The handloom and handicrafts sector had been a major source of livelihoods in the old economy. The handloom industry was in fact among the largest employment generating sector about 50 years ago. The urban weavers known variously in different parts of the country and often forming a caste-like clan dominated the visible part of the sector.
Yet there were also a large number of part-time weavers in the countryside as well. While agriculture has been the mainstay of rural Indian economy, the dominant form of off-farm or non-farm activities in the older times were the crafts.
Again, some of these crafts were practiced by occupational groups specializing in them. These groups subsequently started being known by the caste pertaining to that occupation. Even this day, family names such as Koshti, Momin and Ansari (representing weaving occupation), Panchal (ironsmiths), Nadar (toddy tappers) have strong links with their traditional occupations in many parts of India. People of these clans specialized in their crafts.
A large proportion of farming community also practiced crafts in their free time and in the summer months. These activities mostly comprised making everyday articles from other local materials and making articles meant for giving away with the daughter at the time of her marriage, or for use in festivals. Much of the output of these craftsmen was absorbed by the local population.
Declining rural crafts
Development of roads, strong interaction with urban centers, popularization of mass electronic media, mechanization and cost advantage of manufactured products and change in tastes of rural people themselves all have combined to make rural crafts a part of history in many parts of the country now. These changes have happened insidiously but with an inexorable certitude.
The pronounced local relevance of crafts and their products had lent a strong cultural content to the products arising out of specialization in catering to local tastes and preferences, and hence, representing the local way of life. Products acquired patterns typical to the region of their origin and many of these then became quaint symbols of a vanishing heritage.
Handlooms and handicrafts thus visually represented the mosaic of our cultural diversity. This facet brought in those who sought to preserve the crafts as facets of diversity of cultures and traditions of our country for its intrinsic value, though the craft concerned itself lost its economic relevance.
The hyper- local nature of craft production and commerce has changed but the economic value has not entirely evaporated. The Khadi and Village Industries Corporation, among the leading supporters of the crafts and cottage industry of all kind, reported a thumping turnover of over Rs 74,000 crore in financial year 2018-19. However, like the other traditional sectors such as textiles, the handloom and handicrafts sector has lost out in terms of proportion to GDP, now accounting for less than 2%.
It is interesting to explore the transformation that has been occurring in the rural crafts sector. My overall sense is that those forms of crafts which catered to purely local demand and where products manufactured in modern factory sector offered cheaper options, have tended to lose. Further, those sections of the crafts sector which made products even with very high artistic content (such as bidri work) but with long shelf life of almost completely ornamental end use have shrunk hugely.
On the other hand, those crafts which could catch the fancy of a growing urban market or where replacement demand is high, or the craftsmen could adapt the products to changed needs have been able to survive. But they perhaps do not focus on culture.
The running theme in the craft sector perhaps continues to be the dilemma between cultural content and sustainability of livelihoods. We will revert to this theme again in second part of this article. As the largest craft sector is handloom, let us look at that closely.
Does the loom weave poverty?
Virtually every major region in every state had its own distinctive handwoven garments and was reputed for its patterns. Handloom workers were of both the types: those clusters of cottage industry and their eco-system that led to small urban settlements; as well as working part-time out of their homes widely scattered in rural areas.
The industry today lies in tatters despite a series of efforts. The reason? Competition from the power loom and mill sectors has pushed prices available to handloom weavers, which do not give income equal to even half the amount of official minimum wages rates reduced on per diem basis. Not only does this affect ordinary cotton handloom fabric weavers, the situation is the same even for high value silk sarees of culturally famous geo-location specific brands like Chanderi, Kanjivaram, etc.
Weavers in general tend to be vendors to saree or other garment marketers and the latter in their drive for profits hold the weavers to bondage and ransom by advancing amounts at the start of the year and making them weave sarees at non-remunerative job work rates. As a result, most weaver families are searching for alternate employment.
Keeping traditions alive
There are valiant and at times desperate attempts by several interested and soundly managed market-savvy organizations to keep traditions alive by ensuring that weavers get remunerative incomes. They match the changed market needs with the production skills of the weaver groups. Doing this is not very easy. As such, their reach is only so much.
The total employment numbers in handloom sector has come down massively: from over 6.5 million persons in 1995-96 to a little over 4.3 million in 2010. A FICCI report states that over 49% of handloom output and 65% of employment is in the North East alone, which indicates how the sector has shrunk in mainland India.
We need perhaps to spend a minute to understand why the North East has bucked the trend and continues to weave. Assam accounts for a significant proportion of handloom output and employment in the country. Here, it is practiced as a part-time activity by women of the rural households to support their cherished way of life. They need to produce own woven gamcha to affectionately gift to guests and relations and to produce the mekhela chador which women wear in Assam.
A substantial part of the output is for self-consumption and much is sold locally. But the data on decline in overall employment in the sector and overwhelming domination by Assam and North East emphatically suggests the sharp decline in other weaving centers. Elsewhere in the country, once handlooms wove joy, culture and incomes. Today. if you weave on the loom as a livelihood, it can possibly only weave poverty.
Sanjiv Phansalkar is associated closely with Transform Rural India Foundation. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Views are personal.