“I speak the language of weaving,” said Archana Shah, the only time I heard a hint of pride in her voice during the nearly hour-long interview. “The weaver and I may not speak the same language, but we get along immediately because they quickly realize that I understand their work.”
An alumnus of India’s prestigious National Institute of Design (NID), Shah developed a keen interest in the traditional craft skills of indigenous artisans and traveled across India to the most remote corners to learn from them. more on the techniques of weaving, dyeing, printing, embroidery and ornamentation. practiced by different communities.
Shah has launched her own clothing line, Bandhej, which focuses on traditional textile skills and offers a range of handcrafted eco-friendly clothing for women. In 1985, she opened her first store. In 2013, Shah published her first book, Shifting Sands, Kutch: A Land in Transition. The book is the result of her travels through Kutch, an association since 1976 with the land, the people and their textiles.
She is a great traveler even today. Her latest book, “Crafting A Future – Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices” (published by Niyogi Books) is the result of her extensive travels across the country to demonstrate the diversity and true value of India’s artisanal textile processes. . .
Padma Shri Laila Tyabji, social worker, designer, writer and crafts activist and one of the founders of Dastkar, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization working for the revival of traditional crafts in India, writes in her foreword to the book – “This is a scholarly book, not just a conversation starter, but it’s also a captivating travelogue… The common thread of the book is her. [Shah’s] a deep love and understanding of our textiles and the people who make them, and the incredible diversity and splendor of the sector.
In a recent interview, Shah spoke about her travel program, women in the handloom industry, sustainable practices, and how the handloom industry can be revived.
‘Crafting A Future’ covers not only most states of India but also remote corners and little-known crafts. How did you manage to manage this project with your other schedules?
I traveled for over two years for this book.
Since the 1990s there has been a buzz that the younger generation was not interested in continuing the family tradition of hand weaving because it was not a lucrative business. They were educated and wanted to do better. If a hand weaver does not earn at least the prescribed minimum wage, why will he continue? Some even pointed out that an unskilled worker in the construction industry earned much more than a hand weaver.
So I thought I should travel around the country, talk to the weavers and see for myself, learn more about their aspirations. Find out if they wanted to continue in this profession.
I traveled off the beaten track, I stepped out of my comfort zone so to speak. And I traveled with an open mind. I would spend half the month traveling. No matter how far away from the craft center, I traveled with plenty of free time. Wherever I found something interesting, I wanted to spend enough time to sit down and have a long talk with them. Understand their situation, even share their meals. For them, it’s not just textiles, it’s a way of life. If you have a tight schedule, these things are sometimes not possible.
Then COVID-19 arrived. It gave me time to reflect and understand all that I had learned. It gave me time to write the book.
What have you learned from your travels? Did the younger generation really want to move?
I have been working in this field for almost 40 years now. I found that the younger generation realized the value of legacy. It is also easy to talk to them. They are educated and therefore open to ideas.
Is the manual weaving sector dominated by men? Have you seen women take a leading role?
Generally, spinning is done by women. In India’s seven sister states in northeastern India, it is women who work the looms. But in general, for the rest of the country, traditionally, men work at the looms. For some hand looms, where complex work is required, for example for Jamdani or Patola, I have seen couples working together on the loom. Some areas may have women working on the looms, as I found in Kota. But generally it is men who work in trades.
But during my trip, I noticed some changes. Today, many women ask to be paid for the work they do. The logic being that if weavers paid a third party to work for them – say making bobbins – then they could pay women to do the same work.
Let me tell an interesting story here. During my first visits to Kutch, I never saw a woman working on the loom. Shyamji, a weaver I worked with for many years, this time took me to a village in Kutch where he said there were 200 looms at work. The number itself was a surprise. And when I went there, I found a young woman working on the looms. I could see they appreciated the empowerment. In fact, they are young men that I found hanging out.
Can you tell us about the sustainable practices that have impressed you?
I had been to Meghalaya to visit a village where people were known to make and use natural dyes. One of the women told an interesting story that will highlight the return of sustainable practices.
Weavers traditionally used natural dyes. But a few years ago, government officials advised them to use chemical dyes that would help expand their color palette and create more interesting designs. The weavers were happy for this chance to increase their income. So they accepted and quickly received their stock of chemical dyes. However, they were not instructed in the use of gloves and protective equipment. Soon the women working with the tinctures began to complain of itchy palms, a burning sensation. They realized that the chemical dyes were toxic in nature. They also realized that toxic water was leaking into vegetable gardens, which most homes in these areas are known to have. The vegetables were also becoming poisonous. So they decided to go back to their old ways of making natural dyes.
Craftsmen learn quickly. They have now learned to standardize natural dyes and also expand the color palette.
Or take the case of Ajrakhpur in Gujarat. After the village of Dhamadka was heavily damaged in the 2001 earthquake, the villagers were rehabilitated in Ajrakhpur. [The place takes its name from the block printing traditionally done by the artisans here, which is known as ‘ajrakh’. ] Craftsmen had long used naphthol-based dyes. But after a few people in the village, including Ismail Khatri, who got his doctorate for his understanding of the craft, got cancer, people got worried. They realized that naphthol-based dyes were not good for their health. So finally they decided to go back to natural dyes. Some of them already knew it, others learned the process. They even built stepped tubs to ensure the flow of water to wash their printed textiles. The water is so clean that it is used to water crop fields.
Do Indian fashion designers use Indian hand loom in their work?
If you consider that the number of loom artisans in the country is 30 million, then how big is the fashion design community? A handful. So they can’t do much. But what they have managed to do is to draw people’s attention to Indian looms. So there is a lot of talk about Indian looms now. It’s a big role that the design community has played.
What do you think needs to be done to turn around the loom sector?
One of the design challenges is that not all artisans have the same skills. A Jamdani artisan is very highly skilled. But not someone who makes plain cotton fabrics. The challenge, therefore, is to design useful products that craftsmen can make based on their craftsmanship.
We need to make sure that handcrafted fabrics have excellent tactile feel and unique quality, which power loom products cannot easily replicate.
We must understand that a craft product must be interesting enough to attract the consumer. The handloom industry, if managed properly, can generate millions of dignified work opportunities, and sometimes even eliminate the need for a large industry. But the consumer will not buy a product because you create jobs. They will buy it because they like it. It is therefore necessary to ensure that the fabrics are special and of good quality to justify the minor price difference between mechanized production and unique and handcrafted textiles.
We have to build stories – real stories – around the products. It can be how the products are environmentally friendly or how the production process has a low carbon footprint, etc. People will then appreciate the product and feel compelled to buy it.
Our readers are avid travellers. How can they help revive the loom sector?
Buy more looms. Indian textiles have been admired across the world over generations. Most museums around the world feature Indian textiles and we are fortunate our artisans continue to have the skills to recreate these heritage textiles as well as create contemporary textiles for varied markets. There is hardly any place that does not have its own typical loom. Each region offers its own unique textile techniques and skills, patterns, patterns, fibers and fabrics. Thus, travelers can buy these products, or even visit the art centers. Here, too, stories about the specialty of regional handlooms can be created so that anyone visiting the region will want to own at least a piece of the product.