Finding continued joy in India’s handlooms

The pandemic that has ravaged the world continues unabated, only waxing and waning from time to time. Human beings are trying to muster their inner reserves of resilience to counter every difficulty. People have been made aware of the difficulties faced by migrant labour, contractual workers, and closed businesses at one end and overworked medical personnel at another. Amongst these are a vast number of handloom weavers who have struggled on silently. However, despite their difficulties, we have important lessons to learn from them.


Throughout the past 18 months many people working in the handicraft and handloom sector have kept in regular contact with individual families and groups to enquire about whether they had received their rations, was anyone in the family sick, whether they had orders to fulfil or were they cancelled, did they have ready stocks that could be put on e-commerce websites, did they have raw material for production, and how were they keeping work going. The answers were varied, some sad but still hopeful. The most interesting factor in what we found was their optimism and tone of resilience.


We began to help them earn in these difficult times by suggesting they divert their fabrics if not too costly, towards producing masks. If one has to match supply with demand, it was obvious that everyone had to buy masks. Once the Honourable Prime Minister announced and demonstrated that even a simple cotton gamchha could serve as a mask, it became easy to produce a large variety of attractive handloom masks from all over India. If a medical mask was required, people could wear two, one surgical one underneath and the other a unique handloom one to be distinctive and fashionable. We made an attractive PDF of a range of masks made by handloom and other handcrafted textile craftspeople from many states. This was unique, interesting and captured the market early, so our PDF was shared by viewers on Facebook, Instagram and e-mail all over India and even Singapore, UK , USA and France. In less than 6 months we were able to facilitate a sale of Rs 7-8 lakhs worth of masks. Many others picked up the idea and started making brocade masks for weddings and other special occasions! Nobody would have thought that handloom weavers could serve such a need.


A very interesting story was that of Gajam Govardhan, an award-winning ikat weaver from Telangana. When I spoke to him, he said he had made thousands of masks with plain handloom fabric he had in stock and distributed them free to the entire local police force. He received a certificate of gratitude from the Police Commissioner. We can certainly learn from such strength and spirit of sharing.


In many rural areas, the answers both craftspeople and weavers usually gave were, “ We are alright Didi. We usually store rations for long periods for our joint families, we don’t not live very close to each other but we are always helping each other in everything.” We can learn from this community spirit of co-operation from our skilled and simple craftspeople.  


Of course, many of them have also suffered cancellation of orders, lack of crafts bazaars and exhibitions and the inadequacy of online platforms that lack human engagement which is the heart and soul of marketing. Over the years, statistics have shown varying figures of how the numbers engaged in handloom have diminished. There are many reasons like changes in lifestyle and clothing, spread of powerlooms and their imitation of handlooms, non-availability of raw material, loss of labour who do not want to work at difficult techniques of weaving.  We cannot always lay the blame exclusively on the government, especially when multiple kinds of market forces take over. However, there are some things the weaver/seller can do. He/she can honestly declare which items are handloom and which are powerloom, because many weavers produce both. They should be able to educate the customer on the differences and specialities of the production process and design. The customer, that is, us, must be interested in education ourselves about these. To celebrate handloom day, joyfully, not just for ourselves but to make the day joyful for them, we have to re-dedicate ourselves stock our wardrobes with planet-friendly, employment friendly non-synthetic hand woven cloth. We must dedicate ourselves to sustaining our cultural heritage, not just because of the resilience of the handloom weaver but because we believe in the traditional skills and aesthetics of our country and are an equal part of its development process.


Whether we celebrate Yoga Day, Women’s Empowerment Day or Handloom Day, it can never just be for one day alone. It must be followed and practiced as a matter of habit and belief. Handlooms can be worn as regularly and naturally as an outer skin and a proud badge of identity of our Indian ness. It is only when the joy of making and the joy or wearing come together can our collaboration and community spirit be a truly joyful one.

 Jaya Jaitly

Founder and President

Dastkari Haat Samiti