India’s handloom industry is deeply rooted in the sociocultural traditions with a rich heritage of skills and talent that needs to be preserved, perpetuated and promoted. In this Skill Talk, Aditi Shah Aman, Designer and Social-Eco Entrepreneur, and co-founder at The Rare Earth, stresses upon the need to have a systematic approach to skilling and training weavers who have traditionally inherited a wealth of abilities but find it difficult to leverage them in the contemporary market scenario. The challenge is to make this sector economically viable and aspirational for the next generation of young handloom weavers, and create the requisite ecosystem for the handlooms to flourish.
Looking beyond the paradox
Handloom products belong to the tradition of highly skilled activities that require long hours of painstaking manual labour. Today, the challenge is to create a market demand and wider reach for these products while ensuring economic viability, and a life of dignity for the Handloom weaver communities.
Handloom, a labour-intensive sector, presents a paradox. On one hand, technology helps reduce drudgery and increase output to meet rising market demand; on the other, it also dilutes the essence of a hand-made product. For example, in Khadi, the level of skill and labour required to spin on Gandhiji’s Charkha is higher than its mechanized versions, as is texture and feel of the hand spun yarn and the woven Khadi. But we need to embrace these technological interventions as inevitable necessities in keeping with the times.
Similarly, in order to ensure dignity of labour and economic viability of hand woven products, we need to account for the number of working hours at every stage of production – this increases their cost. On the other, we also need to make them affordable to expand their market base. So how do we strike a balance between systematic calculations of labour costs on one hand, while ensuring affordable pricing on the other?
How handloom and power loom can co-exist
There is a market need and demand for both Power loom and Handlooms products and, handloom weavers alone cannot address the needs of the entire population. The problem however lies with the fact that Power loom products are being sold alongside and passed off as Handloom products, and at the same price, which is destroying the market for the latter. The key lies with authentic classification, differentiation and labeling of handloom versus power loom products. We need to market each while retaining the integrity of the products, and communicating authentically. We need to inform and educate the customers, so that they are able to discern and understand the effort that goes behind the making of a genuine handloom product, appreciate its value and hence be willing to pay the corresponding price for it.
This needs to take place at two levels. On one, we need to impart the right skills to the present generation of practicing Handloom weavers, most of whom are proficient in weaving, but have low levels of literacy, limited market exposure, poor technological and communication skills. On the other, we have the younger generation who are educated, comfortable with technology but not interested in continuing with their traditional family occupation. We need to make Handloom weaving an aspirational and economically attractive proposition for them.
Weavers need to be imparted skills and capacities that enable to them to interpret Designs and technical specifications, translate them into a finished product while adhering to the timelines and delivery deadlines. To understand the industry, the markets, and adapt in keeping with evolving the customer tastes. They should be able to step beyond the comfort levels of their local language to communicate and negotiate effectively with buyers and customers.
With e-commerce and mobile shopping fast emerging as viable channels for selling handlooms, the marketing opportunities for Handlooms are not just pan-Indian but also global. So, weavers also need to be equipped with computer and social-media skills to help them leverage the Internet and tap into these new opportunities.
An example from The Handloom School
The Handloom School, Maheshwar, where I volunteer as an Advisory Board member and Visiting Faculty, strives to preserve and transform India’s Handlooms by imparting young handloom weavers with specialized entrepreneurial education and training, to bridge the gap between traditional skills and new competencies, so as to equip them to sustain their livelihood with dignity.
Here, young, educated skilled weavers are taught about Raw Materials, Dyeing, Design, Marketing, Production processes, Order fulfillment, Quality control, Entrepreneurship, Communication, Presentation, Computer skills, Social-media skills etc. They are also provided industry exposure and opportunities to interact and intern with various players in the Handloom Industry, which gives them a hands-on experience of the strategic Handloom environment.
The Handloom School strives to ensure that these young handloom weavers do not get reduced to mere skilled labour, but are able to hold their own and negotiate more equitable and collaborative relationships with different players in the value chain – Designers, Buyers, Retailers etc., each of who brings a specific core expertise to the table.
Making handloom products aspirational
Young people are very aware and sensitive to what is happening around the world, have buying power, and are keen to make a difference – we need to capitalize on this. We need to share the stories behind Handlooms and the communities that weave them, and pitch them as aspirational products. This increased awareness coupled with ongoing design innovation and product development in keeping with evolving markets, and adherence to high quality standards can help us ensure a sustained market built on collective knowledge and cultural richness of India.
Thanks to e-commerce, Web marketing portals with professionally shot photographs of Handloom products and innovative Social media marketing strategies have captivated customers across generations and increased the market demand for Handloom products.
The challenge however lies with the fact that young people also have a low attention span, with rapidly shifting interests. A Handloom product is distinctly different from a mass-produced fashion product. It is not something that you discard after three months as the market moves move on to the next fashion cycle. Rather, it is something that grows on you over time. Something you refuse to throw or give away even when it fades away, and keep whipping up creative ways to re-use it. So, the underlying value systems behind handlooms and mass-produced, fashion products is diametrically opposite. How does one navigate that gap, is a question that we need to find an answer to – collectively.