A new wave of craft revivals is allowing India’s fashion professionals to raise awareness of the country’s traditional artistry
Since at least the 16th century, women in the Himalayas have been weaving the down of the Changthangi and malra goats into pashmina. The superfine cashmere — its fibres measure a mere 12-15mm in diameter — makes for lightweight scarves and stoles that were prized by royalty and were an impressive addition to a wealthy woman’s dowry in India, Pakistan and Nepal. Thanks to the recent efforts of an Indian civil servant and his wife pashmina could soon become more widely available.
We wanted the artisan association to be an example of an independent sustainable institution owned and managed by rural women.
Abhilasha Bahuguna explains how her husband, Prasanna Ramaswamy G., encountered the fine woollen garments on a work trip during his time as deputy commissioner (administrator) of the mountain district of Leh in 2015. The villagers knitting the fabric were either housewives or worked as manual labourers building roads across the wider region of Ladakh, which borders Tibet in Kashmir. “It struck him that the village women had no real market apart from the tiny local population,” Bahuguna says, explaining how they explored the idea of a decentralised production model with unified design and marketing.
“We came up with the idea of creating a cooperative, which would be owned by the local weaver women (pictured right), who anyway had access to the best raw materials sourced locally from nomads and frontier livestock rearing communities of Ladakh,” says Bahuguna, who says her work as a pro-bono strategist focuses on securing equipment, grants, training and partnerships with fashion designers and design students and social media work.
Today, the cooperative, run by elected artisan office bearers, embraces some 150 permanent and 100 temporary members across seven villages in Ladakh. “We wanted the artisan association to be an example of an independent sustainable institution owned and managed by rural women,” she says, and the next step is to take the label to international markets.
Revival of craft
Looms of Ladakh is at the forefront of a new wave of craft revivals across India’s textile industry as an increasing number of Indian fashion professionals use their trade to raise awareness of traditional artistry while improving access to employment for large swathes of society. The idea was first proposed nearly a century ago, when Mahatma Gandhi promoted hand-spun fabrics such as khadi for rural self-employment and economic independence. But even as international fast fashion brands have made their way to India’s spanking new malls in the decades since liberalisation, it has taken new consumers, a global hipster-led resurgence of all things olde worlde, government incentives and a rising awareness of the impact of our consumption choices for most Indian designers to consult the country’s rich crafts library.
“In India, more than anywhere else in the world, there is quite a large understanding of craft mostly because for 50 years we were really not allowed to import anything, so the swamping of the Indian continent with synthetics and imported Chinese goods was held off for a very long time,” says Ritu Kumar, perhaps India’s pre-eminent fashion designer and the industry’s earliest champion of natural fabrics and traditional printing and weaving techniques. “I think that an Indian looks at crafts with a great deal of pride and identity. We should be proud of India to be perhaps the only country where hand-skills still survive. These need to be conserved for the future and because they are sustainable and do not pollute the environment at all.”
One of the country’s first designers to open stores overseas, Kumar began her career some 50 years ago with two block printers in West Bengal’s Serampore district, using cuttings from the Victoria and Albert museum in London because there were barely any local archives available and the industry had been virtually killed off by colonial policies. Around the same time, the American entrepreneur John Bissel launched Fabindia in New Delhi. From one store selling home furnishings, the brand now has more than 250 outlets worldwide and provides employment to 55,000 rural tradespeople. More recently, Mumbai-based Anita Dongre, whose labels span couture and the high street, adopted the village of Charoti in Maharashtra, providing employment to over 100 women, while Woolmark winner Rahul Mishra convinced 300 embroidery craftsmen to return home to their villages in West Bengal from Mumbai’s slums by guaranteeing them the same income they earned in the city.
Some of this interest has come via government initiatives, such as Make in India, launched in 2014, and aimed at boosting the country’s manufacturing sector, and the textile ministry’s championing of Indian handlooms and the people behind them. Over the past year, the ministry has turned the spotlight on the sector with a series of events. In January alone, three designers and 13 master artisans were awarded for their achievements, eight designers showcased handwork-heavy collections and a farm-to-fashion at the annual textile conclave sought to bring textile stakeholders on to one platform and design an industry road map for the future. And in July, the Indian budget announced a social welfare stock exchange, details of which are yet to be revealed.
About 16 million craftspeople work in India’s textile trade, Kumar says. Overall, the labour-intensive industry employs about 52 million people directly and 68 million indirectly, and accounts for about 13 per cent of total exports, according to official data.
“Awareness [of India’s crafts] has certainly grown and people are going towards nature and organic products,” says Udaipur-based Alka Sharma. She has been working with traditional artisans since 1999 to revive Rajasthani dabu mud-resist prints. Using the skills of about 100 permanent employees and 200 other suppliers, her zero-waste label Aavaran retails contemporary clothing, accessories and home furnishings in India and overseas, to clients in the US, UK, Japan, Korea, Italy and Australia. The next step, she says, is launching an upmarket line of festive wear, Aavaran Classic, to be presented on Sustainable Day at the upcoming edition of Lakme India Fashion Week.
She feels more government support by way of tax rebates, easier credit facilities and marketing and distribution help could benefit the sector. “There are some existing schemes, however the execution can be improved.”
Kumar agrees. “The government has its heart in the right place, but I think its effectiveness could improve by facilitating the growth of online platforms that allow craftspeople to retail directly to end consumers, in which case it will be much easier for the craftsperson and their craft to survive,” she says.
“The government has a very good intention towards this. It has been relaxed about subsidies, giving tax benefits, etc and if it continues doing so in a more progressive way for the next generation, it will make a difference.”
But how do you revive a dying art?
Tracking down and reviving a dying art form requires time, energy and deep pockets. “It was like finding a needle in a haystack,” says Delhi-based Nida Mahmood, who has earned a reputation for her kitschy, pop-art designs (pictured). She spent months tracking down the artists who painted the giant banners advertising Bollywood films for a 2010 collection of clothes, furniture and household items.
“Most of the original poster painters had passed away,” she says. “The art was long gone and the artists who were alive were old and ailing and didn’t want to talk about it. The families didn’t want to talk about how their fathers had lost their livelihoods to digitisation and didn’t want us to rake up wounds of a very bitter past.”
It took the establishment of a corpus for their families before she was able to get the artists to paint the items, each of which was finished with a personalised biographical tag of the artist, complete with details of the time spent on making each piece. Several fashion shows followed, with the items snapped up by buyers across the country.
Mahmood has no record of the total number of pieces made, but says she felt well rewarded in “every conceivable manner. My purpose was to not let the art die and I’m proud that our efforts paid off, and the ripples reached far and wide.”