For decades, revivalists have been trying to create awareness about handlooms but the slow switch from fast fashion and factory-made fabric has been confined to certain pockets. 2019 brought with it some rather dismal news—according to the fourth All India Handloom Census (2019-20), the number of handloom workers had fallen from 6.5 million in 1995-96 to 3.5 million. While the buzz around handloom has grown in the past few years, it is clearly not helping the weaver families, where the next generation is moving away from its traditional craft.
Some enterprising individuals and collectives, however, are attempting a course correction. There has been the rise of the artisan-entrepreneur—weavers upskilling themselves in plastic weaving, using multi-shaft looms, gaining familiarity with social media through learning platforms offered by textile activists and not-for-profits, and setting up their own micro-enterprises. The pride and revenue that comes with these ventures is changing perceptions of the craft among the youth of the communities.
At the other end, interdisciplinary collaborations with designers, illustrators and artists are taking the generations-old knowledge to schoolchildren, to enhance awareness of India’s vibrant textile heritage. Master weavers such as Gajam Govardhana are adding to these efforts by starting private museums of their own.
The next chapter in the handloom story is one of adaptation, pivoting and resilience.
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The 90-year-old pochampally cotton sari with elephant motifs in weaver Gajam Govardhana’s new museum in Hyderabad is stunning. The Padma Shri recipient took me on a video tour of the 1,000 sq. ft space that has over 5,000 samples of textiles—saris, turbans, wall installations and more—about 200 books on handloom and scanned photographs of textiles from across the world neatly filed in wooden cupboards. The ceiling has a patchwork installation of Kazakhstan-style ikat, there’s a loom in one corner and a projector screen across a conference table. Next to it is a wooden Ganesh idol with a garland made of ikat yarn.
The multimedia museum, Gajam Govardhana Telia Rumal Art Gallery, opened last October, is the culmination of the weaver’s 50-year journey with ikats and Telia rumal. This space is a rare instance of a weaver starting a museum himself to make his legacy accessible to people.
It all began in the village of Puttapaka in Telangana in the 1960s when Govardhana, unable to continue studying beyond class VII, joined his family of weavers to learn the craft. He recalls art revivalist Pupul Jayakar visiting his village in the 1980s appreciating his work and suggesting that he exhibit it. Textile conservationist Martand Singh took him on the Festival Of India tours, organised by the Union government, to New York and London.
Govardhana, who got a job with the Union ministry of textiles at the weavers service centre in Vijayawada in 1975 as a Grade 1 weaver for the development of Telia rumal and ikat designs, worked there until the late 1990s, travelling to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Japan to showcase his work at exhibitions and museums. A composite design of 100 Telia rumal motifs, one of his finest works, is displayed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. During his travels, he began to notice the reverence shown to textiles—and began dreaming of starting a museum.
Now 70, he continues to be passionate about handloom. He says the museum, located on the third floor of his residence, can double up as a research centre for students and textile enthusiasts. He has even built a guest house 25km away for research scholars. To visit, call 9848024642.
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The clatter of the loom is a constant during a conversation with Nisha Verma, a weaver-entrepreneur based in the ancient town of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh. Hers is an inspiring story. She is a first-generation weaver, with no family background in textiles. Verma took to the loom after her marriage in 2000, when she shifted from the district of Alirajpur to Maheshwar, and witnessed the passion—especially among the women of this textile town—for weaving. After observing master weavers at work and getting some preliminary training, she installed a loom at home. “Maine socha kuch bigadega toh sudhaar lenge (I thought if something goes wrong, I will rectify it),” says Verma. Her efforts bore fruit and she got enough work to be able to add two more looms for saris.
But she felt the need to innovate and add to her knowledge set. So, in 2017, she joined The Handloom School in Maheshwar, part of the WomenWeave initiative co-founded by Sally Holkar, a textile revivalist and an advocate of traditional handloom techniques. Started in 2015, the school is a one-of-its-kind networked learning platform for young weavers and unskilled individuals from across India. “The overarching goal of the school is to train today’s young generation of weavers to continue, to grow and prosper in the handloom industry, with an evolved sense of pride for handloom as a respectable and financially remunerative vocation,” states the description on the school’s website.
