It is time to tap potential of handicrafts and textiles
India has an estimated 16 million craftspeople, living mainly in rural India, who are actively involved in some of the most complex textile processes that the world has ever seen. This is not an insignificant number. These craftspeople constitute a highly-skilled workforce, with huge knowledge of specialised processes, learnt from master craftsmen, who ran guilds over centuries, of complex designs.
It was in the 1960s that I discovered the art of gold embroidery in a rural setting, in small villages in West Bengal, where the craft was being practised. It is said that the origin of the craft was Iran, and it came to India during the Sultanate. The embroideries from these villages were once patronised by the Nawabs of Bengal. India is replete with village workshops like these, which cannot survive without financing and infrastructure.
After the coronavirus pandemic, the reality is that the handloom and handcraft sector in India needs a way to survive. There is no relevance today in government-run emporiums.
Our philosophy is completely wrong. A superior handloom product, aesthetically appealing as well as ecologically-friendly, cannot be sold out of compassion but needs the modern technology of marketing and retailing, and needs to be projected as the best in the world. This is the only way to survive in a competitive market.
A fact not commonly known is that the textile sector is the second largest employer in rural India, after agriculture. India was the world’s largest supplier of textiles 200 years ago. By 1947, this was converted into a nation using copies of its own textiles, in bulk from England’s industrial areas. This bankrupted India’s rich craft economies is causing destitution in India’s rural markets.
It is a miracle that post-Independence, due to the government’s efforts to revive heritage crafts, India has been able to recreate many of its forgotten textile crafts. This was forward-thinking at its best and was not easily achieved. It took a sustained and progressive, revival movement to save India’s handmade legacy. This was successfully launched with a series of the “Viswakarma” exhibitions, which displayed the sophisticated creations of this revival in prestigious museums. The programme generated a great degree of excitement, and the affluent middle-class became the biggest patron of these textiles. This was unlike in many other countries where priceless textiles were relegated to dusty museums. In India, these creations, and not fashion from the international ramps, became aspirational garments for urban consumers, especially women.
In an effort to create interest in Indian crafts internationally, the “Vishwakarma” exhibitions were exhibited through the Festivals of India in the most-prestigious museums around the world capitals. This highlighted the richest traditions of handcrafts left in the world. This again caught the attention of the fashion fraternity abroad. India was once again on the world fashion map.
Over the last two decades, the Indian fashion industry has made strides. And unlike the rest of the world, it boasts of an indigenous team of designers. These do not necessarily mean only those who show on the ramps, but also those present in the rural fields. They are weavers, embroiderers and creators of embellishments, which no one in the world can create. Most of Indian couture and its glamorisation can be attributed to the handmade crafts. In India, the garments from maharajahs and royal pageants serve as a theme to Big and Small Indian Weddings. Their imitations have flooded malls, boutiques, village haats and bazaars across smaller markets. Each has its own version, creating a theatrical, Indian ethnic fashion.
With the recessionary trend that the pandemic is causing, it is time for the government to step in, as they did in the 1950s, to save India’s handicrafts. The drop in the retail of high-end merchandise will temper the scale of celebrations. Most high-end production will move from hand-made to mechanised alternatives.The world today produces textiles using sophisticated machinery. India’s vast repertoire of designs may end up being used only as an inspiration, as is the case with China, which produces copies of the woven Benares saris, among a host of other textile merchandise, and sells these at a fraction of the price to India. This has destroyed the handloom market in Varanasi. After the pandemic, we have a real problem of livelihood on our hands here, as well as one of the intellectual property of textiles which is facing a real threat.
The government has to think outside the box, step in and support start-ups. This is a lucrative market. It can be run and marketed by a professionally-run organisation, with cutting-edge pricing, which also offers retail spaces on the internet. The only way to do this is to become a conduit to the customer to buy directly from the craftsman which would involve minimal overheads. It can easily be achieved.
Let us look at the USP of this sector. Handicrafts can be best generated in agrarian set-ups. They do not necessitate a move from the rural to the urban scenario, hence avoiding the ghettoisation of its inheritors.
It requires little investment in production infrastructure or skill development. It will be the only Made in India by Hand brand in the world.