As one of the oldest and largest cottage industries of the country, India's heritage handlooms represent the timeless traditions, diverse cultures and unparalleled craftsmanship that have stood the test of time. From fabrics and weaving techniques to embellishment styles and aesthetics, they are praised globally for showcasing our country's ingenuity and expertise. As guardians of the rich legacy, it is integral that we understand its origins and evolution over the years.
Indus Valley Civilization is said to be the birthplace of handlooms in India and is backed by strong archaeological evidence wherein excavations in the sub-continent uncovered spindles and whorls used to spin cotton back in the day. Vedic literature also suggests that the art of embroidery and dyeing originated during this time and was considered a highly advanced occupation. With the settlement of Aryans, the craft was further honed and developed, with the introduction of new spinning, weaving and dyeing techniques. What began from a household level craft grew into a flourishing cottage industry, and it wasn't long before it gained eminence in the west. The silk route saw the trade of Indian silk, cotton and muslin in exchange for spices, several explorers and historians including Megasthenes, Herodotus and Marco Polo have praised these textiles in their works.
With the advent of the Mughal dynasty in India, the royal patronage for weavers and artisans grew multifold. It was under this reign that exquisite creations like the Jamdani, Banarasi brocades, Jamawar, Dhup-Chhaon, Mapchar and Mulmul were brought to life. In addition to the sing-song praises from Indian poets, the expert craftsmanship of Indian weavers was being marvelled across boundaries, as the demand and delight for these handlooms grew in leaps and bounds. By the 17th century, 25% of the world's textiles were being produced in India. All this turned upside down during the British rule and the implementation of unfair trade practices. Weavers were forced into selling only to the British at very low rates and had hefty taxes imposed which lead to the downfall of the industry and high poverty rates amongst the weavers. The onset of the Industrial Revolution and the flooding of markets with mass-produced fabrics only made matters worse. The Swadeshi Movement during the freedom struggle set the course to revive the handloom sector and was spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi amongst many others. The spinning wheel or chakra became a symbol of self-reliance, determination and national pride.
Ever since Independence, the Government of India has been taking multiple steps to reinstate the handloom sector to its position of prestige. The Khadi and Other Handloom Industries Development Act was passed in 1953 to help allocate funds and provide marketing support the weavers. Subsequently, several cooperatives and institutions were set up across the country with the function of research and training support, namely the All India Handloom Fabrics Marketing Cooperative Society, Weavers’ Service Centre, the Indian Institute of Handloom Technology and the National Handloom Development Corporation (NHDC). In addition to promoting handloom exports, various welfare programs and schemes were set up for the weaving communities. Due credit also goes to textile revivalists like Suraiya Hasan Bose, Pupul Jayakar and Laila Tyabji, who not only ensure that we preserve our indigenous crafts but also put them on the world map.
As per the Third Handloom Census conducted by the Government of India, nearly 27.83 lakh households are employed in weaving and allied activities and is the second-largest rural economic industry after agriculture. Currently, the country has an inventory of over 2.4 million looms and India constitutes 95% of the world's hand-woven fabric production.
As the world moves towards the era of sustainable fashion and conscious choices, handlooms take more prominence than ever before with a very minimal carbon footprint owing to factors ranging from eco-friendly infrastructure to low power consumption. The consistent efforts and initiatives by the Textile Ministry paired with the new-age designers and entrepreneurs endorsing our heritage crafts, is paving way for the handloom industry to flourish and thrive.