Hemendra Sharma, CEO of The Handloom School, says the institution has its roots in the not-for-profit REHWA Society Sally and Richard Holkar started in 1978 to sustain local crafts. The WomenWeave initiative came about in 2003. The learnings from the projects came together in The Handloom School, which currently offers three modules. “We are aware that the younger generation is not willing to continue this profession as it is neither well-paying nor recognised in society. We initiated a six-month-long residential programme, ‘Certificate in Design and Enterprise Management’, for young weavers from craft clusters across India, in which they learn design, marketing, English, social media and technology,” says Sharma.
A second, non-residential module, again a six-month one, is on skilling the unskilled who don’t come from weaving communities but would like to work with handlooms. “As part of this, we identify opportunities for women who are coming from marginalised communities and are willing to learn,” he adds. The third module offers incubation support for all the graduates and includes market interaction and design support. The students in the first two modules are paid a stipend so they can support their families.
For Verma, the ‘Certificate in Design and Enterprise Management’ programme offered a chance to pivot to multi-shaft weaving. “In Maheshwar, traditionally people have worked with a two-shaft loom. However, The Handloom School is training young weavers to use multi-shaft weaving and innovative ways of designing with it. Today, it is being adopted by many master weavers in Maheshwar as well,” she says. Verma’s enterprise, in the meanwhile, has grown. After taking a bank loan, she has increased the number of looms from three in 2017 to 12 now and employs 10-12 people—both men and women. Though she has regular customers in Maheshwar for saris, dupattas and fabric, she has now set her sights on orders beyond the textile town. “That is the only thing missing now,” says Verma.
In recent years, weavers have begun leveraging the power of the internet and social media, seguing smoothly to Instagram, Facebook and online marketplaces. Sitting in workshops, some enterprising souls have found value in making reels that educate viewers about weaving processes.
Ramesh Ayodi, a dyer, weaver and convenor of Khana Weaves, a weaver collective from Guledgudda in Bagalkot district, Karnataka, excitedly shares the viewership of a recent reel made by a content creator about the collective. “The reel has received 1,306,270 views and over 65,000 likes,” he says. The best thing, though, is that the visibility is getting them orders from France, the US and UK.
Ayodi took Khana Weaves online during the pandemic, creating a website (www.khanaweaves.in), a Facebook page, an Instagram handle and a WhatsApp account to sell 1,000m of khana fabric (a handwoven fabric used solely to make blouses) that couldn’t be sold during the covid-19 lockdowns. Three years later, business has stabilised . Ayodi says the collective’s success has attracted more weavers to join him, with numbers rising from 18 in 2022 to 33 today. Regular orders ensure earnings of ₹30,000 upwards every month, so weavers take home ₹12,000-13,000. Ayodi has even geotagged photographs of his weaving workshop and store on Google. “We have had people visiting our village to see our weaving processes after following the directions on the map,” he adds.
In another part of the state, former lecturer Mamatha Rai, took to Facebook to resurrect Udupi saris, which come in plain or check designs. Made in the Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts, the geographical indication, or GI, tagged handloom sari was dying out, with just 42 weavers still practising the craft. In 2018, Rai set up the Kadike Trust in her hometown, Karkala, and tied up with the Talipady Weavers Society in Kinnigoli, Mangaluru district, to begin a project simply named Udupi Saree Revival. She created a page on Facebook and began using it to talk about the legacy of the Udupi sari, its uniqueness, the processes used to make it. Today the number of weavers who make the Udupi sari has grown from 42 to 70. And the project’s Facebook and Instagram feeds showcase beaming women posing in bright Udupi saris with stories of how they got the sari and why they love it. Some of the captions notably credit the weaver who made the sari.
