Weaving hope: Here’s why going vocal for local has never been as important as it is now

As the pandemic continues to challenge the survival of India’s artisans, designer labels and non-profits chip in on why ‘Vocal for Local’ needs to go beyond being a mere catchphrase

Rebecca Vargese Published :  20th June 2020 06:00 AM   |   Published :   |  20th June 2020 06:00 AM
Indian crafting scripts

Indian crafting scripts

The Instagram accounts of fashion designers do not bear the usual hallmarks of the season. Posts that celebrate their couture ensembles on India’s fashion week runways are conspicuously missing, and so are the ones announcing their latest drops ahead of the big fat wedding season. And it’s not just the smaller, indie, perhaps, even sustainable brands that have eased up on the usual flood of pictures of embroidered and brightly-hued apparel. In fact, a quick scroll through the pages of the biggies in the 
industry — Rahul Mishra, Tarun Tahiliani, Payal Khandwala and Anita Dongre — throw up simple monochrome boxes, most displaying statements in support of the #HandMadeinIndia and #VocalforLocal movements in the country.


(2/3) I think about it often and wonder what if Amma and I had a conversation about it? How would it be, to learn about the idea of 'Swadeshi' from my own grand mother, her personal experiences. It was often a meditative process pertaining for days where she would spin just enough yarn to be woven into fabric that was sufficient for the entire family’s clothing needs. Several emotions would be spun along with the cotton thread while the others looked forward to the completion of this process. Every inch of yarn having touched her fingertips would then reach the hands of a local weaver. Dyed in a suitable hue, the fabric would return home for her to print on with her wooden blocks. Only to imagine today, the kind of anticipation, and emotion that clothing would have in the time; quite unlike today’s process of purchasing. I believe that these were some inherent values that engrained the livelihoods of people even after the country was independent— to be self-sufficient and socially sustainable. Please share stories of your own grandmothers, grandfathers and family members in the comments below. With much to bond over, let’s look into those hazy memories and remember what we have come forward from. Amma’s sketch by @sumangla0294 #contemplation #memories #thoughtstoliveby #quarantinestories #RahulMishra #TheGandhianWay #Swadeshi #MadeinIndia #MakeinIndia #StoryofRahulMishra

A post shared by Rahul Mishra (@rahulmishra_7) on

While these labels are some of the most recognised names among a greater group of brands that have integrated small artisans into their supply chains, the pandemic has — even by master couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s own accord — ‘compromised the financial stability’ of companies across the board. This, in turn, would mean that the network of artisans who work for them — already among the most vulnerable in the supply chain — are at a greater risk.

With different craft and artisan communities in need of unique solutions from various sectors, we got master craftsmen, designers and non-profits to weight in on why the fight to protect India’s artisans is not just topical, but urgent.

Broken thread
Padmashri awardee, Mohammed Tayeb Khan belongs to a long line of Raj Rangrez (royal dyers) who have been associated with the royals of Mewar for nearly two centuries. In the past month, many master craftsmen, like this Jodhpur-based tie-and-dye artisan — whose patrons include celebrities like Liz Hurley, Heidi Klum, Sting and even Prince Charles — have been out of work for the first time in their lives. As a matter of fact, this is the first time Tayeb Khan’s family has run out of orders in nearly seven generations! “The people who stand to lose right now are those who make the clothes you love. All of our orders have been cancelled, and it has disrupted the demand and supply chain,” shares the 64-year-old, who was inducted into the family business when he was barely eight. Up until the pandemic, his business employed over 300 people, who through this income support over 600 families. But, as of now, there is no concrete timeline of when his work will resume.

“The coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown has had a devastating impact on the lives of the country’s artisans and weavers. They are the backbone of the non-farm livelihood sector,” explains Jayasri Samyukta Iyer, joint secretary of The Crafts Council of India. As per the 2011 Census, India’s handloom and handicrafts, ranging from simple to exquisite creations, are the workmanship of 43.32 lakh weavers and allied workers, and 68.86 lakh crafts persons respectively. And Mohammed Tayeb Khan is just a single representative.


For goodness sake

Though our list is not exhaustive, here are some noteworthy efforts that should be on your radar

Crafts Council of India
Apart from The CCI Artisan Relief Fund — to provide immediate financial assistance for artisans and weavers — the organisation is curating and cataloguing collections from remote clusters and reaching out to potential clients via WhatsApp. “When the customer wants to make a purchase, we connect them immediately to the artisan. This way we establish contact, and the customer can pay the artisan directly,” shares Jayasri Samyukta of the CCI.

