Silence of the looms: Social enterprises look for ways to revive the handloom sector post lockdown

In 2001, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Kutch, Dastkar, the nationally-recognised society for crafts, created the Artisan Support Fund to help weavers and craftspeople rebuild their homes and livelihood. Nearly two decades later, Dastkar (http://dastkar.org/) has revived its Artisan Support Fund and has appealed for help. As COVID-19 cases surged in India and lockdown was enforced, work came to a standstill for weaving and craft communities.

In many regions, new orders are likely only after the existing stock in stores and e-commerce sites are cleared, which will happen gradually after restrictions are eased. In several clusters, supply of raw materials such as cotton has taken a beating. Along with weavers, the spinners, dyers, printers and embroiderers are all out of work. Most of them are daily or weekly wage earners.

Enterprises working with artisans have been raising funds and mobilising essential supplies. However, these are intermittent measures. The organisations state that long-term solutions are necessary to revive the handloom sector.

Pre-book orders

Sudha Rani of Abhihaara Social Enterprise in Hyderabad has pending stock worth more than ₹15 lakh. She liaises with weavers in Narayanpet, Pochampally and Gadwal and had commissioned saris for an exhibition in Delhi, a spring-summer event in Hyderabad and summer weddings. “How will I pay weavers and craftspeople? It’s going to take time for sales to pick up. Even when the lockdown is lifted, saris and garments are not going to be on priority shopping lists for many consumers,” she says.

On Instagram (@abhihaara) and on WhatsApp, Abhihaara has requested handloom patrons to pre-book saris that can be shipped once restrictions are lifted. “Sixty women have pre-booked so far. Regular customers are willing to pay the full amount, for the others we charge 50%. We are not accepting international orders because we are unsure how things would go,” says Sudha.

The story is similar in other regions of India. Himachal-based social enterprise The Color Caravan (@thecolorcaravan on Instagram) is accepting bookings for artisanal knit products made by rural women. Swati Seth, the founder, hopes to get work orders for the women: “In many households, the husbands who are employed in resorts or ply cabs have no work since tourism has paused in the hills,” she says.

Stepping up the effort

  • Fashion Design Council of India (fdci.org) has announced a COVID-19 support fund to help small firms.
  • Anita Dongre announced a medical fund of ₹1.5 crore to support the fashion house’s smaller vendors, self-employed artisans, and partners. The label has also begun manufacturing masks in the rural clusters of Charoti and Dhanaveri in Maharashtra. Around 7,000 masks will be made each week for distribution to NGOs, village residents, individuals, and to hospitals on demand.
  • Obeetee, the hand-woven carpet label that works with 25,000 weavers and designers in Mirzapur, has been raising funds and distributing essentials for its weavers.

Cotton Rack (cottonrack.com), founded by Vinayak and Rameshwari, works with weavers in West Bengal and Jammu and Kashmir. When the firm announced discounts of 15% and 30% to sell its existing stock, a few regular customers opted not to use the discount code and pay the full price, to help weavers. Vinayak points out that in cities recording high number of COVID-19 cases, like Jaipur where he is based, a longer lockdown is likely: “Weavers in rural areas might be free to work, but how do I send them the yarn? We need to look at ways to maintain the work flow for weavers and to sustain our small business,” he says.

Need for State intervention

In Madhya Pradesh’s Maheshwar, the textile region known for its gossamer silk-cotton weaves, the artisans spend the scorching summer months producing saris, fabrics and accessories that can be sold to tourists who visit the region in the cooler months, beginning October. “Most of the sales depend on tourism and with that unlikely to get back to normal this year, the situation is bleak,” says Sourodip Ghosh, executive director of The Handloom School set up by Women Weave, the social enterprise founded by Sally Holkar.

Women Weave (womenweave.org) has initiated a crowdsourced contingency fund, aiming to raise ₹14 lakh to help its weaver clusters. Sourodip explains that smaller weavers depend on master weavers for workflow and the masters commission work only on demand, “To try and clear the pending stock, we’ve written to district-level authorities and plan to contact State-level authorities, requesting them to buy stocks from weavers for the State-run Mrignayanee handloom stores.”

E-commerce potential

When the markets reopen, innovative marketing strategies will be the need of the hour, says Nivedita Rai, executive director of Gudi Mudi Khadi project in Maheshwar: “E-commerce giants like Amazon and Ajio are beginning to sell handlooms and we plan to approach them,” she says, asserting that concrete measures need to be taken going forward.

Ravi Kiran, proprietor of Bengaluru-based Metaphor Racha who works extensively with khadi weavers in villages of north Karnataka says what we perceive could be just the tip of the iceberg: “A complete understanding of the situation will happen once the lockdown lifts and we travel to rural clusters.” He says it’s imperative to enable more workflow, with the participation of both government and private entities. He is glad that around 30 regular clients have pre-booked orders on metaphorracha.com, ensuring some work for the artisans.

Women in Charoti, a craft cluster supported by Anita Dongre, making masks

Women in Charoti, a craft cluster supported by Anita Dongre, making masks  
| Photo Credit:
By arrangement

Rekindle love for handlooms

On the brighter side, the lockdown has made people appreciate things that are local. In a bid to rekindle the love for handlooms, GoCoop launched the #Kindnessinkind campaign a few days ago, inviting customers to post photographs of their favourite artisanal products. So far, they have received 50 testimonials and 60 bookings for orders. Siva Devireddy, the founder, is trying to collaborate with individual donors and corporates to help weavers sustain for the next three months, and says the value chain needs to be rebuilt, to prevent weavers from migrating to other professions: “The markets may respond differently in the post-COVID-19 scenario. We need to find ways to help weavers directly sell their products.”

While craft organisations are trying to help, government bodies are yet to address the concerns of the handloom and craft sectors.

Arup Rakshit from Mahatma Gandhi Gramodyog Seva Sanstha (MGGSS), Kolkata, who works with weavers, spinners and dyers in West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, says most Government agencies, Khadi society and weavers cooperatives have stopped their orders. “Once the lockdown is lifted, the Government must intervene and help weavers sell the stock they have at home. Other than providing rations to the BPL ration card holders, no other help has been extended,” he points out.

However, Arup is hopeful that there will be a resurgence in demand for handlooms that contribute towards a sustainable lifestyle.

(With inputs from Pankaja Srinivasan)