A group of artisans in Gujarat’s Kutch region is using plastic waste to create a new kind of fabric that can be repurposed in many ways. “Our attempt with this project is to show that traditional weaving techniques can be used to solve modern problems,” says Ghatit Laheru, director of Khamir, a craft organisation based in Kukma village in the Bhuj region. Laheru is talking about a relatively new project—upcycling discarded plastic bags by weaving them into sheets and using this to create products like bags, pouches and table mats, which are sold on their online shop. They also supply this plastic “fabric” to eco-conscious brands across India and share the technique with other organisations, like Pune-based EcoKaari, which is using it to create its own line of stylish products.
Around 20 women artisans are currently working on Khamir’s recycled plastic weaving project. They are involved in various stages: segregating the usable bags (15-50 micron thickness) from waste, cleaning them, cutting them into long strips and weaving them on the loom into sheets.
Khamir was born in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of 2001 to provide employment and preserve the region’s weaving and printing techniques, such as ajrakh printing, bela printing, camel wool weaving, leatherwork and kharad weaving. The plastic recycling project came about as a necessary intervention when the amount of waste plastic—thanks to both tourism, local use and industrial packaging—started becoming noticeable, posing a threat to the fragile and vibrant local ecology.
After learning the technique from Khamir, some artisans, like Rajiben Vankar, have started their own units with the help of Karigar Clinic, a non-profit that works in the area to help artisans become entrepreneurs. Around 60-70 women work with Vankar today, creating over 40 types of products that are sold at exhibitions and platforms like Pabiben.com, which helps artisans sell their products directly to consumers. “Weaving used to be done mainly by men. Women were not encouraged to work on the loom but this gave us an opportunity because men were not interested in working with plastic,” says Vankar, who wants the government to help her unit get a bigger space. Like plastic, she wants to stretch herself.
Here's an innovative approach to exchanging knowledge between weaving communities and design students. 10 second-year students from the Faculty of Design at CEPT University in Ahmedabad have created board games for children aged 7-10. The games were designed based on interviews and interactions with textile practitioners specialising in tangaliya and patola weaving, wool craft, and other textile practices from Gujarat. The design studio responsible for these board games, called ‘Reimagining the Vernacular’, is part of the international academic research project, 'Threads of Innovation' (2021-2025), a collaboration between the Faculty of Design at CEPT University and the Faculty of Architecture and Design at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
It's incredible how the empirical wisdom of weavers has been combined with modern design techniques and tools to create board games. Jay Thakkar, a senior associate professor at the Faculty of Design and co-founder of the Design, Innovation, and Craft Resource Centre at CEPT University, states: “We should teach students that formal education doesn't make them better than craftspeople. These skilled artisans have accumulated decades of experience and expertise that we can all learn from. By shifting our perspective, we can better appreciate traditional crafts and the people who keep them alive.”
The aim was to introduce students to various textile crafts of Gujarat and enhance their ability to tell stories in different ways. The students began interacting with weavers in Ahmedabad before proceeding to Surendranagar to learn about tangaliya and patola weaving from Jahanbhai. They were required to consider the process, the concept of community, and what a craft community entails. In Kutch, the students attended multiple workshops with textile artisans such as Meghuben Rabari (wool spinning), Paresh Mangariya (wool weaving), Tarannum Faiyaz Khatri (tie and dye), and Ibrahim Khatri (ajrakh printing). They were tasked with using design to popularise these crafts among a wider audience, especially the younger generation, to instil an appreciation for the concept of craft.
One example of a unique board game is Bindu, inspired by the 700-year-old tangaliya weaving tradition. This game is designed to teach children about dana weaving, an essential technique used in tangaliya weaving. The game incorporates a variety of motifs, each with its own symbolic meaning, to help children develop their tactile skills and learn about the rich history behind each motif. Bindu includes various levels and challenges involving border, core, and festival motifs. The game also incorporates colour dice and strategy-defining components like scissors, a shuttle, and a colour board.
