UNDERSTANDING THE BUSINESS OF HANDCRAFTED TEXTILES OF INDIAby Vinta Nanda November 15 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 13 mins, 37 secs
Vinta Nanda has this fascinating conversation with author and chronicler Savitha Suri about Khadi, the name, which belongs to each of us, and why the Government should not make it difficult for Indians to use it.
Savitha Suri is an author, chronicler. She has co-authored a chapter titled ‘Bottom up reorientation of weaving clusters’ with Dr Payyazhi Jayashree of University of Wollongong, Dubai, in a book on Change Management in Asia (published by Palgrave Macmillan), and co-authored, with Krishna Sarma, what is referred to as the Illustrated history of Assam’s textiles by the Press, ‘Assam - a journey through its textiles’. It’s a first to document the history and evolution of traditional textiles of all the indigenous tribes of the state (published by Speaking Tiger).
She documents the diverse textile traditions and history of India through blogs and articles in the Market Revivalist. She has led successful market revivals of the Udupi Sari (Karnataka) and the Kunbi Kaapod (Goa) through crowd funded initiatives. The latter is India’s first private, crowd funded initiative for reviving a textile and its market. The initiative’s success led to fund allocation by the Govt of Goa to restart weaving in the state and apply for a GI tag for the Kunbi Kaapod.
Savitha is also a curator for UTSAR, which was a 6-week long digital festival with ‘North East of India’ as the theme for Mumbai airport’s ‘Jaya He Museum’ in 2020. The campaign was submitted to UNESCO as a unique initiative during lockdown to create awareness on living heritage and won a Joint Gold at the Asia Consumer Engagement Awards for Best Social Media Campaign. It was followed by another digital festival ‘AAGHOSHAM’ (with Kerala as the theme) in 2021. She has curated a Travelling Museum of Indian Silks and conducted textile heritage walkthroughs as part of the first delegation from India to attend ‘Silk in Lyon’ in November 2021.
I met her at a get-together where I eavesdropped on Savitha’s conversation, with Tushar Arun Gandhi, about Khadi, the name, having been patented by the Government of India four years ago. After partaking in the important discussion they were having, I requested her for this interview and she obliged. Over to this powerful chat with Savitha Suri…
First, tell us about your work and why this is what you have chosen to do.
My foray into this sector was accidental. It came from a place of wanting to learn, solve issues in a more rational and practical manner and build well researched databases. I am not a textile expert in the traditional sense of the term but I have an ability to understand the business/business management of handcrafted textiles.
For a country well known for its indigenous textiles and weaves, where are we in the race today, and why?
India stands alone, apart from the rest of the world, for its depth and diversity of handcrafted traditions. No other country comes close. Whether it is techniques, treatments, traditions or fibres used, we have it all. While this is a huge source of pride, it is also one of the reasons why the sector, which is considered the backbone of India’s rural economy along with agriculture, suffers from declining demand and shrinking markets.
Attention, resources and purchasing powers are scattered across this diversity and the road to build a strong, constructive roadmap for the sector that goes beyond viral hashtags and platitudes is a distant dream right now.
The annual budget outlay for National Handloom Development was 400 crores in a country with 28 lakh weaver households according to the latest Handloom Census.
The competition from mill made cloth, both from within the country and outside, makes it difficult for the handmade sector to scramble into the game. While buzzwords like sustainability, ecological health, carbon footprints etc are bandied about generously, it is incredibly sad that we do nothing about the homegrown solution we have in the form of the handmade textile sector. Slow production processes that lead to mindful consumption practices were the norm until a little over a century ago.
While it is impossible and unnecessary to turn against mill made cloth, it is not difficult to strengthen the handloom sector. The Handloom Reservation Act already exists and one of its key clauses is to offer protection by way of forbidding articles like the gamcha, sari, dhoti and towels to be made in mills.
Similar is the case for funding. It is not, very often, the lack of funds but the lack of ease of access to them that proves to be a stumbling block. CSR funding is almost negligent towards supporting projects in this sector because funding agencies look at scaling up and rapid Return on Investment (ROI), both of which are difficult in this sector.
In which way, according to you, has hyper consumerism impacted the textiles industries in India?
