Indian fabrics have been a common thread running through the tapestry of world history since ancient times. From the soldiers of Alexander the Great, who fell in love with Indian cotton garments, to the importance of cotton and indigo to Roman trade routes across the Mediterranean, textiles served as a timeless ambassador of rich cultural traditions and various from India. The Portuguese trade route spread them further into Europe, while the subsequent popularity of Chintz forced countries like France and England to enact laws to restrict their imports.
While leading India’s liberation movement, Mahatma Gandhi believed that the spinning wheel represented hope for the oppressed masses and symbolized their struggle for liberation. He touted the “The Khadi spiritand urged Indians to reject British-made textiles and weave their own fabric. In 1917 he also led a historic demonstration against British rulers by the farmers of Champaranforced to cultivate Indigo rather than food crops, fundamental for their subsistence.
Today, India’s hand-woven and hand-spun fabrics and master craftsmen find themselves at an existential crossroads, facing the obsolescence of electric looms and mass production, while urbanization threatens the means of pastoral livelihoods and discourages the next generation from carrying on the tradition. This is what makes Archana Shah’s book Shaping a future: stories of Indian textiles and sustainable practices (Niyogi Books, 2021) timely intervention. Shah, a practitioner who has spent four decades working closely with artisans across India, molds an appreciation for artisan fabrics with modern designs.
This informative book takes the reader through the history of some of the most familiar Indian fabrics, generally categorized into three sections: cotton, silk and wool. Shah examines the skill, creativity and meticulous process involved in making them and highlights how these textiles are intertwined with the social life of the communities that create them. In many cases, textile production also reflects an interdependence between various communities that enriches the Indian cultural fabric. When it comes to banarasi saris – the luxurious Varanasi silk brocades characterized by raised designs in gold and silver, which remain bridal wear favorites to this day – the weavers are mostly Muslim while the raw material suppliers, traders and patrons are primarily Hindus, in what has been a symbiotic relationship for generations.
The book also provides enlightening thoughts on how modern consumers around the world can make more informed and environmentally friendly choices – for example, Eri silk fabrics are produced without killing silkworms, pashminas made handmade may come from nomadic cattle in Ladakh (as opposed to cheaper mechanical fabrics). pashmina produced, in which nylon is added and the manufacturing process damages the natural texture and luster of the pashmina), and synthetic dyes can be replaced with natural indigo, the color of which is more subtle and unique than the version synthetic.
While her study is updated with the experiences she had during her trip through India from 2018 to early 2020, it also draws on the wisdom she has accumulated over the years of collaboration with artisans across the country. The book is lavishly illustrated with images of communities at work, as well as the fabrics themselves and modern designs. It also raises many pertinent socio-economic questions: how to restore a sense of dignity to the work of the rural artisan; how can we enable them to extract more value, which makes the occupation sustainable; and how do we engage the next generation of makers and patrons in pursuing the enduring appeal of craftsmanship? On a deeper level, the book is a clarion call against the harmful effects of “ordinary” consumerism and for the urgent need to support artisanal and eco-friendly indigenous fabrics.
Shaping a future: stories of Indian textiles and sustainable practices by Archana Shah (2021) is published by Niyogi Books and is available online.