The concept of the board game Ajrakhpur is a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of the ajrakh block printing artisans. Their lives were forever changed after the devastating earthquake that shook Kutch, Gujarat, in 2001. With their livelihoods disrupted and the chemical composition of groundwater altered, they were forced to relocate to Ajrakhpur and start anew. Despite these challenges, these artisans refused to give up on their craft. The board game exemplifies their story of hope, and reminds us that even in the face of adversity, we have the power to create something beautiful.
The Threads of Innovation project provides a collaborative platform to organisations such as Khamir and the Manthan Educational Programme Society, India, which work with weavers in the state. Kathan Kothari of Manthan, which has been working with tangaliya, pachedi and durrie weavers in Surendranagar and block printers in Kutch for more than a decade, is seeing a change within weaving communities as well.
“With tangaliya weavers, we are in a pullback phase as we feel they are working independently as a community now, without much intervention by organisations. A few weavers are upskilling themselves and experimenting. For instance, in Surendranagar, weavers are making home furnishings using the single ikat technique. A few have experimented making game durries that children can sit on and play as well,” says Kothari. “They are also upgrading the technology by pivoting from pit mills to multi-shaft looms while bringing in processes—from upgrading raw material to making a finished product— to reach out to the market directly.”
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Till some years ago, traditional loin loom weaving was considered a dying craft in Nagaland. People shifted to the faster shuttle loom, even though the quality of cloth on the loin loom was far superior. The younger generation seemed to have lost interest in the craft. Then, in 2008, the late Sonnie Kath, a weaver herself, set up the organisation Exotic Echo to revive it and secure the livelihood of weavers. Now her sister, Jemule Kath Rengma, a weaver, heads the production unit of the organisation, located in the craft village of Diezephe in Nagaland’s Dimapur district.
Rengma started learning weaving on the loin loom from her mother when she was in her teens. The only way the craft will survive is if the next generation takes it forward, she says. Exotic Echo is hoping to ensure that. Last year, it organised the first loin loom weaving workshop for children, aged seven and above, during summer vacations. Given the extreme heat, this year’s workshop will be held in October, when schools close for Durga Puja.
“A lot of weavers don’t know how to pass on the knowledge. Such workshops benefit the children as well as mentors,” explains Vitono Gugu Haralu, a social activist and secretary, Exotic Echo. Their products—Naga mekhelas and shawls, stoles, cushion covers and table runners—are sold at exhibitions across India, at showrooms in Dimapur and at their headquarters in Diezephe.
Exotic Echo has also been organising an international loin loom festival, usually held in December to coincide with the Hornbill Festival, to create awareness about the weaving style and educate artisans as well as participants on the need to preserve it. Given the conflict in the neighbouring state of Manipur, this year’s edition is yet to be finalised.
“All of us are hoping that the conflict will reduce and somehow there will be an intervention. We can’t say anything right now,” says Haralu. For, the unrest in Manipur has had an impact on Nagaland, too, as people flee the conflict. “If the situation is not contained, it will affect other regions in the North-East, wherever the two (Meitei and Kuki) communities are settled. So, Nagaland is not immune to it. It is way too early to talk about the loin loom festival. It is not fair to think about a festival when the neighbouring state is burning,” she adds.
Rumi Payeng, 29, comes from Pathorichuck village in Assam’s Majuli district. Until three years ago, she used to work with her family in rice fields and would depend on her husband for money for daily expenses. Things changed in July 2020 when Payeng joined a unique thread bank initiative called Xuta that assured women weavers a fixed income.
“In Assam, prices for weaves are not fixed. People come from the cities, dump the yarn, bargain on the prices of finished pieces, and leave. No one knows the rates of weaving,” Pabitra Lama Sarmah had said in an interview with Lounge in December 2020, to mark the launch of the project. Sarmah initiated Xuta with her husband, Rishiraj, under the aegis of Maati Community, a social enterprise dedicated to the capacity building and empowerment of indigenous communities across the North-East through interventions in the areas of employment and education.
