Delhi graduate, quit her lucrative 15-year career and moved to Goa in 2010 to revive Kunbi tribal handloom weaves. Today, she is struggling to cope with demand. “There is huge potential, but I find it extremely difficult to get more weavers here.” Her brand, Kalakar, employs one of the last living Kunbi artisans, and her products are exported to Germany and France.
Another NIFT alumnus, Hemang Agarwal, is working with weavers in his hometown, Varanasi. “The number of looms had reduced here over the past years,” he says. “But now we have more demand than we can meet.”
“Handloom is the flavour of the season. Many designers are realising that India is a big market. And they are working with weavers, paying them well, and helping the designs to reach national and international levels,” says Sunil Sethi, President, Fashion Design Council of India, which has been organising fashion shows based on handloom fabrics.
Emerging niche stores are attracted by the untapped market potential of the hand-woven heritage products. Says UNESCO award winner and renowned Bangladeshi designer Bibi Russel: “I got really inspired from Rajasthan, the colours and variety of designs there.”
Brands are sprouting all the time. For instance, Karryah, an online store set up in February 2014 that offers western wear for women, has been working with weavers of Rajasthan and Bhagalpur. It has got funds from Tata, Mohandas Pai and The Saha Fund.
Shilpa Sharma quit a 12-year corporate career to co-found the brand Jaypore in 2010. It is a curated online platform for traditional handloom and handicraft products from places like Phulia, Murshidabad, Machlipatnam and Bhagalpur. She broke even in the first year of operations.
There are many such sites: Indianroots.com, indianartisans.com, craftscvilla — and big players such as Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal among others, spelling good times for traditional artisans. There are even government initiatives in this space.
Biswa Bangla stores in West Bengal employ more than 7,000 traditional artisan families who work with modern designers and have revived traditional products.
“We have a dedicated research team to find out the lost traditions and revive them. Each product here has a story to tell,” says Partho Kar, chief consultant. Biswa Bangla products were showcased at the London design festival and is eyeing exports to London, China and Dubai.
Recently, the government launched the “India Handloom Brand”, to crack down on spurious products being peddled as handloom, and has tied up with Amazon, Flipkart et al. “We are planning to promote this branding widely,” says Alok Kumar, development commissioner, handlooms.
Not everyone shares this new-found enthusiasm for traditional craft. For the new generation, foraging for jobs in cities, handloom holds no glamour, and is even seen as lacking in social status.
Education could play a big role, says Sudha Dhingra, who teaches at NIFT Delhi. “Institutions like NIFT could provide this, but the new generation in weaver community is unable to get into these institutions.” It is in such scenarios that the government could play a crucial role.
Sally Holkar, of Women Weave in Madhya Pradesh started The Handloom School in February. The venture trains young students from six states, and imparts knowledge in modern design, computers, the English language, marketing and entrepreneurship, and also familiarise them with use of social media tools for business.
“I learnt to use Whatsapp and Facebook… This is going to help me a lot,” says Govind Sumbara, one of the students.