Wellington, June 26,2023
India is the handloom capital of the world.
It is home to over 11 million handloom weavers who produce over 200 varieties of indigenous or homespun weaves.
But the Indian handloom industry is struggling to survive with weavers turning away from their heredity occupation.
The onset of Covid-19 made matters worse.
When cheap Chinese imports deprived Benarasi brocade weavers of their traditional livelihood and drove them to suicide, Wellington couple Shani Pillai and Joji Jacob decided they needed to support those artisan communities.
They launched Threads of Tradition as part of their boutique tour business, ATI (All Things Intriguing) Travel, offering “textile tours to off-the-beaten-track villages in different parts of India to meet and see master textile artisans at work.”
Shani and Joji have been supporting select community development groups who help and inspire the artisans of India to preserve and promote their traditional heritage and livelihoods.
In Wellington, the couple have actively promoted the cause of Indian artisans through a series of presentations at the Te Papa National Museum.
“Our talks at the museum are primarily aimed at promoting artisans and fundraising for the Te Papa. And it is also a platform for us to highlight our tours to India to meet the artisans,” Joji told Indian Newslink during a recent presentation at Te Papa.
Among the three designers featured at the event at Te Papa was Loom Katha, which aims to revitalise the Indian handloom industry and works with weaver communities in the Indian states of West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Loom Katha has been instrumental in reviving the rare Himroo weave of Aurangabad.
The Himroo, a rich fabric made of silk and cotton yarn, has a history dating back centuries and incorporates Persian weaving traditions. The fabric was popular in the Mughal era and reached its zenith during the reign of the Nizams of Hyderabad in the 1900s, but subsequently went out of vogue and became almost extinct.
Loom Katha got the looms started again and trained women weavers to breathe new life to the traditional fabric.
But this impetus suffered a setback when the pandemic struck.
“We launched a campaign on Instagram to book pre-orders for our weavers. The response was amazing and provided us a much-needed lifeline to tide us over [for a few months],” said Arushi Choudhary Khanna, founder of Loom Katha, who addressed the audience at the Te Papa via video link.
“The future looks shaky as people are spending conservatively on apparel and our project remains highly vulnerable,” Arushi added.
Up next was Sonal Kumar of the Adivasi Academy of Tejgadh, Gujarat, who is leading efforts to revive the Kasota loincloth weaving tradition of the tribespeople of Chhota Udepur in Gujarat.
Its strategy is to extend the handloom craft to décor and fashion products. Worn by Adivasi men in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, Kasota, traditionally woven by the Vankar community, had been displaced by factory- produced menswear in the market.
“While researching Adivasi textiles in the region, we found only one weaver, Lalubhai Vankar, aged 95, who was still weaving the Kasota,” recalled Dr Madan Meena, honorary director at the Adivasi Academy, a research institute run by the Vadodara-based Bhasha Research and Publication.
“We visited three or four villages, and found looms tucked away in people’s homes. No one was ready to do it (weaving), because they didn’t get the right price. [We realised] the tradition would disappear unless we worked on [reviving] it seriously.”
Today, three years since the revival efforts were launched, Kasota stoles, tablecloths and cushion covers are on display at the museum of the Adivasi Academy.
Surbhi Bajaj and Sonal Kumar, students of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Jodhpur, worked on a project at the Adivasi Academy earlier this year.
“We realised that the market had changed. So, reviving the Kasota in its traditional from as a langot (waist cloth) wouldn’t be successful,” Bajaj noted.
To rejuvenate the craft and make it marketable, the focus shifted from loin cloth to cushion covers and garments. As a result, the Kasota products now feature a range of garments, which aims to include Nehru jackets, ponchos, kaftans and kurtas in the future.
Meanwhile, interior designers Angira Shah and Vinod Sivan are busy creating innovative wall art from fabric.
“As a designer, my work is to select the right fabric for sound-proofing environments, creating patterns that give an aesthetic rather than purely functional look and reflect the philosophy, products or corporate colour of the company,” said Shah, a fine arts graduate and post graduate in textile design.
Her multi-dimensional textile murals combine fabrics with prints, embroidery and other surface ornamentation, she explained.
She also uses materials such as paper, acrylic, glass metal, wood, rope or braiding in her murals.
Shani and Joji are helping raise awareness by arranging tours into the rural hinterland of India where the artisans of the handloom industry are finding a new lifeline.
Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington