“The immediate requirement was to get some cash in their hands,” she recalls. They fashioned masks and Jain pulled in some favours to start sales with deferred deliveries.
While the looms restarted in May, the production output is nowhere near the pre-Covid levels: from 1,125 saris a month, it has fallen to 450 now.
The fear of the unknown is the lived reality of the handloom industry in India. Handloom is the second largest employment provider in the country, after agriculture. According to the 2019-20 National Census of Handloom Weavers, there are 31.44 lakh households engaged in weaving and allied activities, out of which 87% are in rural areas. Over 70% of all weavers and allied workers are women. Jaya Jaitly, president, Dastkari Haat Samiti (DHS), says there is no accurate figure for the number of people employed in the sector, “which is in itself a very sad and telling comment on the lack of interest in this sector in terms of money allocations and an understanding of the vast array of weavers”.
Recently, the Textiles Ministry abolished the All India Handicrafts Board and the All India Handloom Board. Jaitly says dismantling the practically non-functional board is a good step. “Maybe a more purposeful, knowledgeable and experienced advisory body of independent persons could assist government. But it is high time private bodies of all sizes and strength formed a major representative federation like FICCI or CII to articulate and push for the needs of the textile and craft sector.”
While a central board is gone, smaller craft collectives, social enterprises and organisations are becoming key drivers of change at a time when weavers and craftspersons are left with little or no work. The DHS, for instance, got to work from Day 1, checking on its member base and providing rations, funds and more. Jaitly says, “We ensure they are helping each other too. In fact, multiple groups and people got together during Covid to connect with the entire sector to provide relief.”
If Meera Goradia of CreativeDignity.org — a group of diverse creative professionals like Ayush Kasliwal, Pooja Ratnakar and Vishpala Hundekari — is to be believed, many in the handloom sector are on a WhatsApp group, brainstorming on ways to help each other. At the start of the lockdown, funds were set up by organisations like Dastkar, Fashion Design Council of India and designers like Anita Dongre. From July 31, CreativeDignity launched its Artisans Direct campaign with crafts-based online marketplaces such as Jaypore, Okhai, Gaatha and iTokri. Fashion journalist Namrata Zakaria got together 100 designers for a fundraiser project, Baradari, to support craftspersons hit by Covid-19 and the cyclone Amphan.
Sudha Rani Mullapudi, cofounder of Hyderabad-based Abhihaara Social Enterprise, says liquidating the stock that is lying with them— worth about Rs 45 lakh — is their immediate concern. Post-lockdown, Abhihaara is adapting to changing consumption patterns and coming with new product lines. “As work from home is the new norm, we are focusing on production of home products like towels, masks, cushions, bed and table linen. We are investing in building easy-to-learn skills that would generate incomes quickly,” she says.
Many enterprises are similarly rethinking products and processes. Swati Seth of The Color Caravan, a Himachal Pradesh-based social enterprise known for crochet toys and nursery items, plans to experiment with natural dyes, natural fibres and material, and dabble in local crafts like khaddi weaving and bamboo basket weaving. “We were already operating online through our Instagram and Facebook page. But early on in the lockdown, I opened an Instamojo ‘store’ and we plan to launch our independent online store in September,” she says.
Digital literacy and presence have become a prerequisite for craftspersons now. Goradia says they are trying to drive the digital transformation of artisans by involving design schools like NIFT, Srishti and IICD to guide them in shooting product pictures, creating digital catalogues and managing sales, as online marketplaces are the way forward. Kirti Poonia, head of Okhai, says the lockdown period has transformed them from a product company to a marketplace with 35 non-Okhai collectives and many other artisans onboard.
In April, revenue was down by 44% year-overyear, but July saw a 157% jump. It also saw a 186% rise in spends in the 18-20 age group. #VocalForLocal is catching on. Poonia says, “On the consumer side, sentiments like made in India and boycott of China are coming together to help handicrafts. We can push for India as an ethical, handmade factory for the world.”
Hyderabad-based GoCoop launched a #KindnessInKind campaign a few days into the lockdown, inviting customers to post photos of their favourite artisanal products. Siva Devireddy, founder, says the key is to help weavers sell products directly.
GoCoop recently sold a Baluchari sari for Rs 1.45 lakh, most of which went to the weaver.
He says, “There’s a strong focus on the sector and a great opportunity to promote it. The awareness about handlooms is at an all-time high.”
Ravi Kiran, proprietor of Bengaluru-based social enterprise Metaphor Racha that works with a few khadi cooperative societies in north Karnataka, says for craft-based small enterprises, success is also in remaining small and in understanding what’s enough. He says, “We had managed our inventory well and hence the focus was always to sellearn-sustain. The only aid which we expect from the authorities is to acknowledge the kind of work we have been doing for the last decade and stop sending legal notices to many businesses like ours for using the word ‘khadi’ and making us feel like fraudsters. Just as weavers are guardians of heritage craft, small businesses like ours are their frontline marketers.” Kiran says heritage craft may not need innovation, but there is a need to innovate on clever policies for safeguarding handicrafts.
Kochi-based designer Sreejith Jeevan of Rouka thinks otherwise. He says, “Any product needs to find meaning to exist. For example, everyone has a plain Kerala kasavu sari How many of those will people buy till you give them another version? Supporting craft because the craftspeople are protecting tradition is not a valid story. Support craftspeople to make crafts relevant so that they can keep the tradition alive. They have to be taught to see it like a business, not a kind of service.”
The smaller enterprises are also showcasing stories over social media. Mullapudi says that it’s a great interface, giving more value to weavers and artisans: “Strong campaigns should be built to have 10% of the wardrobes of every citizen (those who can afford it) filled with handlooms.”
For the sector to grow, handlooms should become an everyday product and not a special buy. Hashtags might make them hip but to truly lend a helping hand, everyone from the government and entrepreneurs to weavers and consumers must come together.
For now, for the Indian handloom sector, good things are coming in small packages.