Z doesn’t like his new job. He leaves home at 5.30am and spends the day ferrying people across Mirzapur, the Uttar Pradesh city famous for its carpets, on his rented cycle rickshaw. On a good day, the 55-year-old earns about ₹350. It’s nothing like his previous work, weaving wool and cotton carpets. “That used to give me satisfaction. This, I need to do to meet expenses,” he says in Hindi.
Born into a family of carpet weavers, Z, who is not keen to disclose his name, was expected to take the centuries-old legacy forward. He did manage to somehow, till the pandemic hit. “First demonetisation killed us, then covid-19,” says the father of two. After demonetisation in November 2016, employers started asking weavers to open bank accounts—a Herculean task for members of a community that isn’t highly educated. Z, like many other weavers, didn’t have the paperwork required. Work became limited to companies that could offer cash. He would sell vegetables and milk on the side.
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Just as things were beginning to look up, covid-19 struck. His then employer, a Delhi-based wool and cotton carpet seller who used the services of independent weavers in Mirzapur, began cancelling orders in May 2020. Z’s income of ₹400 a day stopped suddenly. A month later, he decided he had to try something else.
“What could I have done? We have to eat,” he says. “A lot of weavers have quit the profession. You will find stories like mine in many lanes of Mirzapur.”
Z’s tale highlights the irony of the situation. On the one hand, traditional weavers have been trying to eke out a living at static daily wages, fighting off the competition from machine-made carpets, surviving the consecutive blows of demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST) that began to be imposed on the industry, only to be felled by covid-19 as orders dried up. On the other hand, industry experts say the pandemic has, in fact, been good for the industry, the third largest in the world, since it has prompted people to pay more attention to their living spaces. Brands are, in fact, reworking strategies and taking a look at materials they can upcycle.
The global market for carpets and rugs, estimated at $32 billion (around ₹2.3 trillion) in 2020, is estimated to reach $38.8 billion by 2026, according to a May report by the market research company Global Industry Analysts Inc. Exports of carpets—handmade or otherwise—actually reached a high during the pandemic, with the export promotion council holding virtual fairs and ensuring delivery once flights resumed. Eighty-five per cent of what the billion-dollar carpet industry—employer of over two million weavers—produces each year goes abroad.
Yet none of the cheer has reached weavers, most of whom rely on commissioned work. Few are even being re-skilled. They continue to count their losses while brands argue that profits are slim. Nor is there data on the extent to which carpet weavers are benefiting from the government outreach in the crafts sector.
A FAMILIAR STORY
Stories like Z’s can be found beyond Mirzapur too. There’s no official data or survey, but quick conversations with members of weaving communities in Uttar Pradesh’s Bhadohi and Varanasi, Haryana’s Panipat, Rajasthan’s Jaipur, Tamil Nadu’s Erode, and Kashmir—hubs of carpet manufacturing in India—are proof enough. It’s the all-too-familiar story of any weaver or artisan in India, whether it’s the one who does chikankari or makes pattachitra scrolls. The creator is somehow always on the losing end.
In Kashmir, the biggest producer of carpets after Uttar Pradesh, the number of carpet looms has dropped from 10,000 in 2016 to just 3,000 because weavers are not seeing more money coming in for the work they are putting in, says Ahsan Mirza, a member of Kashmir’s Weavers Association. Hand-making a 9x12ft carpet can take 12 weeks to a year. “They are realising that they can make much more money by doing other jobs instead of sitting in front of kerosene lamps the whole day,” says Mirza, who looks after his family business of manufacturing and exporting silk carpets at Mirza Sons.
In 12 months, Mirza has lost 25% of his 2,500 weavers—some permanent, some independent—because he couldn’t pay them on time. “We used to have customers coming from Germany, US, UK, Russia and the Gulf twice or thrice a year to make bookings but during covid-19, it was zero. Even now, we are not working at full capacity but export numbers are definitely improving,” Mirza says. At full throttle, they used to make about 5,000 carpets a year; this year, he has managed 1,200. He is looking to hire but weavers are looking for a steady income that he cannot promise.
Asif Rahman, too, has seen a number of weavers in Mirzapur quitting this work. The owner of the Kolkata-based luxury carpet manufacturing company Insigne Carpets, which has corporate clients like Google, Louis Vuitton and the US space agency Nasa, and individual billionaire customers like Ratan Tata and Mohammad Al Zubair, works with the weavers of Bhadohi and Mirzapur.
“The industry was always cash-based, and demonetisation happened. Just as people were recovering from it, GST was introduced. Then covid-19 spoilt things further,” he says. “It’s not surprising weavers want to leave because the money companies are making is not reaching the grass-roots level.” These centres were also in the news earlier for using child labour; imports were hit till the government ensured registration of looms and adoption of code of conduct for eradication of child labour.
Mirza knows that the average daily wage of ₹400 for carpet weavers across states is less than the ₹500-600 labourers get for construction work. “But what can we do? There’s growing competition from machine-made carpets, then the freight charges, plus GST. Manufacturers and export houses are already working on small profits,” he claims.
Amidst all this, exports of Indian carpets reached an all-time high last year. According to the Carpet Export Promotion Council (CEPC), a body of handmade carpet exporters established under the Companies Act in 1982, carpets worth $1.8 billion were exported in 2020 (see box), with over 55% going to the US. At 35% of the global market share, India is a world leader in the export of handmade carpets, followed by China and Iran.
