The beauty and variety of Indian handloom is legendary. The texture and colour with the most intricate of woven patterns and embroidery can leave most anyone spellbound. As we celebrate India’s rich history of handlooms on National Handloom Day (August 7), let’s take a look at the checkered history of this celebrated craft that is still standing strong in the face of many challenges and delighting textile aficionados the world over.
Archaeological evidence traces the beginning of handloom in the Indian sub-continent back to the Indus Valley Civilization. Subsequent Aryan settlers in the region also adopted and further honed techniques of weaving cotton and wool followed by embellishing these fabrics with dyes and embroidery. Spinning, weaving, dyeing and other textile related artforms gave rise to a flourishing cottage industry. The Indian handloom industry while being driven at a household level also found growing adoption across the world. Indian cotton and muslin fabrics were traded with the Roman Empire and Indian silk traded through China via the Silk Route to western countries. Indian textiles have been praised in several accounts by explorers and historians, from Megasthenes and Herodotus to Marco Polo.
The advent of the Mughal empire saw weavers getting patronage from the royalty and creation of new fabrics such as ‘Mulmul’, ‘Benarsi Brocade’, ‘Jamawar’ etc. As the Mughal empire expanded its boundaries, so did the Indian handloom industry with weavers from Kashmir and Persia contributing their share. Demand for Indian textiles grew by leaps and bounds as the world marveled at the mastery of Indian weavers. India was manufacturing 25% of the world’s textiles in the 17th century, Bengal accounted for more than 50% of textiles and 80% of silks imported by the Dutch from Asia.
The arrival of the East India Company, however sounded the death knell for the Indian textile industry. The weavers were forced into selling exclusively to the British at extremely low rates, pushing them into poverty. The taxation structure also benefited textile imports into India from Britain versus Indian exports. The decline was further accelerated by the industrial revolution. Advances in manufacturing technologies flooded markets in India and abroad with cheap, mass produced fabrics that Indian handlooms could no longer compete with.
The freedom struggle brought the Indian handloom sector back to the fore, with Mahatma Gandhi spearheading the Swadeshi cause. In no other nation has something as basic as one’s clothing or an act as simple as spinning cotton become so intertwined with a national movement. The humble charka (spinning wheel) and khadi became a dominant symbol of self-reliance, self-determination and nationalist pride.
Post-independence, the Government of India took several steps to revive the handloom sector. Parliament of India passed the Khadi and Other Handloom Industries Development Act in 1953. The All India Handloom Fabrics Marketing Cooperative Society was set up in 1955 to promote sales of fabrics made in handloom cooperatives. Several other institutions were also set up like the Weavers’ Service Centre, the Indian Institute of Handloom Technology and the National Handloom Development Corporation (NHDC), to name a few. The credit for the revival of handlooms in India also goes to pioneering individuals like Suraiya Hasan Bose, Pupul Jayakar and Laila Tyabji. Designers like Ritu Kumar, Sabyasachi, Sanjay Garg and others have also given much needed exposure to handloom weaves not just in India but across the world.
The Indian handloom industry today employs over 4.5 million people, both directly and indirectly, and is the second largest employer for rural India next only to agriculture. There are about 2.4 million looms of different kinds. The export of handloom products from India was valued at US$ 343.69 million in FY19. In FY19, the US was the major importer of Indian handloom products, with an estimated purchase of US$ 93.94 million, followed by the UK, Italy and Germany at US$ 17.77 million, US$ 16.47 and US$ 14.65 million, respectively. Nearly 15 per cent of cloth production in India is from the handloom sector. Production of hand-woven fabric from India constitutes 95 per cent of the global production. While the numbers seem impressive, the handloom sector is still plagued by problems. Low wages, rising costs, rise in power looms and proliferation of fakes are some of the issues that weavers have to contend with. New initiatives by the Textiles Ministry along with private entrepreneurship will hopefully help the Indian handloom industry regain its prominence.