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Smriti Irani Weaves a New Legacy

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It’s a different kind of culture war for Smriti Irani in her latest role as textile minister and she is all set to weave a new legacy for herself

AN EIGHT-HOUR FLIGHT, a two-hour car ride and the merciless summer heat aren’t enough to dampen her spirit. Arriving straight from a textile fair in Paris, the Minister of Textiles brings a different kind of promise for the weavers who’ve come to meet her at the Weavers Service Centre (WSC) in Bharat Nagar, a dilapidated residential area in north Delhi. She hugs them, signs autographs and listens to complaints. Children rush to grab the pleats of her sari. The deep-blue silk has been handspun by craftsmen in Bihar. Everybody is thrilled that she’s in the very attire that sparked off a viral Twitter campaign in support of their community. A few weavers ask for selfies taken with her; they want to display these at their workshops. Her face, they say, will bless the yarn they spin. Some have skipped work today, others have specially ironed their clothes, and a few have even dipped into their savings to buy a new notebook for her signature. Smriti Irani is at home.

This is a new setting for Irani, who in the Narendra Modi Cabinet has a media quotient higher than most of her male colleagues. When the debutante Rajya Sabha member was appointed the Union Education Minister in 2014 at the age of 38, the Prime Minister’s unconventional choice for such a crucial portfolio surprised many. In no time, the former TV serial star, whose career-best was the role of Tulsi Virani in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, would prove her mettle to be a permanent surprise—for better or worse—in Indian politics. Many of her ministerial decisions were seen by detractors as an ideological subversion of established norms, and she did little to shed her image as a cultural warrior in power. Only the naïve would have surmised that her change of portfolio in the Cabinet reshuffle two months ago was a kind of indictment. One look at her now, and you call tell that this is not someone who is making a heaven out of hell. She is draped in purpose and possibility.

“No minister has ever spoken to us before. They’ve been distant, formal, almost high-handed. Their policies felt like charity. Madam is not like that at all. She’s warm, energetic, relatable. And she recognises our talent,” says Bibi Jaiswal, a 65-year-old kalamkari who has been a fan of Irani from her days on television. Jaiswal has been working with cotton since she was 14. The WSC has been her home away from home ever since it was set up in 1967. The Centre offers technical and professional support to the city’s weavers, but Jaiswal adds that its facilities have been woefully inadequate for the past 10 years.

“In the 90s, I remember cows sleeping in the grounds at night,” says another kalamakri, Naini Singh. She’s 32 and lives next door to Jaiswal in the surrounding Weavers Colony. Singh was originally from a family of khes weavers in Punjab. “My mother and grandmother used to weave diamond-patterned khes [floor or bed spreads made of cotton] and sell them to would-be brides as part of their trousseau,” she reminisces, “They would sing while spinning the loom, and the song was such that the words would end exactly when the threads would intersect, and the pattern would be complete. What they spun wasn’t fabric, it was magic.”

Unfortunately, Singh was married off to a kalamkari in Delhi before she could learn the song herself. “The khes my family made would sell for so little, we lived our entire life in poverty with no healthcare or education. When I moved to Delhi, I learnt a bit of English, did a few courses in natural dyes and cotton spinning from the WSC. I make more money now in a single month than what my mother did in an entire year.” Her average monthly income is Rs 5,000, with which she supports her husband and 12-year-old daughter, Shubhra. All three are at the Centre today. Shubhra, who is autistic, is particularly excited. “She hugged me,” she mumbles, gazing in wonderment at Irani’s retreating figure.

Irani certainly has her work cut out for her. A 2016 study by the Centre for Handloom Information and Policy Advocacy found that 55 per cent of weavers and their families live below the poverty line. Apart from the hunger, early blindness, muscle and bone problems they suffer from, most of the workers (62 per cent) are either illiterate or semi-literate. Women, who make up 77 per cent of the handloom sector’s workforce, put in a daily average of 10 hours a day and almost all are—or have been—indebted to money lenders. Yet, this mostly-cottage industry remains the second largest source of direct and indirect employment—after agriculture—for the country’s rural population. As per the Third Handloom Census, India has over 4.3 million weavers working at 2.3 million looms. Ten years ago, the figure was 6.5 million weavers at just over 3 million looms.

