Design Innovation in The Handloom Sector

          INDIAN HAND woven fabrics and handlooms have been known since time immemorial. It is said that poets of the Mughal durbar likened our muslims to baft hawa (woven air), abe rawan (running water) and shabnam (morning dew). A tale runs that Emperor Aurangzeb had a fit of rage when he one day saw his daughter, princess Zeb-un-Nissa clad in almost nothing. On being severely rebuked, the princess explained that she had not one but seven jamahs (dresses) on her body. Such was the fineness of the hand woven fabrics.

          Handlooms are an important craft product and comprise the largest cottage industry of the country. Millions of looms across the country are engaged in weaving cotton, silk and other natural fibres. There is hardly a village where weavers do not exist, each weaving out the traditional beauty of India’s own precious heritage.

          In the world of handlooms, there are Chettinads & Kanjeevarams from Tamil Nadu, Ikats, Gadwals, Uppadas, Mangalagiris & Kalamkaris from Andhra Pradesh, Tie and Dye from Gujarat, Orissa and Rajasthan, Brocades from Benaras, Paithanis from Maharasthra, Maheshwaris & Chanderis from Madhya Pradesh, Jacquards from Uttar Pradesh, Daccai & Tangail from West Bengal, and Phulkari from Punjab. Yet, despite this regional distinction there has been a great deal of technical and stylistic exchange.

          Going back to the history of handlooms, the famed Coimbatore saris were developed while imitating the Chanderi pattern of Madhya Pradesh. Daccai saris are now woven in West Bengal. The Surat Tanchoi based on a technique of satin weaving with extra weft floats that are absorbed in the fabric itself has been reproduced in Varanasi. Besides its own traditional weaves, there is hardly any style of weaving that Varanasi cannot reproduce. The Baluchar technique of plain woven fabric brocaded with untwisted silk thread, which began in Murshidabad district in West Bengal, has taken root in Varanasi. Their craftsmen have also borrowed the Jamdani technique.

          Woolen weaves are no less subtle. The Kashmiri weaver is known the world over for his Pashmina and Shahtoosh shawls. The shawls are unbelievably light and warm.

          Assam is the home of eri and muga silk. Muga is durable and its natural tones of golden yellow and rare sheen become more lustrous with every wash. The designs used in Assam, Tripura and Manipur are mostly stylized symbols, cross borders and the galaxy of stars. Assamese weavers produce beautiful designs on the borders of their mekhla, chaddar, riha (traditional garments used by the women) and gamosa (towel). It is customary in Assamese society for a young woman to weave a silk bihuan (cloth draped over the chest) for her beloved as a token of love on Bohag Bihu (New Year’s Eve).

          From Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Gujarat comes the ikats. The ikat technique in India is commonly known as patola in Gujarat, bandha in Orissa, pagdu bandhu, buddavasi and chitki in Andhra Pradesh. In the ikat tie and dye process, the designs in various colors are formed on the fabric either by the warp threads or the weft threads or by both. The threads forming the design are tied and dyed separately to bring in the desired color and the simple interlacement of the threads produces, the most intricate designs, which appear only in the finished weaving. The Orissa ikat is a much older tradition that Andhra Pradesh or Gujarat, and their more popular motifs as such are a stylized fish and the rudraksh bead. Here the color is built up thread by thread. In fact, Orissa ikat is known now as yarn tie and dye. In Andhra Pradesh, they bunch some threads together and tie and dye and they also have total freedom of design.

          Even as far as 40 years ago, handlooms were woven for the use of the local customer. Transportation & communication were very slow and this did not give a chance for weavers to travel and be exposed to the different kinds of weaving in the rest of the country. Hence, the traditional weave & craft survived due to local patrons. Kashmiri weavers wove Pashmina shawls and carpets which were (and still are) required for the cold weather conditions of the state almost throughout the year. Similarly, Kerala, which is lush green all year round, had white predominating in all hand-woven fabric. On the other hand, Rajasthan & Gujarat compensated for the lack of colour in their landscape by weaving the most colourful fabric and then printing or dyeing it to add to the allure.

          Times have changed now. With a revolution in all the means of communication & computers available to the weavers & their families, weavers in remote villages know what is in vogue and change their designs & colour schemes as per the market requirement. Designers working with weavers do a colour forecast and get them to weave the colours of the season. You now find chikankari on every conceivable fabric – Mangalagiris, Chanderis, Bengal cottons & Maheshwaris to name a few. Madhubani artists beautify Tussar & Cotton sarees and dupattas with their paintings. They can be found on bedcovers too!

          Embroidery and hand block printing, which till recently, were seen only in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka & West Bengal have come in to focus. They have become more visible now and add style to traditional fabrics. Maheshwari Sarees, Dupattas & Yardage look even more alluring with prints on them. Kasuti embroidery adds elegance to almost all kinds of Sarees – Cottons, Polycots, Silks & Tussars, Kalamkari, and both the hand painted & blocks print variety, has become very popular. It is used on products as diverse as garments to handbags, lampshades, dhurries to desktop items.

          Bandhni from Gujarat is seen on Paithanis & Kotas. Kalamkari motifs are appliquéd on to Kanjeevaram silks and cholies. The combinations are innumerable. Design innovation is required to keep alive the handloom industry. Value addition is the name of the game. Customers now want something new everytime they go out shopping. It is this need that the weavers are addressing and cashing in on.

          Apart from providing the weaver with a regular income, design innovation has brought many skilled artisans together to conceptualize & create new products. Thus are born sarees woven in Karaikudi (famous for the Chettinads) with pallus hand painted by award winning Kalamkari artists of Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh. It has helped weavers & artisans hone their skills and give the end customer a highly stylish, yet traditional, product. This has been well received in the Indian market as well as abroad.

Author: Sudipta Kumar Sarkar

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