Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to choose Varanasi as his constituency in the 2014 general elections has rekindled the hope that it will lead to the revival of the city’s fabled craft, the Benaras Brocades. These patterned gold and silver silks have been woven in the city since ancient times, but unfortunately there has been a sharp decline in the demand for this fabric in recent years. This is a sad situation as these saris are associated with the erstwhile royal courts and religious traditions, and represent the exotic in Indian couture.
Several government bodies have been set up to save this heritage. But they are directionless when it comes to dealing with the fast-changing world of design and fashion. Isn’t it ironic that while handloom fabrics are considered chic, sophisticated, edgy and aspirational in the world of fashion, they for some odd reason don’t get due respect in this country? Far from being showcased, they are shunted to the dusty backrooms of government emporia.
All economic packages are aimed at getting subsidies for handlooms under the assumption that the fabric is used largely by the poor. This is surefire way of ensuring its irrelevance. The handlooms of Benaras and khadi are among India’s greatest sartorial contributions to the world. They are a rarity in the world of textiles and need to be looked at with a fresh perspective.
The Benaras Brocade could put the country on the textile map of the world and can also become a tourist attraction. Look at how Thailand has carved out an identity for itself in textiles with the simple dupion silk, which is now sold as Thai silk around the world with enormous success.
In India, we have an amazing variety of fabrics and with these we can produce a hundred Thailand-like stories projecting India and its weavers in the highly competitive world of fashion fabrics. In addition to this, we are organic in production. This unique combination of handspun fabrics and the inherited skills of our weavers is our USP and give us an edge in a mechanised world.
Which is why I am puzzled as to why we still carry our colonial baggage. Having successfully gone Indian after getting rid of imported Lancashire cottons, we are now in the process of imitating China to produce inferior saris.
China is doing its best to replicate what we make by hand in their mechanised units and selling them both to India and the rest of the international fashion community. China is managing to get away with this because though there is a huge market for handcrafted goods, India has not been able to take advantage of this and improve the lot of our weavers.
I feel India could also do much more with Ahimsa silk. We could make a splash in the international arena with this incredible fabric produced from yarn in the Terai regions. They produce the rarest of tussar and moga silks. The other product that we should try to promote is pashmina. The wool comes from the Pashmina goat, a special breed indigenous to the Himalayas. Pashmina shawls are also hand-spun and are synonymous around the world for their superb quality.
The textiles sector is the largest provider of employment in India after agriculture. It is a vertically integrated industry and produces everything from raw materials to finished products. Handloom production is uniquely environment-friendly, being a source of employment generation for unskilled rural workers, especially women, who are traditionally employed in hand-spinning. We just cannot be blind to the immense potential of one of the country’s richest resources.
India has a plethora of institutions like the Khadi Gram Udyog set up specifically to cater to the needs of this sector. But the Udyog, which has a great network of outlets across the country, is in a comatose state and is doing the bare minimum to promote the production of khadi. Often they have an inventory of spurious goods that are sold from their enviable retail addresses. Mind you, all this is being done at the taxpayers’ expense. The Weavers Service Centres, set up in the 1970s, are in a state of disarray and the handloom boards and other such organisations are only accountable to themselves. We have also managed to politicise our award schemes for master weavers.
As a new emerging economic power, India should be attracting investment in fashion and textiles. But for that we must encourage one of the most unique textiles the world has known. We have been leaders in this sector and still can hold the pole position in dyeing, printing and weaving.
India has exported the most aspirational textiles to the world for thousands of years. Surely the time has come to review our heritage. We owe it to our future generations to nurture our fabrics and processes. We should place ourselves in a position where we are a cut above the rest of the world. This is not too difficult a proposition, considering the vast resources we have at hand.
Ritu Kumar is a textile revivalist and fashion designer
The views expressed by the author are personal