Based out of Almora in Uttarakhand, the label is an initiative by NID graduates Abhinav Dhoundiyal and Vasanthi Veluri for the women artisans of the region. While the brand primarily works with wool, as part of their COVID-19 measures to protect livelihoods, Peoli has developed smaller accessories using indigenous local materials like Himalayan nettle, hemp and reclaimed cotton strips to expand the selling season. “We have also launched a fundraiser in support of 50 women artisans, who are the sole breadwinners in the families, to aid them in times of need,” explains Vasanthi.

Launching the Artisans’ Collective, Bengaluru-based accessory brand Kaiyare is working towards creating a support fund for three clusters — Charaka based in Heggodu, Porgai in Sittlingi and Markhandeshwara in Gajendragad.  “These artisans certainly need our collective help to tide over these difficult times and sustain their art. They are only looking for support and are more than willing to work,” shares Nikitha Satish, co-founder. The amount given as a contribution would be considered a payment towards a future purchase of the label’s handmade banana fibre bags or organic khadi womenswear. 

200 Million Artisans
Purely an information-driven initiative, 200 Million Artisans attempts to bridge the information gaps by helping consolidate all efforts providing relief to the craft communities in India during and after the COVID-19 crisis. An artisan support hub, the website also offers study archives and resources to all things art and craft related. 


In this together
For now, though the future of India’s design industry remains speculative, everyone from established designer houses to independent labels and non-profits in the country are rallying together to address the crisis. The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) established a COVID-19 Support Fund. Lakmé Fashion Week, one of the country’s premier fashion events, backed the move and also launched the 
‘All About India’ campaign to highlight the collaborative efforts between homegrown brands and the artisans who bring their designs to life. Part of LFW’s initiative, Rakesh Thakore has always seen labels like Abraham & Thakore as pathways to further bring artisans into the mainstream narrative. Though cautious about his judgement on the flurry of hashtags that have taken over the internet, the Delhi-based designer shares a reserved optimism. “We hope there will be a mindset shift in view of the pandemic. This will not be an all-encompassing sweeping shift across the whole population. But, at least a slightly larger segment will think a little now before buying mindlessly,” says Rakesh, adding that their priorities have not shifted as a brand. “We will continue to use the craftspeople we have worked 
with, and our current focus is to generate enough sales to continue to give them work.”

Design by Urvashi Kaur

Designer Urvashi Kaur, a long-time collaborator with artisans in Kota, Rajasthan, thinks that it is a great time for designers to view fashion as a gateway not only between geographies but also generations. While traditional weaves have not gained popularity with India’s young consumers, the designer hopes that conversations sparked by the new internet movements will yield results. “This is good in terms of the conversation that it sparks, as well as the focus it draws to the issues at hand. Moving forward, I am hopeful that our craftspeople will feel empowered and see the viability of passing down the skills and talents that they have been perfected over centuries,” says the Delhi-based designer. However, the Urvashi Kaur label realises that this will need to be a systemic change and will not translate into immediate sales. And so, they have ensured that none of the liabilities are transferred to their craftspeople, despite the year being a write-off.

Building new bridges

COVID-19 inspired Madhubani art

“The current situation signals the need for a much-needed overhaul of perception, traditional market spaces, logistics and infrastructure,” offers Jaya Jaitly, founder-president of Dastkari Haat Samiti. But, 
there may yet be a silver lining, as the answers to the crisis lie within the design industry itself. “With textile crafts and even art, it is not always about the final product. It is about the application of a skill. This is where synergies need to come into play. The true meaning of ‘Vocal for Local’ should be the use of a locally available skill as the solution to multiple problems in a region.” As an example, Jaya cites how bamboo craftsmen — who are likely to have a limited set of products — could benefit from design interventions and thereby create everything from home decor to even liveable structures. “Designer labels could also further explore not-so-glamorous, utilitarian areas like home linen for homestays or the hospitality industry. There are multiple dots that can be connected to create a whole new market.” To this end, organisations like hers are driving change through collaborative efforts between grassroots level workers and design labels — fashion and otherwise — to create uniquely contemporary products. In fact, Dastkari Haat’s latest initiative saw artists documenting the pandemic through traditional folk art. This included pattachitra madhubani of women in masks washing their hands, a world over-run by coronavirus-breathing warli dragons and more.