Celebrating National Handloom Day on Aug 7: All rise in the courtroom
Since August 2018, when floods destroyed 273 looms in the North Paravur belt of Kerala, mainly in the weaving town of Chendamangalam, life has changed almost completely for Shyla NS.
The 50-year-old weaver and her artisan colleagues were both unfortunate and lucky at the same time in that month of that year. At first it seemed as though they had lost their livelihoods. But then journalist, fashion veteran and industry mentor Ramesh Menon arrived in his home state to document the effects of the floods and was so devastated by the destruction he saw that he set up a crafts revival organisation called Save The Loom the very next month. Soon, the artisans who had lost everything began not only to get it all back, but also get more and more work as Save The Loom started to reposition handmade textiles as true luxury and take it to an international market of craft connoisseurs.
‘The hand of God’
“After two decades at the front end of the business of fashion and having a bird’s-eye view of the grassroots, all my perceptions changed the day we walked into the weaving villages. I feel as though I was led by the hand of God to end up in Chendamangalam on the morning of 24 August, 2018,” Menon says, smiling.
He smiles now, because Save The Loom is a success story. But then Menon had feared that India would lose its precious weavers if action wasn’t swift and efficient. By early September, he had set up Save The Loom and within 100 days (with no financial aid from the government), they had managed to restore all the damaged looms, even adding 44 more looms when, to Menon’s delight, weavers who had abandoned the craft returned.
About 96% of the weavers in the district are women. Shyla is one of them. “I learnt the craft from a master weaver near our house, when I was young, but after marriage, I stopped weaving for nearly 12 years,” she says. Her latest work is part of Save The Loom’s ‘Vidhi’ collection of 11 sari designs in luxurious handwoven cotton for lawyers who are constrained by the Bar Council of India to stick to only three colours in court, black, white and grey, with just a single pattern – stripes – permitted.
“Knowing that the collection is a tribute to women lawyers filled my heart with pride,” says Shyla.
Menon has now been in Chendamangalam for three years, having guided his organisation, the artisans it supports and the crafts it is reviving through one more series of floods and two waves of a ruthless pandemic. He is preparing for a possible third wave of Covid-19 and juggling his dreams with the harshest of realities. The onslaught has been interminable, but Menon and his small team which includes Alpi Boylla (formerly of the Fashion Design Council of India) and photographer Dinesh Madhavan are untiring.
‘Craft is the future’
Save The Loom has restored 265 charkhas and 110 khadi looms and shone the spotlight on khadi when it became the social partner of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2018, setting up a beautiful concept space called One Zero Eight with a loom in-situ, its own art installation.
The 2018 edition of the biennale had as its theme ‘Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life’, a call for comradeship and community that spoke to Menon’s instincts. He spearheaded a special collection curated with Shani Himanshu of 11.11/eleven eleven called Colours of Resilience, inviting 21 fashion designers, including Rajesh Pratap Singh, Abraham & Thakore, Aneeth Arora, Karishma Shahani Khan and Gaurav Jai Gupta, to work with kora khadi from Kerala to create exclusive, limited-edition pieces.
This served as an excellent way to showcase the story of the revival of the fabric to a global audience and position khadi as a fabric that is relevant and current, contemporary and cool.
This has always been the driving force of Save The Loom: to simultaneously carry out extensive work at the grassroots level to rebuild and sustain communities, while also working to change the perception of handloom fabrics.
To this end, design interventions and disruptive thinking is crucial, as are more pragmatic systems to ensure better backend processes and infrastructure. Aligning with the UN’s Build Back Better framework and Sustainable Goals, templates have been drawn up for everything from disaster management to product development.
Menon strongly believes that craft is the future, and that the integration of the craft sector with digital and sustainable technology is paramount.
“We need to bring aspiration and spaces that create value and offer modern living standards to attract the next generation to weaving or craft,” he says. “NIFT (the National Institute of Fashion Technology) has taken 35 years to announce reserved seats for the children of artisans in their programmes, and it feels like too little, too late. We need to find people to bet on businesses that are human-made, with minimal machinery and carbon footprint, yet with huge potential and scale, such as is possible with craft.”
Revival, restoration and reinterpretation
This month, Save The Loom completes three years of working to revive and restore craft clusters to create a ‘Kerala model’ of sustainability.
Innovation has been a continuous process. Their ‘Olam’ collection reinterpreted the classic Kerala kasavu to take it from occasion wear to the everyday. The ‘Amalda’ collection in collaboration with a natural-dyeing artist used blossoms native to the state to create magical flower-dyed handlooms, and the hospitality sector brought work to artisans who began weaving luxury linens for boutique properties in Kerala.
In the works is a scholarship programme for artisan families, an upcycling project to use old and damaged stocks of handlooms, a line of cotton silks that celebrate the rich temple traditions of Kerala, and especially for Onam this month, a collection of 11 pieces created by star designer Rahul Mishra.
Most ambitious is a live museum, conceptualised as a beautiful, contemporary space where artisans can practice their craft and visitors can come to learn, which will be designed by award-winning green architect Vinu Daniel.
In this time of unprecedented urban isolation, there are lessons to be learnt here about the value of community and the burgeoning possibilities of a non-alienated life.
Aishwarya Subramanyam is the former editor of Elle India. She now runs her own content company and is often seen hosting some of the most popular rooms on ClubHouse
.From HT Brunch, July 25, 2021
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