When I say textile sector, I refer of course only to the handmade textile sector, which is a space I am more familiar with. Hyper consumerism that thrives on fast fashion, often also priced very low, has hit directly at the handmade sector’s core where textiles are produced in small quantities, are labour intensive and more expensive. The high end/luxury segment of this sector is similar to the bespoke consumerism of the wealthy but the vast majority of consumers come from the burgeoning middle class - a segment that has little time, inclination or budgets for handmade.
Part of this is because of the constant referencing of handmade as luxurious and ‘one of a kind’, which automatically is seen as unaffordable and beyond the aspiration of many. If anything, a cheaper power-loom variant or rip-off of the original handmade product is seen as a suitable replacement. Nothing could be further from the truth though. Towels, home linen, bath linen etc., can all be handmade and not cost the earth. The problems of and resulting from poor brand positioning and brand perception are rather acutely felt in this sector.
The sheer size of the handloom sector has made it difficult to have an active and affirmative nodal body that can act as an inclusive representative for the sector’s many clusters. This means that creating a clear, effective brand exercise and marketing strategy is a near impossible task and what little is done becomes superficial or inept.
To the average consumer, there is no difference between khadi and handloom. Most are not even aware that there is a difference between the two! (Khadi is hand-spun yarn and handwoven fabric while handloom is mill spun yarn and handwoven.
While consumers are aware of the downside of fast fashion, the handmade textile sector has not made a cohesive and compelling argument in its favour, despite having all the merits needed to convince consumers.
You mentioned to me, during the very brief conversation we had, that Khadi, the name, has been patented by the Government of India about four years ago. Why do you believe this has been done?
While in principle, the idea of a trademark serves as a form of protectionism, and one can even perhaps understand the need to trademark a fabric that is so deeply associated with India to prevent any form of appropriation, there seem to be several loose ends to this. From what I see in and understand of the market, those who have been able to, or have bought the certification to use the word ‘khadi’, do not seem to be retailing it or what is being sold is not khadi - khadi specifically refers to hand spun and handwoven cotton, wool or silk.
There seems to be no Quality Check or Due Diligence or Authenticity Certificate given to these retailers. And, by this I mean retailers of all sizes and from all parts of the country, from corporate showrooms to small enterprises. The need for a globally valid and credible method of authentication has never been felt more than it is now. We are in a position to leverage technology to create a value chain of authenticity that will catapult Indian textiles into the global markets - yet, we are not doing that.
The system lags in creating equitable opportunities for those working in a dedicated manner (in khadi), and seems tilted in favour of those who have financial muscle to go through acquiring certifications, build large retail infrastructure and invest in mega marketing strategies. All of this would perhaps still be acceptable if there was a guarantee of authenticity. At this moment, we don’t have it.
The hand-spun fabric is one of the strongest agents of creating equitable and inclusive economic opportunities in the rural economy (thereby creating sustainable livelihoods, curbing rural to urban migration and creating food security) and I am not sure it is being used to its full potential. As of today, there are more questions than answers.
For example, if a business can prove that it is sourcing primarily from verified Khadi Sanghas, why does it need to buy a certificate again? Why not incentivise businesses that use khadi by reducing GST on their products? Why is the economic and ecological value chain of khadi not promoted aggressively enough?
The Mahatma said, “There’s no beauty in the finest cloth if it makes hunger and unhappiness." He also said, "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need but not every man's greed." To both these quotes, what do you have to say with regard to the present manner in which Textiles are manufactured and consumed in India?
I doubt anyone disagrees with him, in principle at least. Sadly, a lot of what he said is relegated to lip service. The dissonance between the ground reality and the versions in public domain are cavernous. It’s scary and intimidating to put it mildly. Where does one even start if we have to make sense of what needs to be done in a hyper consumerist culture?
It has been an oft heard lament in the sector that the weaver who weaves fine cloth can never afford equally good clothing for his family. One of the reasons is that a producer always sells his entire produce to maximise earning. The other is that over the many decades, mill made clothing/fast fashion has been made aspirational. Khadi and Handwoven textiles carry an association with intellectualism and/or a life of sacrifice and struggle (the jholawala look).