“When I received responsibility of this ministry,” says Irani, “one of the first challenges I came across were the many layers separating the Government from individual weavers. The sector is still largely unorganised and we have to find ways in which support can directly reach the workers.” She recently announced the launch of the Ministry’s Hathkargha Samvardhan Yojana, which will allow weavers to invest in new equipment they believe would aid their craft. No middleman, corporation, designer or public official will be allowed to interfere with their choices. “Technology used in the right way will be greatly beneficial,” she says, “While the essence of the handloom should remain—nobody should plug in a switch and turn it into a powerloom—weavers do need to upgrade their looms from time to time. The Government will cover 90 per cent of the cost for better equipment.”

#IWEARHANDLOOM went beyond fabric. It turned into something personal. It touched aspects of legacy, tradition and family. We started to receive calls from designers and celebrities who wanted to lend their support to it. The hashtag received nearly 22 million impressions on Twitter and went from I wear handloom to I am buying handloom

Despite the falling number of weavers, Irani is confident that handloom will survive. “I went to Moradabad in UP recently to meet a weaver community. There was a 20-year-old student whose father was one of the last remaining japani weavers. He was ready to take over his dad’s business because he understands that the legacy will be lost forever otherwise. People wrongly assume that the new generation isn’t interested in the family business. The truth is, they do [want to take over], as long as they receive the right kind of support and appreciation. Most weavers have never seen active engagement [by] the Government or design fraternity before. This is what we’re hoping to change,” says the Minister, adding that handloom products can be turned contemporary, chic and aspirational.

“I’ve often been told that handloom is not the ‘young thing’. When I became Minister, I thought to myself that given India’s young population, if a product does not connect with the youth then it is bound to have a limited market space.” Over the course of a two-hour meeting with three youngsters, Irani launched a social media campaign that not only put the spotlight on handloom products but also proved that there were still many who understood the value of handcrafted fashion. The #IWearHandloom campaign, which asked people to post a selfie in a handloom dress, was widely supported around the world. The hashtag got nearly 22 million ‘impressions’—a count of its re-use—on Twitter. This was in addition to 5.1 million impressions in less than 24 hours on Facebook.

“The campaign went beyond fabric,” says Irani, “It turned into something personal. It touched aspects of legacy, tradition and family. We started to receive calls from designers and celebrities who wanted to lend their support to it. One day everyone at the Australian High Commission in Delhi decided to wear Indian handloom. Councils which are otherwise at loggerheads with one another, came together to promote a sector that is such an essential part of our heritage.”

India’s textile heritage has given her some of her fondest memories, she adds. “I have a handspun khadi sari with a Banarasi border that my mother gave me. I had little recognition of the history behind it, though. No memories of the textile as such. I saw it and preserved it, like most people see and preserve handloom [clothes], as an inheritance. When the handloom hashtag went viral, my mother called me up to say, ‘Do you know you own this handloom sari, and you never appreciated it.’ This is what I had hoped the campaign would achieve—for parents to explain the weave and tell stories of the craft to their children. This will help sustain and give them ownership of their legacy.”

The social media approach had its share of sceptics at first. Some thought of it as a flash in the pan, not something that would last. Sunita Shankar, designer and member of the Fashion Development Council of India (FDCI), says that she wasn’t sure if the instant buzz of a selfie was the right way to go about it, but she is impressed by what it achieved.

“Handloom needed that push, a ripple-effect to maintain and sustain interest in it. Unfortunately, we’ve now reached a point where one has to be socially conscious to support it,” says Shankar. Having worked with weavers for over 22 years and been a fashion consultant with the Ministry of Textiles, she adds that handloom products never really ‘died down’. “In the late 90s, there was a sudden spurt in new money. It was all glitter and glamour and we left behind handloom [wear], which is a more subdued and subtle art form. It wasn’t associated with wealth, but that identification had to eventually return to something more sensible. That’s why handloom has once again started to become trendy.”

PEOPLE WRONGLY ASSUME that the new generation isn’t interested in the family business. The truth is, they do want to take over, as long as they receive the right kind of support and appreciation. Most weavers have never seen active engagement by the Government or design fraternity before. This is what we’re hoping to change

Irani says that this isn’t just an internet phenomenon. The campaign also translated into offline sales. “The best feedback I received was when I visited the India Handloom Brand store in Janpath. I met a Supreme Court advocate who was carrying five shopping bags and he told me that his family was so into the campaign that he now had to buy handloom for them. It went from I wear handloom to I am buying handloom.”

