How Chinese imports are destroying our traditional textiles, writes Ritu Kumar
With Covid-19 causing a dramatic rupture, and with Chinese aggression at the border, India must reassess its approach to trade, especially the import of textiles and other artefacts of religious use from China. This is essential to preserve India’s traditional strengths and ensure it doesn’t fall into the same trap as other countries, which have lost their livelihoods and indigenous traditions.
In India, textiles comprise the second-largest sector after agriculture. Its potential for creating wealth is enormous. India has a living tradition of handicrafts, practised on an everyday basis. All India’s crafts are inherited through guilds which have a long history, and this is their inherent intellectual property. This specialisation offers employment to an estimated 16 million people in the country.
When the pandemic hit Europe, Italy, Spain and France were among the countries affected. But think of another element they had in common. The relentless growth of fashion empires, and their diversification into billion-dollar licensing arrangements made fashion in Europe very powerful, early on in the game. They began to dictate the terms of the luxury goods trade through very effective marketing, and new products. These companies dominated global markets. They soon started producing their prime goods elsewhere, and to better their margins, began hiring Chinese tailors, off the books, and gave them licence to manufacture copies of their garments, cheaper and faster. In the process, they were willing to teach them the secrets of family-owned businesses and enhance their capability to produce couture garments — sometimes giving them the patterns to do so to buy them at a fraction of the cost of European manufactured goods.
The Chinese learned the craft swiftly and, very soon, they were a force to be recognised, as they used “Made in France” labels on much cheaper copies. In Italy, the hub of luxury good manufacturers, too, their numbers proliferated and they displaced traditional Italian family enterprises. One of the major production areas, incidentally, is in and around the city of Wuhan, a textile hub of low-end garments for the world. The Western world, in its pursuit for cheap merchandise, has still not recognised that selling their know-how created adverse long-term consequences, and perhaps not just in fashion.
This story has repeated itself elsewhere. Uzbekistan is at the heart of a complex nomadic and oasis culture in Central Asia and is a significant stretch of the famous Silk Road route. The cities down the historic road were the most prolific in their textile language and produce, as caravans, traded their textile ikats and embroideries with the world down the ages. A few years ago, I went there on a trip to study their traditional ikats. The Fergana valley, the birth place of Babar, was supposed to be the richest in terms of traditional crafts. But, barring a few exceptions, the genius of textiles that I was looking for was elusive. The women, unfortunately, were clad in velvet and synthetic kaftans, looking quite alien from their surroundings. They were all wearing kaftans, manufactured and printed in China, using copies of patterns from traditional ikats. The only place today where genuine textiles still exist is India.
And that is the issue.
India is as prone to losing its textile crafts to another country as the others. It only needs to look at its past. The British brought down India’s share in textile exports to the world from 25% to 2%, taking over the production of Indian-inspired cloth from the 18th to the 20th century. By a miracle, Indian textiles have survived through the efforts of revivalists in the post-Independence era, such as Kamala Devi Chattopdhyaya and Pupul Jayakar.
We are already seeing Chinese inroads in the Benaras sari markets, where there are jacquard copies of the Benaras-bordered tanchoi saris selling in the market for a song.
China is predatory. It has always been known for its sericulture, as India has been for its unusual silk yarns, which were hand twisted and woven with a great deal of expertise to keep the saris pliable, soft and easy to pleat. I have done wardrobes for the Miss Universe and Miss World pageants for many years. I always would propose they wear the Benaras sari to a function, but gave up as I could not find a sari which draped softly and looked the way the Ravi Verma saris looked in his paintings.
I then studied Benaras silk saris for a few years in an effort to find out what had changed the saris radically from exotic, sexily-contoured unstitched garments to the present, stiff totally unwearable, saris which balloon out. It was incredible to discover that the reason was that the original yarns from Bhagalpur which were hand-spun, with no twist, called paat-baana, without which the beautiful masterpieces of Benaras could not have been woven, had been substituted by Chinese yarns. This changed the structure totally and made them unattractive to wear. The tragedy of the silence of the looms of Varanasi is that people continue to weave this imported yarn because it is cheap.
Benaras can survive and sustain itself adequately if we revert to the original yarns. We have indigenous mulberry silks from Karnataka, which are softer, finer, lighter and allow for more pliability when woven and have a wonderful texture. Organic ahimsa silks from the terai regions, India’s tussars and mogas, are an intrinsic part of our heritage. If even one family in India owns one good Benaras sari in their wardrobe, which a young bride would like to possess, the city will have no problem keeping its weavers employed.
China dumped silk yarn in India at prices a fraction of their costs initially, and then slowly raised the prices to set up a lucrative business. The business, unfortunately, is run by middlemen, ignorant of the fact that they are producing goods which are unwearable and at the same time enhancing dependence on Chinese silk yarn. A ban on imports of this yarn will perhaps affect production for a while, but we have the resilience in our textile techniques and as a country that taught the world the beauty of producing textiles, can easily find alternatives.
Covid-19 is a wake-up call. India must preserve its textiles. The beauty of the peacock must not succumb to the fire of the dragon.