My earliest association with handloom goes back to the time when I was a little girl. It fascinated me to see the women in my family, including my mother, drape themselves in flowing, elegantly woven fabrics. To me, these garments presented delightful opportunities to show off my knowledge of colours and animal motifs. As I matured, my understanding of this traditional art started taking shape. I did not know it then, but my childhood laid the foundation of what would become a lifelong romance with one of India’s priceless traditions – weaving and handloom fabrics.
The appreciation for handloom fabrics was further developed during my years as a student in Kolkata (previously Calcutta). Historically, undivided Bengal has had a rich association with handloom, particularly fine muslin, linen and cotton. Even today, it is home to handloom clusters which are keeping age-old traditions alive. Growing up in the midst of this rich heritage was another key influence in my sartorial evolution.
When I think about the history of weaving and handloom in India, I close my eyes and, in my mind, I see a blur of images. I imagine people from the Indus Valley Civilization dressed in their simple cotton wraps, possibly the precursors to sarees. Coming down the ages, the epics and Vedic texts evoke memories of women from both common and royal households dressed in vastras befitting their stature. I wander into the Mughal Age with its rich history of textiles and weaving before ending my journey with images of the charkha and khadi from India’s Swadeshi movement.
Fascinating stories of prominent women with a fondness for handloom
Throughout India’s rich history, from the ancient ages to the modern era, handloom and natural fabrics have been a key element in the country’s cultural heritage. In each of these historical time periods, handloom – and more specifically handloom sarees – has received patronage from celebrated women who have knowingly or unknowingly been trendsetters in popularizing this traditional art. And who can fault them? The creations of traditional weavers have enamoured countless women who have used the handloom saree to carve a distinct identity for themselves.
Although my inspiration for starting Six Yard Story lies in an innate desire to protect India’s weaving and handloom traditions, I have also been deeply inspired by several women who have draped themselves in handwoven sarees with pride and elegance. These women belong to different eras, come from different backgrounds and have played key roles in giving shape to India’s sociocultural and political heritage.
From Indira Gandhi’s impeccable taste in handloom to Jaya Jaitly, Sonia Gandhi, Smriti Irani and Nirmala Sitharaman’s elegant collections of handwoven sarees, I have admired women political leaders who have been ambassadors of India’s traditional heritage. Leading ladies from India’s film industry, including Rekha, the late Sridevi and Vidya Balan, have also proudly flaunted their love for handwoven sarees, especially Kanjeevaram, on multiple occasions. For prominent businesswomen Naina Lal Kidwai and Indra Nooyi, handwoven sarees are a regular part of their power dressing repertoire.
Reviving India’s rich cultural heritage
The handloom industry is a source of livelihood for millions of weavers and their families. Over the last few months, I have been privileged to meet many such families in some of the remotest villages in India. What has been immensely moving for me is the fact that many of them endure extreme poverty to keep the art of traditional handloom weaving alive. For these artisans, weaving has a higher purpose – it is a preservation of India’s ancient folklore, myths and sociocultural practices.
However, there is a real and imminent danger of these artists being forgotten if steps are not taken to keep their art alive. The proliferation of mills and power looms, consumer preferences for fast fashion, and apathetic policies have consigned weaving and handloom to the fringes of Indian society’s fashion choices. The onus is on us to highlight the cultural significance of this vital part of our country’s intangible heritage. And we can do that by making handloom sarees an indispensable part of our wardrobes.
In the past few years, Indian fashion designers have been leading efforts for the revival of handloom products. Efforts by prominent designers such as Ritu Kumar, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Abraham & Thakore, Anita Dongre, Madhu Jain, Sanjay Garg (Raw Mango) and Gaurang Shah to redefine and revive handloom sarees have brought them back in vogue. New and upcoming designers are also playing a crucial part in reviving traditional handloom sarees and fabrics.
As a passionate believer in the rich heritage of Indian handlooms, our endeavour is to weave handloom sarees back into the fabric of our daily lives. By procuring sarees directly from weavers, our aim is to eliminate middlemen and improve the artisans’ financial condition. For us, this is the true meaning of revival. India’s handloom industry, whose products are in high demand both domestically as well as internationally, needs many more passionate believers to save this dying art form.