Indian handloom is renowned for its beauty and diversity. Most people are mesmerized by the texture and color of the most elaborate woven designs and needlework. Let’s take a look at the checkered history of this acclaimed art that is still holding strong in the face of numerous adversities and delighting textile enthusiasts the world over as we commemorate India’s rich heritage of handlooms on National Handloom Day (August 7).
The origins of handloom in the Indian subcontinent may be traced back to the Indus Valley Civilization, according to archaeological findings. Weavers received royal support with the rise of the Mughal empire, resulting in the invention of new textiles such as ‘Mulmul,’ ‘Benarsi Brocade,’ and ‘Jamawar,’ among others. As the world marveled at the ability of Indian weavers, demand for Indian textiles soared by leaps and bounds. In the 17th century, India produced 25% of the world’s textiles, with Bengal accounting for more than 50% of textiles and 80% of silks imported by the Dutch from Asia. Following Aryan immigrants in the area, they acquired and refined skills for weaving cotton and wool, as well as dyeing and embroidering these materials. Spinning, weaving, dyeing, and other textile-related crafts flourished as a cottage industry. However, the entry of the East India Company signaled the end of the Indian textile industry. The weavers were obliged to sell only to the British at exceedingly cheap prices, thereby putting them out of business.
The liberation war resurrected the Indian handloom industry, with Mahatma Gandhi leading the Swadeshi movement. In no other country has anything as fundamental as one’s clothes or a simple act like cotton spinning gotten so entwined with a national movement as it has in the United States. The modest charka (spinning wheel) and khadi became a powerful emblem of independence, self-determination, and national pride. Following independence, the Indian government took many measures to revive the handloom industry. In 1953, India’s Parliament approved the Khadi and Other Handloom Industries Development Act. In 1955, the All India Handloom Fabrics Marketing Cooperative Society was formed to promote the sale of fabrics produced by handloom cooperatives across India. Pioneering personalities like Suraiya Hasan Bose, Pupul Jayakar, and Laila Tyabji are also responsible for the resurgence of handlooms in India. Designers such as Ritu Kumar, Sabyasachi, Sanjay Garg, and others have given handloom weaves much-needed attention not only in India but throughout the world.
The Indian handloom sector now employs over 4.5 million people, both directly and indirectly, and is the country’s second-largest employment after agriculture. There are around 2.4 million looms of various types. In the fiscal year 2019, India’s handloom exports were US$ 343.69 million. With an anticipated purchase of US$ 93.94 million in FY19, the US was the largest importer of Indian handloom items, followed by the UK, Italy, and Germany with US$ 17.77 million, US$ 16.47 million, and US$ 14.65 million, respectively. Handloom production accounts for around 15% of total fabric output in India. India produces 95 per cent of all hand-woven cloth in the world.