On a journey to meet people connected to heritage art and knowledge systems across India while writing my book The The Indic Quotient: Reclaiming Heritage through Cultural Enterprise, I find myself in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, one morning in September of 2018.
Known for its ancient weaving traditions and handlooms, this little town is situated on the banks of the holy Narmada. I plan to meet weavers and understand the process, the challenges they face, and the way modern technology is helping them reach out to customers.
One such weaver Mulchand Shravnekar owns a couple of looms at a workshop in the town. I have been told that Maheshwari sarees are one of the most popular handloom sarees in India. Having made up my mind to visit the town, I have scoured the Internet for names and contact details of weavers in Maheshwar. I find several merchants, whole sellers and charitable trusts listed on websites, but I am interested in the artisans, the people who work on the looms. Finally, I find a name on an online marketplace for handlooms and make a call. Hesitatingly, I explain my book and the reason I want to meet him at his workshop in Maheshwar, wondering if he would understand. He listens and tells me I am welcome anytime I want to visit.
I decide to take a morning flight from Delhi to Indore, the closest airport. Maheshwar is a three hour road journey from Indore. At Maheshwar, Shravnekar meets me at the ghats. He is happy to show me around and drives ahead on his motorcycle as I follow in the taxi navigating the narrow lanes. I visit the workshop, the yarn dying unit and his shop.
After several years of supplying to middlemen, Shravnekar has now set up a shop and sells directly to customers using the Internet. He takes me to his home to meet his family. There are framed cloth pieces on the wall with patterns such as the map of India woven with hand. They are the award-winning pieces. Shravnekar is a fourth-generation weaver and he has learnt weaving from his mother. Happy to see a visitor in the house, she comes out to meet me. Even though too old to sit for long hours, she says she enjoys spending some time on the loom every day.
Pointing to the loom at one corner of the large veranda, Shravnekar smiles, and says that weaving is the highlight of his mother’s day. This stays with me as I take the road back to Indore to catch a flight home. Of course, the social and economic aspects to the handloom industry need attention but to me the idea of the vocation as an artistic pursuit for even the poorest engaged in it transforms the way I think of the industry.
A video of saree clad celebrity models on the ramp in a fashion show catches my eye. The sarees are in resplendent silk. The TV show captions it as Assamese handloom silk. The designer walks in at the end to take a bow. I plan to find out more about Assam’s textiles. The designer Sanjukta Dutta’s studio is in an old leafy part of Assam’s capital city Guwahati. The day I visit, a young woman is there for buying her wedding saree and a collection for her trousseau. The shop assistant helps her try the two-piece Assamese tradition wear, Mekhla Chador. The blend of orange and blue is striking. There are intricate gold motifs along the entire length of the fabric. The soft Assam silk, the colour combinations and the unique motifs, I learn have captured the imagination of the sophisticated buyer in Mumbai and Delhi. It is bringing a much-needed spotlight to Assamese handloom traditions. The workshop near the studio houses the weavers. They work on Dutta’s designs weaving in novel ideas into an old art form. Unlike Kancheepuram and Banaras, silk sarees of Assam have not been hitherto so well-know. A designer’s effort helps bring publicity and takes it up the chain of value.
India’s millennia old textile traditions are a heritage art and need preservation. The ability of designers and entrepreneurs, who work with weavers, to assess the market and create sophisticated products that can cater to the upper segment is essential. At the same time, social organisations which connect the weaver directly with the consumers play an important role. The recognition of craftsmen and women as individuals with skill and creativity puts the weaver at the centre.
(Kaninika Mishra is the author of The Indic Quotient (Bloomsbury India).Her bestselling book The Indian Millionaire Next Door, published in 2012, contains inspiring accounts of the professional journeys of India’s top financial advisors and has been translated into Hindi and Tamil. Views expressed are personal)