“We are among the top three carpet-making countries in the world because of the rich carpet-making culture we have since the Mughal era. The pandemic really helped us, since people started paying more attention to their living spaces and investing in handmade pieces (95% of exports, it is claimed, are of handmade carpets),” says a senior officer in the export promotion council who doesn’t wish to be named.
“There’s still huge potential to grow but the government needs to offer more incentives for them (weavers) to flourish,” the officer adds. The carpet industry falls under the textiles ministry. Despite repeated attempts, the ministry didn’t respond to Lounge queries on what steps it is taking to ensure the welfare of the carpet industry, especially the weavers.
The CEPC officer agrees that over the past decade, especially since demonetisation, there has been an exodus of carpet weavers. “They are used to getting deharis (daily wages). If they do not get attractive prices for spending months under the kerosene lamp for just one carpet, they will of course leave. Their next generation is not even interested in learning the craft.”
Former CEPC head Siddhanath Singh, who has been working closely with the carpet industry for over three decades, points to the other problem: the influx of machine-made carpets from Iran and China. “A traditional handmade rug that may take over six months to make would cost you ₹40,000. Its machine-made version, the same design, feel, would be ₹15,000. Obviously, the Indian customer who isn’t well-versed with the carpet vocabulary will go for the cheaper option.” So why should a manufacturer spend so much energy and resources on handmade carpets? he asks. “People no longer care if profit comes at the cost of your own rich history and culture.”
A STEP BACK
Carpet weaving came to India in the early 16th century when Mughal emperor Akbar brought carpet weavers from Persia to his palace in Agra; they taught craftspersons here the techniques. Akbar went on to establish weaving centres in Delhi, Lahore and Agra, where carpets were made of the finest wools, silks, velvet, pashmina, using vegetable dyes and designs borrowed from the regions of Kirman, Kashan, Isfahan and Herat. The creations found homes in palaces in India and abroad. He ensured the same techniques were even taught to prisoners at the Agra jail.
By the 18th century, the craft had caught the attention of the East India Company. The British introduced carpet weaving in more jails, attracted by the negligible labour costs and high export returns. A carpet made in Lahore Jail won a medal at the London International Exhibition in 1862, inspiring other jails in the subcontinent to take on carpet-weaving. “Agra Central Jail became a famous weaving centre for great quality carpets and beautiful designs,” says Rahman, who describes himself as a carpet history buff. “In 1877, when Queen Victoria was proclaimed empress of India, the Agra Central Jail gifted her a large carpet.”
Carpets are still made in the Agra jail, but only for internal use. Of the 30 inmates who make hand-knotted carpets to earn ₹40 a day, 14 are traditional weavers. “They teach the novices but it’s a lot of effort so many lose interest quickly,” says V.K. Singh, the senior jail superintendent. “We used to have some demand in bulk five-six years ago from different agencies, but not any more. There’s a lot of machine-made stuff now. We try to ensure the inmates stay close to the traditional Indian rug designs.”
Today carpet brands are reinventing themselves to appeal to the Indian consumer, who had for long considered the carpet a luxury. “In the past, carpets were purchased by certain families who had perhaps grown up with carpets. Today, the younger generation is finding new relevance for carpets in all kinds of homes,” says Angelique Dhama, the chief executive officer of Obeetee Retail, which works with 25,000 weavers in Uttar Pradesh.
The company, which largely exports hand-knotted, hand-tufted and flat-woven carpets, is looking to cement its position in India. “All global brands are now eyeing India. It’s a good time to invest here,” says Dhama, whose company offers financial assistance for the education of weavers’ children and encourages the women to start weaving. It has also partnered with Sulabh International to build 125 toilets in the villages around the Mirzapur factory and has installed 60 solar street lights in Gopepur along a one-kilometre stretch.
The brand is in the process of opening seven experiential stores in India and is launching collections to meet the growing demand from millennials. “A lot of people during the pandemic have turned inwards and homes have become their personal sanctuaries,” she says.
It’s one of the reasons Ali Akmal Jan, a fifth-generation entrepreneur, believes his business at Carpet Kingdom, a 125-year-old brand based in Bengaluru, saw a 25% increase in sales after the lockdowns. “People want rugs that are an expression of their personality,” he says. To stand out, the brand has introduced carpets made with PET bottles and old silk saris as “things like upcycling and recycling make the younger consumer more interested”. Weavers are re-skilled to make such carpets.
Jaipur Rugs, another popular legacy brand, is also exploring the use of upcycled materials. “Besides more functional designs, we are noticing a 50% higher demand for customisation,” says Kavita Chaudhary, the brand’s design director. “People seem to be more certain about what exactly they want.”
Dhama hopes the government will pay more attention to generating awareness about the difference between hand- and machine-made carpets. “It’s important that the Indian customer knows the true culture and tradition of our country. This will help generate more work for weavers and ensure they don’t leave the work they are proud of.”
Z, too, never wanted to leave his loom. Like his parents, he hoped his children would learn the craft. “Par aap bataiye, tradition bachaye ya apne aap ko—you tell me, should I save tradition or my family?”
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