Today, members of Xuta get a certain amount of thread each month that they keep track of in a yarn passbook, akin to a bank passbook. The products they create out of the thread, mainly gamusas and stoles, are measured and the weavers are paid a fixed price per piece. Weavers are paid regardless of whether the products are sold or not and money is credited to their zero-balance accounts, opened through a memorandum of understanding with the Gramin Vikash Bank.
“Men in their families would question them about spending so much time on weaving. They looked at handlooms as a waste of time. But when they saw the regular income Xuta was generating, they came around,” says Rishiraj.
What started as a pilot project with 10 weavers has grown in scale, with over 100 women from four saporis (islets) in Majuli working on a regular basis. They work on bamboo looms, which cost around ₹1,500 to set up. And the organisation takes care of the upkeep of the looms, while also ensuring weavers get family health insurance cover.
Xuta has now started making half-sleeved shirts too. On an average, working on 3kg of thread allows the women to earn ₹6,000 a month. For Payeng, the financial independence is liberating. “I am able to buy schoolbooks for my children on my own, and also equipment and ingredients needed in the kitchen,” she says. Some of the women weavers are not just spending the money on everyday needs but reinvesting it in piggeries, for instance, which offer a good return.
Before the project came to the villages of Majuli, the younger generation was not interested in weaving. So Xuta started with women in the age group of 45 and above. Today, with the recognition and income that has come their way, the younger women in families too have started learning the craft from their mothers, adding to the family income. So successful has the project been that it was selected last year for the WomenLead India Fellowship by the Reliance Foundation and Vital Voices, an international non-profit that works with women leaders on economic empowerment. Xuta has also been invited by HerCircle—an inclusive, socially-conscious digital platform for women—to showcase its craft in Mumbai.
Patriarchal attitudes continue to dog them, though. “Instead of being excited about the upcoming journey, the first question that men in their family had was who would cook for the time that women will be away. It is these attitudes that Xuta hopes to address,” says Rishiraj.
The weaves of Nagaland’s Chakhesang community are known for their bold orange and green hues. And the one organisation that has worked consistently to sustain this art is the charitable trust Chizami Weaves. Based in Chizami village in Phek district, the organisation has over 900 registered weavers, who craft traditional Naga mekhelas, shawls and stoles as well as home products like table runners and pillow covers. Weavers such as Neitshopeu Thopi, 40, have taken on leadership roles to facilitate the social security of artisans, train them and help revive indigenous dyes and yarns. Thopi oversees the organisation’s weaving centre where the finished products are collected and yarn is stocked to distribute among artisans who work from home.
The trust trains weavers on product and design development and conducts regular weaving classes—Thopi calls them schools—for young girls. “A lot of them get inspired by friends and neighbours to start learning. There is a good demand (for the products) now, which is nice,” she says. To be able to fulfil the rising number of orders, she wants to strengthen the existing skill set of weavers, mobilise more craftspeople, work with natural fibres and dyes, and collaborate with state government departments. One example of this is helping weavers get the artisan photo identity document, Pehchan card, that allows a craftsperson to participate in national and international exhibitions. A weaver cannot, for instance, set up a stall at Dilli Haat in the Capital without the Pehchan card.
It also helps get life insurance and access loans. Despite their best efforts to support weavers apply for the Pehchancard, the application process is slow. “We have an extension office of the Union ministry of textiles in Kohima. Last year, on (National Handloom Day, we submitted our applications there but we have not received the ID cards as yet,” she says.
They are also trying to promote the use of organic cotton, natural dyes and yarn extracted from stinging nettle. A stinging nettle woven mekhela set (the wraparound skirt is about one-and-half metres and the stole a little more than half a metre) is priced at ₹15,000-30,000. She says, “We are trying to market these products too.”