India and her Handlooms

Indian handloom industry saw a reduction in 30% of its trade in the year 2020. This means that the already struggling industry will see further cut in costs. There is an urgent need to innovate new ways to market the goods it produces. The modern state of India still has one of the largest employed workforce in the textile sector, and a large part of it is the handloom industry – which is mostly worked in by the artisans who are either poor or are working hard to preserve their traditional way of manufacturing clothes and designs. For India presents a rainbow in manufacturing methods – right from the famous Benarasi Saree to the now almost extinct methods of making silk and woolen garments in the remote hills of Ladakh and Kashmir.

Cotton has been cultivated in the Indian subcontinent for over 3000 years. And that is probably also the age of a rich tradition of fabric making. With the advent of the bronze age through the influx of Greco-Roman, Mongol, Iranian, Vedic and Afghan cultures into the modern age of Mughals, Marathas, British and later the republic of India and her neighbours – the Indian textile industry has seen a plethora of changes and demand.

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From dhotis and sarees to kurtas and Salwars – India has seen a plethora of changes in its clothing culture.
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Handloom has a great symbolic importance to India. For it was the first Industry that stood as a symbol of self-reliance during the British Raj resistance period, a rhetoric the current Indian Prime Minister used in his Atmanirbhar Bharat campaign. After all, if it were not for Indian fabric – the famed Muslins and Pashminas and Indian spices – the British would have had to search for other reasons to come and settle in a land so very far away from their motherland.

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Gandhi used handloom as a symbol of self reliance

7th August marks the National Handloom day – a day dedicated to an industry that is rapidly finding itself in a stage where only the ones who are super-nationalist and the rich opting for it. Handloom products are often costly than the cheap produce of the machines that invaded the textile industry 200 years ago, effectively ushering in the Industrial Revolution in the 17th century England.

Back to India, here is a list of some famous Indian handloom industries and the cities in which they are concentrated.

  1. Varanasi – The famed Banaras Silk sari is the prized possession of many north Indian women as that is the standard sari of the bride in marriages in households that can afford them. And yet, the Benarasi artists are increasingly been replaced by machines that are producing cheaper saris though with reduced finesse. To add to it is the Zamdani works on cotton fabric, quite endemic to the city.
  2. Jaipur – Jaipur and its handloom industry have the royal family of Jaipur as its patrons. There are establishments and shops that were opened by the last Rajmata of the city, Gayatri Deviji to promote local industries. To add to that is the already existing tradition of Bandhni, Zari and Patti works.
  3. Surat – One of the oldest textile industries that were spotted and used by the local rulers and the British alike. The silk industry in Surat is one of the largest of its kind in the country.
  4. Kota – The tuition capital of the country is also home to the Kota Doria, Gotta Patti and the Kota weave artisans.
  5. Lucknow – The city has an industry that keeps alive the times when nawabs ruled over the city of Lucknow, the then capital of the Awadh state. Most famous of its local weaves is the Chikankari work.
  6. Bhadohi – The small town is only 40km from Varanasi and has been the centre of Indo-Persian carpet work since the era of the Mughal Emperor Akbar and has the largest carpet making industry in the country.

Well, there are many more of such cities and villages when one researches about them. Many of the ingenious art forms that are involved in making clothes are dying with less than 50 families left that carry forward the tradition. The sad part – machines cannot replicate that finesse. Such is the case of the wool and silk industry in the Gharwal and Kashmir valleys.

After the pandemic or even during it, let us and our government support this remnant of our history, our art, our tradition and a symbol of first instance of our modern industrial self reliance.