The aim of India’s Handloom Reservation Act of 1985 was to protect handloom products from counterfeits and set down standards of authenticity. The law describes a handloom as ‘any loom other than powerloom’. For 11 products, it also specifies what counts as genuine. A lungi, for example, is defined as a ‘fabric made out of cotton yarn or art silk yarn or in any combination thereof, having a width of 110cms or above and 64 ends or above per inch and woven in check and/or stripe pattern using coloured yarn to form check and/or stripe pattern’.

To guard against pretenders, Irani wants to take such documentation a step further. “Tradition should be protected from any kind of adulteration. That is why it is important to chronicle the weaves, patterns and styles of handloom, to enforce geographical indicators—so that a Mysore silk made in a powerloom somewhere in Bengal will not be passed off as the genuine product. We’ve already registered 60 natural dyes and colours under the India Handloom Brand. We’re also going to work with weavers to copyright their designs. Many times, workers feel that their designs are exploited by middlemen and that they are given the lower end of the cut. Through copyright laws, they will be able to secure the credit that is rightfully their own,” explains Irani.

The Ministry also has plans an online forum through which e-commerce players and designers will be able to interact with weavers directly. All these programmes will be implemented through the 28 national WSCs.

“The Service Centres need an upgradation of facilities and realignment of goals. We are already working to shift from paper to computer-generated designs, provide more training in design and natural dyes and implement a credit facility for weavers,” says Alok Kumar, development commissioner of handlooms. Since Irani took over, the cCentres have started rolling out health insurance plans for weavers through the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana. “States such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have shown significant progress in registering weavers for the health insurance plan. The Ministry will bear the cost of insurance for all non-BPL weavers,” adds Kumar.

Education is also high on the agenda for the former HRD Minister. Irani plans to tie up with skill development bodies and educational institutions (such as IGNOU and NIOS) to ensure that weaver children are schooled and given vocational training, be it in technology and marketing or running a business. “Education makes one independent and self-reliant. Weavers too want to be literate and market-savvy,” says Irani.

Ironically, she once again finds herself in charge of a university. The National Institute of Fashion Technology, set up in 1986, is the only educational institute under the Ministry of Textiles and not HRD. “NIFT provides more than just fashion education,” says Vandana Narang, director, NIFT Delhi, “Our mandate also aims to protect Indian textile heritage and uplift the weaver community.” Narang, who has been with NIFT for 23 years, adds that the most vital component of the institute’s curriculum is interaction with craftsmen. Every year, around 10,000 students from the 15 NIFT centres are sent for a mandatory two-week training session under weavers in craft clusters around the country. “We’ve been sending our students on this programme since 1992. We started with the Fashion Design department, then added Garment Manufacturing Technology students, then Apparel Marketing and Management, and soon after, students from the Leather, Knitwear and Textile Design and Fashion Communication courses. Earlier we could send our students to any cluster. But now we have 15 NIFT campuses in the country, so we allocate students keeping in mind the [needs] of their department,” adds Narang.

The programme has inculcated a deep appreciation of heritage products. NIFT alumni like Sanjay Garg, Hemang Agrawal, Suket Dhir, Sunita Shankar, Uma Prajapati are all committed to handwoven fabrics and textiles. The weaver workshops, says Narang, could soon be a quarterly exercise.

Given NIFT’s working relationship with the Ministry, whatever policy Irani implements will have a direct bearing on it. “One has to give the Minister credit for optimism. She’s taken on the Ministry with a positive attitude and she’s generating a buzz in a sector that the public had almost stopped talking about. Recently our students were asked by Flipkart to take pictures of designs by weavers at the clusters, and it put them up for sale. There is a modern interest in handloom,” says Narang. Does she have any expectations from the Minister herself? “Only that the interests of NIFT be protected. We are an educational institute and our first priority should remain providing high quality fashion expertise,” replies Narang. She also maintains that setting up more NIFT campuses around the country is always going to be a welcome move. “If done right, a NIFT can change the entire economy of a city.”

