India’s craft sector needs more than selfies and hashtags

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With the government scrapping the Handloom and Handicrafts Boards ahead of National Handloom Day can we expect a new and dynamic platform for craftspeople?

The craft world is reeling from the Development Commissioner for Handlooms’ notice, announcing the abolishment of the AIHB, the almost 70-year-old All India Handloom Board, established in 1952 by Pupul Jayakar and nurtured by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Done without a whisper of warning, it was a total surprise even to those directly part of it. It was followed by a notice that the All India Handicrafts Board had been similarly dissolved. With unconscious irony, the news broke just before Handloom Day.

The notification, going viral on social media and WhatsApp, evoked both emotion and questions. It was a sign of how much the Indian public, even jean-clad millennials, still care for handlooms and handicrafts and the people who craft them. For the cultural heritage that shapes us as Indians. Among handloom weavers themselves, there have been protests and demonstrations, showing the importance they gave that official forum for their voices.

Finding answers

It’s true that all these years on, the Boards had become increasingly moribund, toothless and politicised. Successive governments appointed members as a reward to loyal constituents. The Boards hardly met.

Nevertheless, AIHB and its twin, the Handloom Board, had more than historical value. They remained the one official forum, however watered down, where the voices and views of weavers and craftspeople could be shared directly with Government. One place where they were present in considerable numbers, actually mandated to advise bureaucrats on policy and sectorial spending.

The given rationale for “abolishing” the AIHB (the wording is stark; it doesn’t say “re-constituting” or “dissolving”) is that the move is “in consonance with the Government’s vision of Minimum Government and Maximum Governance” and “a leaner Government machinery”. Somehow, this is not reassuring.

AIHB and its twin, the Handloom Board, remained the one official forum, however watered down, where the voices and views of weavers and craftspeople could be shared directly with Government

AIHB and its twin, the Handloom Board, remained the one official forum, however watered down, where the voices and views of weavers and craftspeople could be shared directly with Government  

Such spaces where people themselves can interact directly with Government, or be part of their own governance, are increasingly fewer and fewer. Rather than abolish them, we need to revitalise and revamp such institutions; seeking inspiration from their original objectives.

Setting up the AIHB, it was intended that those members (it currently has a strength of over a 100) who were not serving officials were makers and practitioners, who could speak with authority and a knowledge of ground realities. The Cottage Industries Emporia, the HHEC, our SONA shops abroad, the Design Centres and Weavers Service Centres, the magnificent Vishwakarma exhibitions, the National Award for master craftspersons, were all initiatives that emerged from those early discussions. That pool of collective wisdom is much needed now, at a time when craftspeople and the sector are struggling for survival and imaginative solutions, while the gulf between the Government and the people it serves seems to be widening.

Beyond digital campaigns

Ever an optimist, I postponed too much dismay regarding the AIHB notification, expecting an announcement on Handloom Day (August 7) of some new handloom policy, institution, or think-tank to replace the AIHBs. Sadly, that hasn’t happened. What we got was the Textile Minister tweeting that “handloom can enrich our daily lives and surroundings in many ways; from clothing to furnishing to Masks in Covid times to wall hanging.” That we should “bring home handmade in India!”.

India’s craft sector needs more than selfies and hashtags

Three days before Handloom Day, industry leaders, Bollywood stars, designers, media, and other influencers, were sent letters urging them to support a digital campaign by sharing pictures of themselves wearing handloom, using the official Ministry of Textiles hashtag.

India’s craft sector needs more than selfies and hashtags

Handloom Day however, is not just about wearing pretty saris and posting selfies on social media. It needs to actively promote the professional skills of the people who make them, and ensure that they receive recognition. Part of this is giving them a voice and presence. Acknowledging that India’s skilled handloom weavers deserve the same respect and support that other professional sectors receive. A Textiles Ministry quiz on ‘know your handlooms’ and promised online opportunities are not an equivalent.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister also saluted handloom, saying it was “a symbol of India’s glorious cultural heritage and an important source of livelihood in the country”. He too encouraged people to use handmade products and spread awareness, adding that they will help India be a self-reliant country. “Let us all be #Vocal4Handmade and strengthen efforts towards an Aatmanirbhar Bharat,” he tweeted. The onus is on us.

India’s craft sector needs more than selfies and hashtags

However pragmatic a gesture, telling a sector in acute distress to be “aatmanirbhar”, while simultaneously abolishing their only forum to articulate problems and suggest solutions, is actually sending a negative message. Coming at a time when sales and livelihoods are at an end, a celebration of Handloom Day called for something different.

What weavers need today is not rhetoric or pats on the back, but practical assistance to work through these hard times. A re-constituted and active All India Handlooms & Handicrafts Board, with practical grassroots experience, youth and energy, representative of the diverse hand skills that are India’s richest resource, could be the first reassuring step forward.

Laila Tyabji is chairperson of Dastkar, an NGO that works to support traditional Indian craftspeople

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