National Handloom Day: Sanjay Garg, Peter D'Ascoli, Gaurang Shah and others on the future of the industry, the use of technology and their work with artisans

Textile revivalists and designers weigh in

author_img Rashmi Rajagopal Lobo and Paulami Sen Published :  02nd August 2019 12:00 AM   |   Published :   |  02nd August 2019 12:00 AM

It seems like the whole world is looking to India for its exquisite handlooms. Just ask Rajib Debnath, a sixth generation muslin weaver from Kalna, West Bengal, who is sought after by fashion houses like Chanel and Gucci, or Pollachi-based Vijayalakshmi Nachiyar of Ethicus, an eco-conscious farm to fashion brand, whose hand-woven fabric is favoured by the likes of designer, Donna Karan, who visited her store during her tour of India a few years ago. In 2015, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London even held an exhibition titled The Fabric of India, which was an exploration of India’s diverse handwoven textiles. 

A sari from Ethicus
A sari from Ethicus

At the India Fashion Summit last year, American-born New Delhi-based designer Peter D’Ascoli made an interesting observation. “Imagine living in London 100 years ago. Coming to India was the equivalent of going to a luxury mall and buying an iPhone. Because India had the aesthetics and textile richness right from the beginning,” said the founder of the Talianna studio, which experiments with handwoven fabric and hand-block printing. 

Bengaluru’s Pavithra Mudayya, who along with her mother Chimmy Nanjappa set up Vimor (a store dedicated to Indian weaves) in 1974, has been working with small-time weavers for close to five decades. “There is no doubt that the handloom industry has created a successful identity for India,” says Pavithra, whose store has been visited by everyone from Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi to Jackie Kennedy and a host of film stars. 

Outfits from Raw Mango
Outfits from Raw Mango

On the field
The number of designers working directly with weavers and reviving their intricate weaves is quite substantial, but for our weaves to return to their former glory, there’s still quite a long way to go. Every way you look at it, powerloom fabrics are much cheaper and faster to make, and takers for handwoven garments are niche and their numbers, paltry. So what is the way forward? “We need to nurture weavers with fair wages and support to ensure a thriving handloom industry,” shares Pavithra, but she believes that “Handlooms have and will always continue to exist.” 

Hyderabad-based designer Jyoti Reddy, who had her first tryst with the Assamese weave, eri silk, around 15 years ago and has since taken her designs to exhibitions in New York and Paris, remarks that over a couple of years, she has seen an increase in curiosity and awareness of handlooms, new-found pride in our heritage and interest in preserving it. “The powerloom destroyed traditional Indian weaves. Now, hopefully, we can encourage the remaining few weavers to continue and train other young people. A consistent market distribution system that absorbs handloom products in different price ranges can make it less niche,” she says. 

A loom at Vimor's Museum of Living Textiles
A loom at Vimor's Museum of Living Textiles

Designer Dipti Mrinalini, also from Hyderabad, says, “With handloom becoming increasingly precious because of decreasing availability of manpower, it’s time we bring about a more inclusive process wherein smaller players benefit more than large scale weavers.” 

While we’re debating changes that need to be made to draw more craftsmen into the fold, one can only conclude that the method of creating these garments too warrants certain adjustments to make them more relevant to the modern consumer. “The handloom industry is going through rapid change. The future is in niche, innovative and quality products. It has to be fashion forward,” offers Vijayalakshmi Nachiyar. 

However, according to Pavithra, innovation in not new to handloom. “If you study handlooms closely, you’ll see that there has always been innovation. It could be new fibres, techniques, or even a creative way of amalgamating them to create new products and designs,” she explains. 

Future perfect
Going by Pavithra’s argument, one would have to say that rather than innovation, our weaves and the industry in general might benefit from fresh colour stories and modern reinterpretations of traditional motifs and patterns. “The weavers themselves understand that design and colour are important to address the competitive market scenario. They are using the Internet to their advantage. Today, they are a cynical lot, but hopefully, this will change with all the positive initiatives being undertaken nationally and internationally,” says Jyoti who is developing a fabric range combining weaving techniques of ikat, jamdani and jacquard. Vijayalakshmi, on the other hand, has not always been so lucky. “I remember in the early days, when I started weaving with handlooms and was trying out new colour combinations, some of my weavers were shocked. Some even left the job thinking this lady doesn’t know what she’s doing! This slowly changed when they saw that people appreciated those colours and were buying it,” she recalls.

A sari from Raw Mango
A sari from Raw Mango

Celebrated designer Gaurang Shah, who has dressed everyone from Vidya Balan to Taapsee Pannu, has been credited with pairing various techniques to craft new and unique weaves that have captured the imagination of celebrities, socialites and fashionistas. “Over the last 20 years, we have introduced more than 20 varied textures in weaving, 100 plus uncommon colour combinations and 300 design innovations using the age-old technique. We took jamdani to weaving clusters that hadn’t even heard of jamdani. The weavers in Kota only wove saris that were plain, striped or checkered. By teaching them jamdani, we created saris that were a lot more dressy,” says the designer. 

And, while talking about weavers, when he says, “They like challenges and yearn for complex designs. Today, they are excited by the future of handlooms and their craftsmanship,” we can’t help but hope and trust that Indian handlooms are well on their way to becoming a booming industry. But no one puts it better than Raw Mango’s Sanjay Garg when he says, “I can’t tell the future, but I can tell you what I want to see: handloom being worn and bought because it represents good design, not only because it is ‘handloom’. I’d like to see handlooms producing something that other textiles can’t. To achieve all this, there is still a lot of work to do, and not necessarily from designers alone. The media, government  and weavers all have a role to play. There are many pillars that need to work more cohesively together.” 

Designers aside, young and innovative minds have woken up to the danger of losing our heritage weaves and taken a step in the right direction to preserve them through start-ups focused on providing a 
platform for weavers to showcase their craft. Here are a few names to look out for...

Go Coop

An online marketplace where handloom and handicraft co-operatives and artisans can connect directly with buyers.

Inde' Loom

A maker-to-market handloom collective and online boutique that works directly with weavers and artisans to upskill and train them, ensuring fair practices.  

Fabric Monde

An online store selling handloom fabric to designers and brands. Their products range from fabric made with cotton, linen and bamboo to silk, hemp and jute. 

Loom People

A source for hand-woven, sustainable textiles from Gujarat and Assam.