I WANT TO SET an example of how designer-weaver partnerships can be beneficial for both parties. I always work directly with my weavers, with some of them for over 10 years. All the work is on a profit-sharing basis and the weavers always fix their prices

Irani has already visited NIFT Delhi. “I went there recently and met some students who were trying new ways to drape khadi, to make the material less stiff and more comfortable to wear. I think the idea is brilliant, to make handloom more attractive both in India and abroad. An Egyptian cotton scarf sells for around $2,000- $3,000 in New York. I want to position our ethnic textiles in the same manner,” she says. Given the buzz around sustainable development in the international fashion community, Irani also wants to work on developing indigenous fabrics for global markets. “We have such a wide repertoire of sustainable textile to share with the world. Our people make fabric out of coconut, bamboo, bark and even banana leaves. There is so much opportunity for our designers and weavers to tap into, as long as we are able to contemporarise our brand and market it well.”

INDIA ACCOUNTS FOR 95 per cent of the world’s handwoven fabric. While the textile sector on the whole is a big exporter, handloom products have been making a significant contribution. In 2015-16 handloom exports were worth about $226 million, a 30 per cent decline from the year before.

Irani, who has just attended the Who’s Next trade fair in Paris, has several ideas for Indian handloom output to sell more in export markets. “I went to Paris at the behest of the Silk Board, to inaugurate the India pavilion at the fair. We held several workshops to demonstrate Indian handicrafts and textiles,” she says. Not only did all the handloom stalls there manage to sell out their stock, the three kalamkaris who went along with the delegation got thrice the usual price for their wares. “Khadi, in particular, is a product I am hoping to draw more international attention to. Given the Prime Minister’s personal input and the launch of National Handloom Day, there is tremendous potential for the fabric.”

She is currently in talks with Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Civil Aviation, to set up handloom and crafts kiosks at major airport terminals. “I don’t want to position handloom as another sarkari brand. It should be stylish and trendy. The best part of this Ministry is that there are so many people who want to be supportive of India’s dharovar; people who recognise the need to preserve our inheritance.”

This is familiar territory for her. “I remember meeting weavers in Andhra Pradesh when I was Mahila Morcha president of BJP. The beauty of that conversation has stayed with me since—the attempt of the older generation to pass on their craft and the desire amongst the young to absorb it. But there is also a concern, the young don’t want to make the same mistakes as their parents. They recognise the potential of global markets. All they are waiting for is a bridge to connect them to modernity. I am going to be that bridge.”

WEAVERS NEED A helping hand to become self-sufficient. For example, with the recent Varanasi floods, many looms are now submerged. The craftspeople will need government aid to recover. There is a certain Gandhian philosophy behind handloom, to hold your head high and earn your living with your hunar (skill)

The fashion design community has its own set of expectations from Irani. Anju Modi, designer and member of FDCI, says that the handloom sector needs an aggressive push that bears quick results. She feels that Irani has a sharp understanding of the challenges that weavers face. “Prime Minister Modi is also keen on promoting handloom and this support has come at the right time. Weavers need a helping hand to become self-sufficient. For example, with the recent Varanasi floods, many looms are now submerged. The craftspeople will need government aid to recover—not charity, but support to regain self-respect. There is a certain Gandhian philosophy behind handloom—to hold your head high and earn your living with your hunar (skill). As a designer, I recognise that it is my job to give weavers a style quotient, a saleable design,” she says.

Modi began her career 25 years ago by visiting 24 craft clusters around the country. Handloom techniques soon became a part of her design sensibility. “I was absorbed by it,” says she, “I loved the uneven work, the little imperfections, the ruggedness; it is what makes handicrafts special. As I started to live and work with weavers, I saw the rituals behind their work. For example, a woven piece is given to a daughter as a blessing. Similarly, thread is dyed using mathematical poetry and calculation. When the warp is there and the weft comes to meet it, it creates a beautiful elephant or peacock motif. But when the thread is dyed, you can’t make out the exact outline of the pattern. The craft is so meticulous and perfect that the threads always come together at the right time. It would be interesting to link handloom science to a modern curriculum.”

Modi is among the designers working to turn hand-crafted apparel “cool and convenient”. Instead of 9-yard cumbersome saris, she offers buyers readymade kurta sets, palazzo pants and hip dresses, all made using traditional weaves and prints. Her designs for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani made headlines for its intricate detailing and choice of handspun fabric. “One needs to fashion garments according to needs of the time,” she says.

Rahul Mishra is also keen on refashioning fashion. His first project as a student at NID Ahmedabad was to revive the Kerala Handloom brand through product diversification. “We made reversible clothes and developed a complete eco-system. The clothes were marketed to say that when a tourist comes to the city and wears the local dress, he or she will also be able to enjoy the local culture in a more comfortable manner,” says Mishra.

