In a world where machines triumph, India continues to believe that magnificence can only be handcrafted. For centuries now, handloom based weaving has been a tradition, an art form that families have protected and passed on through generations. It is believed that the earliest Indian fragment of cloth with a hansa (swan) design was excavated from a site near Cairo in Egypt and the hot, dry sand of the desert had acted as a preservative for the cloth.
In 1921, the Harrappan excavations indicated that the spindles and whorls revealed underneath the rubbles were originally used to weave fabric. This meant that India had known weaving ever since it bred civilisation. During the Vedic era, when religion had only begun to mark the path for woven India, the country had already become the oldest and the largest producer of cotton in the world.
The popularity of cotton weaving had rapidly spread across the world, but this time it wasn’t just about weaving the fabric. Weavers of India were now experimenting with colored threads and different methods of dyeing. Religious paintings on fabric were like gold, they were precious and treasured, often used as gifts. It quickly grew on to become a princely possession.
Soon came the Mauryas, followed by the Moghuls. During the 700 AD, India was already a flourishing land of rich art explored through the spinning wheel. Indians were painting and printing cotton fabrics. The famous ancient Indian fabrics include Mulmul Khas (King's Muslin), Jamdani (figured muslin), Banarasi brocade, Chand-tara, Dhup-chhaon, Mapchar, Morgala, Bulbul, chashm, Doshala, Kasaba or Chaddar, Rumal, Kashmir Shawl, Kanikar, Jamawar, Amilkar, Kashida, Phulkar, Bagh and Makmal.
In the shadows
Ancient Moghul poets have described the scintillating muslins and brocades as Abe-ravan (running water) & Shabnum (morning dew). They spoke about the beauty, sensitivity and diverse uses of Indian handloom across the world. But, then came the 1800s. The British Empire levied heavy taxes and turned India, once the largest exporter of cotton into an importer of cotton and cotton fabric.
The rise & the pride
In 1941, six years prior to a young independent India the government of India appointed a fact finding committee and it recommended the formation of an All India Handloom Board. Today, as we approach the seventy first year of Independence, the country prides itself to have built itself back to become the second largest producer of cotton. Over forty four lakh weavers, 78% of whom are women, support the production of handwoven fabric across the country that is now the second largest economic activity after agriculture.