The story behind Maheshwari handlooms being exhibited in the city next week

This is the story of tradition persisting, even growing. The story of how old fabric changes to keep in touch with new times. The story of handloom weaving in Maheshwar, India.

How does a Stanford graduate end up working with handloom weavers in Maheshwar, a fortress town on the banks of central India's Narmada River?

If you're the son of the last Maharajah of Indore, capital of the erstwhile princely state where Maheshwar is located, it can actually make sense.

Richard Shivaji Rao Holkar married his classmate, Sally Budd, while still an undergraduate. The couple moved back to India after graduation, and worked as photojournalists, and wrote a book on royal Indian cuisine ("Cooking of the Maharajahs," Viking 1975).

How it started

A chance encounter with some weavers during a visit to Maheshwar in 1976 led to the creation of Rehwa Society, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to promote Maheshwar's handlooms and ensure a decent life for its weavers.

Handloom weaving has an ancient history in Maheshwar, dating back some 1,500 years. The current tradition was patronised by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar, who ruled in Maheshwar between 1765 and 1795.

The weavers prospered for two centuries, supported by the royal families, who gifted these fine textiles to famous people throughout the land.

With the coming of Indian independence in 1947, the royal patronage ended, and the weavers were unable to find new markets. As a result, quality slipped and incomes fell.

This was the situation amongst Maheshwar's weavers when that chance encounter occurred on the steps of the Ahilya fort. "My in-laws were visiting," Holkar recalls, "and we were walking down toward Narmada River when three weavers approached us.

"?Maharajah!' the oldest of the three called out. ?Your family has always helped us in times of adversity. Today, our children no longer wish to learn our craft, and our brother weavers are leaving their homes on the banks of mother Narmada to find work in the filthy slums of Bhivandi and Surat'."

The Holkar's received a grant of $10,000 (about Dh37,000) to help women weavers, and founded the Rehwa Society in 1978, with just 8 women weavers. Women had always been skilled weavers, spending long hours on the loom when their husbands were away from the house.

There was no question of their being paid. Income put directly into the hands of women weavers is used for the families' welfare.

"We started with 8 women weavers, earning on their own for the first time," Holkar explains. "BORDA, a German organisation, and later the EEC, entered into partnership with Rehwa. We generated funds through the sale of our textiles, and they matched funds with us.

"This allowed us to start a school, and built forty family dwellings, each with room for a loom. Weavers occupied them as soon as they were built and paid for them over the years out of their weaving incomes.

"A health scheme came into being in 1988. Rehwa supports these projects in the sale of textiles in cities throughout India."


Through hard work and good fortune, Rehwa had been successful. Migration has been reversed.

The Maheshwari sari used to be sought after largely by traditional clients; today it is popular all over India. The initial 8 weavers have grown to over hundred, and there are more than thousand weavers in the town.

As many as 221 children attended Ahilya School, and Rehwa's health scheme has over 500 beneficiaries. The funding from the EEC has ended, and today Rehwa supports these programmes through sales proceeds.

The high quality of the Maheshwari textile is in demand throughout India and abroad. New products such as shawls and stoles using blends of fine wool and silk, and textiles for home furnishings - table linen, blinds and duvet covers - are under development at Rehwa.

Today, faced with competition, Rehwa is at a disadvantage in cost due its school and heath programmes which are now wholly supported by the sale of Rehwa textiles.

Rehwa is looking for alternative sources of funds for the school and health programmes, so that these costs do not price its textiles out of the market.

New markets are being explored, as part of an effort to keep Rehwa's activities alive.