Whilst our economies expanded, wealth accumulated and consumption picked up, handlooms across the countries have not prospered correspondingly. Instead, weavers’ woes continue, often for bare existence. It is striking as the last decade has seen surge in local – national – global supply chains which seemingly missed out the handlooms. Especially, digital technologies significantly improved cost-effectiveness and opened up vast online space which could have altered protection and promotion of handloom heritage, products.
Across glitzy stores, boutiques or the high streets – be it in South Asia or beyond - handloom is admired as ‘high-end fashion’. We are awed by the creations. While that is so promising, ‘consumers’ stare at the price tag and a parallel is often drawn between the hand-stitched or woven textiles vis-à-vis their mill-made, mass market peers. That comes out starkly in the case of South Asian women’s celebrated attire, the saree!
Is this an expression of morphed reductionist, consumerist preference? Is that a function of asymmetric knowledge i.e. being unaware of or indifferent to the risks, costs, uniqueness? Or just a rational (?!) expression of our price-conscious consumer psyche?
Above all, a moot question ought to be: how much do we truly value ‘handicraft/hand-loom’ craftsmanship, associated heritage, across the generations?
Consider a jamdani saree. Every piece of jamdani is unique and often passed down generations of women in a family. A recognised world cultural – textile heritage from Bangladesh, jamdani-weaving is confined to a handful of villages around the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka. A moderate quality jamdani saree could take four to eight weeks to weave, for a single or pair of weavers at a loom. However, as one breaks down the amount of time – labour – capital invested, it would come out a negligible sum actually accounts for the actual labour of the weavers!
Let’s also factor in the enormous risks and uncertainty that a weaver or the entrepreneur takes, most often with minimal support. It is not uncommon to trace a weaver left to the mercy of the exorbitantly high-interest charging informal moneylenders.
Seems, we may value, but may not be ready to ‘pay’ its ‘price’. Handlooms face a value ⬄ price dichotomy. Any consideration of the future of handlooms, would call for re-thinking the prevailing ‘market’ where handloom products surface: are the handlooms to compete with at par with sweeping consumerism? How do we ‘price’ the innovation, designs that the weavers ceaselessly churn out? Can there be a meeting point in-between: how can we get the ‘economics for handlooms’ right for the weavers?
Design is the DNA of a handloom. The weavers or craftsmen are the constant harbinger of unique design heritage. Yet, thanks to crass consumerism, so often the designs mellow in the market milieu, unnoticed.
In 2005, I popped into a Saree store in Bangalore to pick up a traditional Bangalore silk-print saree. As I sifted through a pile of uniquely designed sarees, I noted a buyer who was busy picking up a bundle of around thirty sarees. I looked at the salesmen and expected them to rejoice at such a substantial sale. To my bewilderment, they said, such men actually represent large textile mills in western India. They come to pick up the sarees, essentially as samples for their mills! Back to their mills, they then churn out thousands of meters of a ‘design’, as cheap synthetic fabric saree! A priceless design thus suddenly gets lost to mass market, too cheap -- much to the weaver’s peril.
This should not be something uncommon. As much as we cry for legal protection, handloom designs face certain inherent limits on-the-ground, in enforcement of legal provisions. So, how do we protect? Or promote?
Today, we have so much technology to protect, to preserve design heritage, to check handloom from uneven competition. In the times of artificial intelligence or block chain, can entrepreneurs or handloom-enthusiasts come up with some model or modality to creatively disrupt mass-market intrusions?
We also need to understand the environment in which handlooms and weavers have grown, thrived, sustained over the centuries, that is, informal economy. It is regarded inevitable, organic, a part of heritage to overall handlooms eco-system, across communities, in saree-weaving. In that informal economic setting, it is also that women and girls engage and contribute significantly. However, conventional structures – systems – institutions fail to appreciate or value the flexibility or sensitivity with which to appreciate the inter-linkages or intricacies catering to living and livelihoods of weavers and craftsmanship. While one cannot – and would not – expect an overwhelming state footprint in protection and promotion of handlooms, a critical role and understanding of public sector actors is necessary.
There is another conundrum facing scale of handloom. It is not uncommon for markets to ask for volume of handloom goods, be it in terms of demand from brands in the West or retailers serving the towns and cities. Yet handlooms are unlikely to match the ‘scale’ and concomitant norms of homogenised standards from the demand side. That is a substantial reason why much of magical creations from the handlooms cannot make it to the windows or high streets in Amsterdam, Milan, London or New York.
In a globalised world, as handloom is under growing stress, we must not shy away from embarking on course correction.
First, let’s get economics for handloom right, comprehensively and at every stage.
Second, let’s form a rainbow coalition, with champions for handloom, with parliamentarians, media influencers, sports and cultural icons.
Third, philanthropies, lifestyle magazines et al be called upon to stand up, in a national - global coalition to lend their support and voice for handloom, especially to innovatively minimise risks across production chains.
Fourth, a pro-active global platform/institution should emerge to set the narrative for handloom heritage right, to champion handloom as a ‘global common’.
Fifth, ponder: in emerging circular economy and expanding creative economy, how do we secure and position our handloom, strategically?
Every society needs to firmly project its handloom as their pride, their heritage.
* M Riaz Hamidullah is Bangladesh Ambassador to The Netherlands. His Twitter handle is: @hamidullah_riaz