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Keeping craft traditions alive

By Lalitha Sridhar

An interview with Sally Holkar, the woman behind Women Weave, a voluntary organisation that seeks to address the concerns of women weavers in India

Sally Holkar, best known for her work in reviving the handloom traditions of the famous Maheshwari saris of Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, is now concentrating her efforts on Women Weave, an NGO that seeks to address the concerns of women weavers, who are both the 'repository of handloom traditions' and victims of discrimination within the sector. Holkar is also involved with Synergy Weave, a venture that combines the skills, techniques and materials of three famous handloom-weaving centres -- Kota in Rajasthan and Maheshwar and Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh. In an interview recorded in Mumbai, she talks about the concerns of handloom weavers and how her wellbeing is inseparable from that of her inherited heritage.

A great majority of handloom traditions across India are endangered, if not dying. It is true that this is principally a livelihoods issue -- for crafts to survive, craftspeople must. What concerns have you encountered on the issue of sustainability in the handlooms sector? Is a successful revival, which is also financially rewarding, possible? If yes, can independence eventually be achieved without the support of interventions such as yours? How?

To answer your question on sustainability, after being based only in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, and having been involved with a registered not-for-profit society, the answer is both yes and no. When I say not-for-profit, it doesn't mean we didn't make profits; we started in 1978 and when I left the organisation in 2000 we had 120 looms and our gross sales for that year was one and-a-half crores. About 20% of our gross profits are spent on health, education and housing for the weaving community. We run a housing colony, a medical programme and a school.

I mean yes in the sense that, if you look at 120 families, multiplied by six approximately, to get the number of people you are actually dealing with, by virtue of them working with you over a period of years, 10-15% will become completely independent. They will form satellite organisations of their own, they will have understood how to do business and they will have secured contracts through you. They will also have your blessings and training and they will always be in touch with you. This is our objective.

Having said that, these (successes) are more likely to be men than women. For the simple reason that women cannot handle the travelling aspect of work and whatever needs to be done -- marketing is difficult for them. At Women Weave we hope to highlight the woman handloom weaver and throw the spotlight onto her so that she is no longer a shadow weaver. We believe that work in the handloom sector will be impossible without the participation of women weavers; but they are considered the background people, the helpers not the actual weavers.

That is true to a great extent, but in many cases it is not. And it is changing because men are increasingly disinclined to spend their lives throwing a shuttle in a cottage, unlike women who need to be able to work in their homes and take care of their families at the same time.

To bring about sustainability without our intervention, we have run several different programmes. One of them is called Young Weavers. We have noticed that the over-35 generation in the handloom weaving community in our area -- north India, the Hindi belt -- is by and large illiterate or marginally literate, especially the women. That generation has made a huge investment in educating their children, both male and female, particularly males. They have been educated, sometimes up to Standard XII and sometimes beyond. They have these marvellous graduation certificates and all that, but there are no jobs available for them in their area. Therefore, they are more or less obliged to come back to the loom whether they like it or not, given that it's the only way in which they can earn a living or get a daily wage.

So, we have a scheme that deals with you as the educated young weaver. We will try to sustain your traditional skills and we will try to nurture your newly acquired skills too and see how they fit together. You may have learnt a bit of computers, so we will teach you how it is relevant to your trade. If you have learnt a little English we will show you how it will benefit you in handloom manufacture and selling. If it is typing, we will show you how it could be relevant to your work in handloom manufacture and sale. We will also work with designers, customers and weavers to sustain that interaction.

Unfortunately, it is more along the lines of male rather than female empowerment. But what we are trying to do is tell the men that Women Weave is willing to interface on your behalf only if you are willing to make a considered effort to include and involve women in your community in the actual handloom weaving process. In other words, if we had to select who to give an order to, and you had only one woman working with you while the other man had five, then he is the one who will get our order.

In that sense, we are no longer only involved with Maheshwar. We are working towards creating partnerships between weavers and weavers, between master weavers and weavers, and between all of these people and the market. Our job is not to produce and sell goods but to 'hand-hold', at different levels, throughout the process. We are looking to have, in any given year, about five partners. Two of them have to be what we call advance-level partners who are qualified and excel in the areas we have earmarked. Of the remaining three, one should be a beginner and two at the middle level.

We are taking up only one beginner at a time because they involve an enormous amount of expensive and time-consuming hand-holding. When we have got to the level of dealing with the A-grade, the advance-level partnerships, we will be in a position to secure good business for them. But we also tell them that we will deal with them only on one condition: that they involve the women of their community at whatever level is feasible -- not only sitting at the loom but also in quality control, dyeing, sourcing of raw materials, interacting with customers and designers, etc.