The mill made cloth fuels greed, if one can call it that. Easy access, plentiful supply and the relatively cheaper prices enable a consumption practice that is hardly earth friendly. It is a known fact that fast fashion brands work out of sweatshops. They’re not exactly creating ideal work environments, are they? The recent worker protests in Dhaka against brands like Zara and H&M for poor wages barely created a ripple in our country. People continue buying because of the high aspirational value these brands bring. Fair trade practices and ethics have no place, it would seem, in today’s hyper-consumerism. Whereas handmade textiles offer a kinder solution - make less, create a lower carbon footprint, buy less but buy more meaningfully...
Khadi for example meets almost all the UN Sustainability goals but we are not doing anything about it other than trumpet its ‘revenue’ and wear it a couple of times a year in a show of patriotism. We are not asking the right questions to the right people either. How does one build responsibility and accountability if there is no honest dialogue among the stakeholders? How do we change things for the better if we don’t know where to start?
Khadi is the spirit of united India. It is that part of us that brought us together, gave us freedom and independence. The word and everything associated with it belongs to each one of us Indians, and we have every right to use it. How does that translate to the government's ownership of the word?
Let me answer this in 2 parts - what really is ‘khadi’ and the question of ownership. There are several versions of ‘khadi’. There is the khadi that appeals to our emotions, the khadi that fuelled the nation’s fight for Independence, the khadi that made a confederation of princely states into one country, the khadi that was the soft weapon of India’s fight for freedom.
There is a second kind of ‘khadi’ that exists. I recently met Madhav (Sahasrabudhe) Kaka who has for the past 12 years not bought fabric outside because he spins enough yarn in the year to make cloth for his entire family. Now how many of us would do this? Or want to do this? It is an idealistic way of life. Not all are cut out for it.
There is another khadi, the one that I resonate most with. One that I suspect that Gandhiji was actually talking about and one I imagine he saw as an agent of economic growth. As a fabric that is deeply connected to the farmer (who grows short and medium staple cotton) to the spinners and the weavers. The complex value chain that khadi enables and empowers did not escape Gandhiji’s notice. It was the tool for ‘swaraj’, self-governance. If each one could contribute to making enough cloth for himself, there would be no hyper consumerism, would there? Utopian I would say but the thought has merit especially today when we are surrounded by buzz words on economic and ecological sustainability. It is this khadi that we need to focus our energies on. If the first kind was the past and the second is the future, the third represents the ‘now’, the present, the reality we face today.
They are all bound by a common element. None of these can be ‘owned’ . One can perhaps be a custodian, a guardian too. But ownership needs to be a decentralised one - distributed across entrepreneurs, khadi sansthas, social enterprises, and other organisations, that are able to show a track record of credible work with khadi.
Buying a certificate to call the fabric you work with as ‘khadi’ comes across as being unfair when there are no checks and balances to prevent its misuse. The best ideas lose their strength when poorly implemented. Khadi is both the process and product. How and why is there a need for ownership? What are the end objectives? Is it the much touted revenue of 1.4 lakh crores that is one of the objectives? But again, almost 94000 crore of that comes from the Village Industries, NOT from the sale of khadi.
And I quote: “In the financial year 2023, the estimated sales value of khadi and village industries products was worth about 1.3 trillion Indian rupees across India. Village industries sales value estimation was 1.2 trillion Indian rupees in the country, whereas the khadi industry estimated sales value was 46 billion rupees worth of products during that year” - Source-https://www.statista.com/statistics/1123230/india-khadi-and-village-industrie s-sales-value-by-type/
Has this boom in revenue resulted in more spinners, more charkhas, better wages, better work and living conditions? If the voices on the ground are to be believed, the answer is a straight NO. So, what does this ownership really mean to the people who have been working with the fabric for decades and suddenly find themselves shut out of the system because they don’t have a certificate? Or to the spinners whose wages don’t justify the continuation of work? Khadi comes under KVIC - Khadi and Village Industries and not under the Ministry of Textiles.
Lastly, can you tell us about what your plans in the future are?
For me, it remains a journey of asking questions till someone listens and gives me the answers. I will continue to engage with people on the ground to unlearn and relearn even as I do my bit through lecture sessions, workshops, events and documentation. The documentation of handmade textile traditions and history is a passion project and I remain committed to that.