Since then, he has worked to popularise 15 different clusters including Bhagalpuri silk, Maheshwari silk, Kota duria, Orissa ikat and Pochampally ikat. His latest project with the Ministry is to visit the Guwahati WSC for a feel of the design heritage of the Northeast. “Whatever I am today is because of handloom,” he says, “As a student, I lived for a month in Manjavilakom village in Neyyattinkara, Kerala. It was here I met my inspiration and mentor—master weaver Gopinathan. I realised through him the tireless dedication and humility of weavers. I always work directly with them, and have had a partnership with some of my tailors for over 10 years. All the work is on a profit-sharing basis and weavers always fix their prices. I make it a point to give them 50 per cent advance payment and no clothes are ever returned. I want to set an example of how designer-weaver partnerships can be beneficial for both parties.”

Mishra, who retails his handloom collections in Australia, Italy, France the UK and US, adds that he is appalled by how some designers are ruining tradition. “Designers should aim to make tradition into something more wearable without changing its ethos. Our job is not to change the craft, but to add to it. Overdesigning is a huge problem today. What is the point of weaving a Madras check into Kerala fabric? If you marry two crafts, all you’ll get is a mess. We need to focus on creating more consumption and demand through products that appeal to today’s generation.”

It is also a political exercise. Daniel Syiem, a designer who works exclusively with handloom operators of the Northeast, feels that there is a story of both peace and war woven into ethnic fashion. He too refuses to work with middlemen and likes weavers to share the spotlight at his fashion shows. For the last seven years, he has worked with Ryndia silk from the Ri-Bhoi district in Meghalaya and is now planning to tap other traditional pattern weaves from the region. “When you work with your hand, you’re literally putting a part of yourself into the product. Ryndia silk represents earth, soil, nature and humanity itself,” he says.

There are also designers who are technology agnostic. Instead of pitching powerlooms against handlooms, they say, the Ministry should focus on helping both co-exist. “The handloom was also cutting-edge technology at one time. Technology of any kind is a beautiful thing. One has to balance it out. What’s important is what you do with it. If you do interesting things, it will always be supported,” says Rajesh Pratap Singh, fashion designer and a 1994 graduate of NIFT Delhi. “Communication—articulation of design, where design intervention is going and what your real contribution is—is a challenge when working with handloom [output]. Quality control and time constraints are two other crucial factors. Not everything that comes from a handloom will be of exceptional quality,” he adds.

Singh, who is originally from Rajasthan, has set up his own handlooms in the state. The weavers he employs have worked with him for years. He makes sure they receive medical, retirement and other support. “It was 1990 when I first got involved with people who were at that time doing amazing things with handlooms. I was a student at Shri Ram College of Commerce and visited the WSC to see these looms at work. I was like a photocopy person, running around getting things done. But I was mesmerised by what I saw. It made me realise how important the handloom is to the design palate,” he says.

Almost 26 years later, Singh is back at the Delhi WSC along with fellow designers Anju Modi, Sunita Shankar and Rahul Mishra. This time, he’s here to lend support to the sector and discuss matters of the industry with Irani. “I’m very optimistic about the handloom’s future. There are challenges, but they are also our advantages—it depends how we are going to use them,” he says.

As Irani moves away from the crowd of weavers gathered outside the Centre, the designers have a quick meeting with her. They talk about her trip to Paris, global marketing channels for khadi, doing away with entertainment tax on fashion shows (“We are a business, not entertainment,” says an indignant Mishra) and the need for a collaborative push in the handloom sector. As Irani prepares to leave, Shubhra returns with a few friends for a second round of selfies. Looking at her phone screen and touching the cheek that the Minister had patted, she whispers, “I don’t know if she will help my mother earn more money. But at least she’s listening.”

Smriti Irani is an idyll-shatterer, and the force of her conviction leaves a trail of appreciation as well as admonition. On the stump in 2014, she gave Rahul Gandhi the biggest scare of his life in Amethi. Like her mentor, she is a campaigner even in power. Her current campaign has the potential to dress up 21st century India in the vivid colours of its heritage. She has learnt to live with harrumphers, but she knows that this is her culture war that strikes a fine balance between aesthetics and business—and passion.