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India is a land of rich cultural traditions. The history of the Indian textile industry is as old as antiquity. From textiles of Indus Valley Civilisation to that of the Delhi Sultanate or the Mughal era, each showcases the diversity of Indian tradition. Be it intricate brocade from Varanasi or exquisite Kanjeevaram silk from Tamil Nadu, each handloom saree is woven meticulously, indicating the craftsmanship of the weaver.
The colonial rule was characterised by the export of raw cotton and the import of machine-based imported yarn, and a crackdown on the national handloom industry. This crippled the livelihood of spinners which was exacerbated by the introduction of power looms in the 1920s and the consolidation of mills. The launch of the Swadeshi Movement by Mahatma Gandhi encouraged the adoption of Khadi and handmade cloth as a weapon to promote self-reliance and led to the closure of mills in Manchester, marking a turning point for the handloom industry.
Post-independence, the government of India introduced several initiatives to revive the national handloom industry. The Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) was set up under the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) in 1957. The National Handloom Development Programme aims for integrated and comprehensive development of the handloom industry and aid weavers on a need-based approach through raw materials, design inputs, technological upgradation and marketing assistance. The Comprehensive Handloom Cluster Development Scheme (CHCDS) aims to build handloom clusters with 15000 looms with the help of financial assistance from the government to the tune of Rs 30 crores. Similarly, Handloom Weavers’ Comprehensive Welfare Scheme (HWCWS) provides handloom artisans with social security assistance.
The Indian textile industry promotes the vision of 'Make in India', with each state having a unique, timeless craft. Perhaps, a handloom saree displays this craft at its best and is a testament to the ingenuity of the Indian weaver. The national handloom industry not only provides livelihood to millions and is a significant attraction, boosting tourism and hospitality sectors. Let us take a look at the keyhandloom destination in India.
Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh): Under the patronage of Nawabs of Oudh, Varanasi flourished as a centre for finely woven silk sarees with exquisite brocade and zari work. A typical textile design of a Benarasi handloom saree consists of entwining floral and foliate motifs, kalga and bel, and a string of leaves known as jhallar on the outer edge of the border. These sarees are embellished with gold work, figures with minute details, mina work and jal(a net-like pattern).
Bishnupur (West Bengal): Situated in the Bankura district of West Bengal, Bishnupur has become synonymous with Baluchari silk sarees though they were first woven in Baluchar in Murshidabad. Credit goes to the then Nawab of Bengal Murshid Quli Khan for introducing the Balurachari tradition in India from Bangladesh. Earlier, the Baluchari sarees would feature pictorial depictions of the royal life, such as Nawab riding a horse and bibis smoking hukkas and were adorned with paisley motifs and box patterns. The Baluchari saree currently features three kinds of patterns – i) single-coloured silks, which consist of single-coloured threads, ii) meenakari sarees woven with several coloured threads and iii) swarnachari saree depicting motifs woven with golden or silver threads. Weaving a single Baluchari silk saree takes between 15 days to a month. It was accorded a GI tag status in 2012.
Paithan (Maharashtra): Paithan, a small town in Aurangabad, is noted for its sarees which are the epitome of the finesse of Indian handloom. A salient feature of the Paithani saree is its same look on both sides, Kath (border and Padar(pallu), marked by the liberal use of gold and peacock, parrot and lotuses as motifs. A typical six-yard saree requires 500 grams of silk threads and 250 grams of zari threads and weighs up to 900 grams. Paithani saree is an integral part of Maharashtrian culture and is a must for auspicious occasions.
Maheshwar (Madhya Pradesh): Maheshwar is a picturesque town situated about two hours from Indore. The delicate weaves of Maheshwar lend sarees their name, which was introduced about 250 years ago in the reign of Rani Ahilyabai. Maheshwar sarees are mostly handloom cotton sarees with gilded borders of zari with geometric border patterns.
Ilkal(Karnataka): Ilkah is a renowned handloom centre located in the Bagalkot district of Karnataka. A distinct feature of this Ilkal saree is the use of cotton warp on the body and silk on the pallu, which are joined together by a series of loops called the TOPE TENI technique. Ilkal sarees use Kasuti embroidery for depicting palanquins, elephants and lotuses. The fabric used is cotton, silk or a mix of both. Typical colours of an ilkal handloom saree are peacock green, parrot green and pomegranate red.
Sualkuchi (Assam): Situated on the banks of the Brahmaputra, Sualkuchi is home to the finest tea gardens and royal Muga and mulberry silk. The weaving tradition in this quaint little town traces its origin to the reign of King Dharmapala of the Pala dynasty in the 11th century. The Muga silk is found only in Assam and is noted for its durability and yellowish-golden tint. The government has also provided a push to the industry and set up a textile park in Sualkuchi.
Jaipur (Rajasthan): Jaipur, popularly referred to as Pink City, is famous for its signature bandhani work. This technique involves hand-dyeing a fabric after tying it tightly with a thread at several points. Bandhini depicts various patterns like Chandrakala, shikari, and Bavan Baug, depending on how the cloth is tied. Jaipur is also renowned for its gotta patti, kinara and zari work. Other prominent handicrafts of Jaipur include blue pottery, lac bangles and semi-precious jewellery.
Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu): Kanjeevaram sarees are primarily produced in Kanchipuram, a small village in Tamil Nadu. Woven from pure silk thread, it is a popular bride's attire in Southern India. Its weaving process involves using three shuttles wherein the body is woven separately from the pallu and then interlocked together. A salient feature of a Kanjeevaram saree is its contrasting border, different from the colour of its body with the depiction of temple borders, checks, stripes and floral patterns. The Kanjeevaram sarees woven with heavy silk and golden zari are worn during festive occasions.
Andhra Pradesh: Renowned for its handlooms, Andhra Pradesh is a renowned destination for hand-woven sarees. Some of the finest silk and cotton sarees, including Pochampalli, Venkatagiri, Gadwal, Dharamavaram and Narayanpet, are produced here. Each of them has a distinct weaving style and a particular variety of fabric. Tracing its origin to Qutub Shahi, Kalamkari art depicting flowers, birds and animals is also native to this region.
Prospects and Outlook
The handloom industry is the second-largest income-generating occupation after agriculture in India. Moreover, it has minimal power usage, low environmental concerns, and high scope for innovation. Households are the primary production unit, providing livelihood to all family members.
As of March 2021, the value of Indian handicrafts is pegged at Rs 24,300 crores. Moreover, the sector employs about 35 lakh workers, as per the Handloom Census 2019-20. The Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics estimates the value of Indian handloom exports at $343.69 million in the financial year 2019, with the US, UK, Italy, and Germany being top importers.
Though certain challenges plague the industry, such as lack of adequate credit facilities, lack of awareness of customer preferences, technological backwardness, and stiff competition from power looms and mills, a strong base of raw materials, availability of abundant labour and initiatives by the government implies that the industry is poised for a bright future.
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