So they (the women) are required to learn things, be it graphics or designing or marketing, because all of these are exercises they must become involved in. We feel that if women don't become involved now in a very important way, the handloom sector will die. Simply because they (women) are the repository of this tradition and because the men are going to move on, become truck drivers or peons in offices or go away to cities or whatever.

At what level do we peg the worth of a craftsperson? Can an uncertain wage of Rs 2,000-3,000 a month, subject to the vagaries of variable sales and turnover, be considered adequate for a craftsperson with unique skills that require rigorous training? Is it not inevitable then that their children will aspire for secure jobs as clerks or peons in government offices, or migrate to cities in search of a more reliable and comfortable living? Can the crafts sector motivate its people to remain within its traditions?

What should be a sustainable income varies from area to area. In Madhya Pradesh it is Rs 50 a day. Women almost never earn that much because they are piece-workers not wage-earners, and that will always be true. Their time will always be divided between their children, their mothers-in-law, their husbands and the household work and, therefore, it is very difficult for them to earn that kind of money. It is also difficult in the sense that they are discriminated against -- while a man may get Rs 50 a day, a woman will get only Rs 40 and she will accept this because she is afraid of losing work. We try to lobby for equal pay for men and women.

We are trying to enable small, friendly family groups to become micro businesses on their own. If they become micro businesses, then we can get micro finance for them. It only becomes a sustainable activity if five to six looms are involved in a micro business and it is able to get sufficient credit to buy the raw material, weave it, dye it, access the end user and ask for profit. If that doesn't happen, handloom cannot survive because it simply cannot sustain people.

Earlier, the minimum requirements of people in rural areas were so low that they somehow managed. Now everybody wants a TV, everybody wants a fridge and a motorbike. In rural areas now everything is available on credit, and everybody wants everything. So they are not concerned about sustaining a craft tradition, they are just concerned about meeting their own needs even if that means learning how to drive a truck and abandoning weaving. I have seen people do that without looking back. The only person who won't do that is the woman because this meets her needs -- she is able to earn and sustain her household as well.

Have you tried selling in the export markets? What potential do they offer? Can they be one of the answers to better profits? Are imperfections, inevitable in products created by the human hand, the reason why foreign markets are difficult to penetrate? Why isn't handloom high on the export agenda?

We have sold to the export market although, unfortunately, the export market is very bottom line, very price oriented. Truly good handloom cannot compete with power loom when it comes to price. So handloom exports can only be the top of the market.

We would rather work in local markets and keep the weavers cash turning over, as they can't afford the delays and the paperwork. As it is we put such a thin markup on our services -- which are services, mind you, not profits. Telephones, hand-holding, faxing, pricing, costing, quality control -- for all these things we put the markup at 10-20% depending upon the product and the customer. That (markup) doesn't sustain the cost required for exports. Unless we secure a direct order from a caring partner, who understands that this is an experiment and you can't drop it because it was five days late or reject a consignment that had one defective piece. You are going to have to be a caring partner. We have identified museum stores in the US but that proposal is in the embryonic stage right now.

Imperfections can be a positive selling point. This is a small, limited, educated, highly sensitive market that understands that deviations and flaws are plus points. It is usually a very elite market. Japan and Europe are much more evolved and accepting, but not the US where things must be thrown into washing machines and dryers and not ironed. We are trying to build partnerships in small quantity, high markup, boutique selling.

What role do you see for the government in the handloom sector? Their warehouses are stockpiled with goods that don't sell. They have the funds but they have failed to sustain/revive the handloom sector. Why? And how can this be set right?

The government sector has the funds, that is true. What the government can try and do is to appoint female IAS and handloom officers in areas that require improvement. The government can stop supporting (handloom weavers) in producing the rubbish that they stock in their godowns and sell at discount sales before Diwali. That's creating a completely negative image of handloom and sending the wrong message to the weaver -- that you can produce any rubbish you like and some officer will come along and take the product.

The government can and should do something to make quality yarn available to the handloom weaver in this country, rather than choosing to export it when the price of yarn increases. You cannot have a quality handloom product without quality handloom yarn. By and large, in the past, the government has chosen to export and earn foreign exchange rather than make (the yarn) available to the weaver here. You cannot make good roti with bad atta, right?

What the government needs to do is provide the right design inputs, because a product can never sell without design inputs, and that needs to come from outside. Once we have paid for the design input, it flows and flows and flows. I disagree with the statement that craftspeople have design in their blood. It's been polluted, distorted, lost.

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004