The delicate thread of livelihood: A tangail from Fulia
Last week, this time, I was getting ready to go with two friends to the small weaving village of Fulia in West Bengal.
The expedition was planned following a casual question about saree shops in Kolkata. I am a great fan of Bengal cotton sarees. They are simple, elegant, hardy and still light enough for the hot, humid weather of cities like Bombay, Chennai and indeed, Kolkata itself. They are also always wide/ tall enough for tall women to wear comfortably, a great virtue in my family. And need I say, they last forever; out in the balcony two days ago, was a saree I had bought in 1996--worn first to outings, then to work meetings, then at home during the day by my mother and now in the night.... still going strong. (Very simple saree on the right was the first cotton saree I chose for myself at 14, and the one I wore to our school farewell party thirty-one years ago.... still good!)
Anyway, this post is not about sarees or our clothing preferences. It's about the consequences our changing preferences have for traditional artisans.
I want to share with you some photographs I took in the village, with the encouragement of my friend. I don't normally take photographs of strangers and am uncomfortable when I see tourists do that. People are not curiosities! But I want to share these pictures that I took in a weaver's shed, with the weaver's nonchalant assent. And I do mean nonchalant. He barely looked up from his work, letting the rhythm keep him focused in a way I wish I could emulate.
We had driven out in an air-conditioned vehicle and could still feel the cruel mid-day sun, past the tinted window-glass. He wove with that sun beating down his bare back.
We had gone to Fulia at least partly in search of lower prices. But travel is such a good teacher! The visit reminded me of things I knew, but don't think about.
It takes so many days' work to weave a single saree, and the work is so fine. We take one look at a saree and say, "No." Or if we are more outspoken, "Ugh!" or "Who'll buy that?" If we actually like the saree, we are likely to second guess the quoted price because we are sure that the customer is taken to be gullible. The person who really loses out is the artisan/ artist who created the saree in the first place. But we don't think of that.
If I buy a saree for Rs. 400/-, I will then make sure I have a petticoat/ underskirt that's just right and a blouse that matches. I might even have two blouses made--a dressy one and a simple one. More fabric, and tailoring, too. Depending on where I live, I might spend between 700-900 rupees to make my saree ready-to-wear, but the weaver will still get a small fraction of that. And that's the fraction affected by the habit of haggling over prices.
But if I don't even buy a handloom saree, with or without haggling, what happens? That's the point of my post, really.
In the last few years, I have seen more and more Indian women move away from handloom. The most important reason is that handloom cloth is hard to maintain. It needs to be washed separately because bright dyes may bleed. It needs to be hung out to dry separately. Handloom sarees (and salwar-kameezes) often need starching. They almost always need ironing. Who has time? Who has space in India's densely packed cities? And how many can afford even the roadside istrivala (ironing-cart) on a regular basis? Fair enough.
Handloom is also more expensive. There are inexpensive weaves but they don't last as long. And synthetic daily wear sarees are cheaper than better quality handloom cottons. Understandable.
But how about those who can? Why do Karan Johar's heroines wear chiffon where Chanderi or Maheshwari weaves can look as delicate and more gorgeous? Why are TV bahus in georgette and crepe when a Mysore silk or Paithani might work as well? What about TV anchors? And evening gowns on Indian red-carpets? These are all people who can afford the sarees and laundry.
Most of all, it is the increasing adoption of the climate-inappropriate, funereal black business suit that upsets me. This is a hot, mostly sweaty country. Why would Indian women (or men) choose to wear ghastly Western style business wear (with stockings/socks and shoes) here? Moreover, when we are talking about climate change all the time, why consciously adopt office-wear that makes it mandatory to run air-conditioning all the time?
I work with young people who freak when I suggest (in jest) that they wear a saree to our programmes. It's such a beautiful dress, at any age! Our compromise solution: the salwar kameez. Because left to themselves, they would be in western clothes. In what way are t-shirts and jeans or funereal (I repeat the word on purpose) office suits more beautiful or appropriate in India than these? And aren't other people tempted by them as I always am?
With each such choice--whether by the office-goer or the student or Manish Malhotra--the weaver's livelihood diminishes. And an important part of our heritage is lost, as this traditional art, passed on from generation to generation, dies. Change is the order of life, I accept, but why usher in change unthinkingly? Will we then wait for an outsider to come and re-discover our textile heritage, willing then to pay 4000 Rs for something we shun at Rs 400? This, of course, is the FabIndia success story.
Are you now tired of my tirade, asking: So what am I supposed to do? Here's what I would request: Buy handloom when you can. And give artisan's bazaars like Dastkar or government cooperative stores a chance, before you head out to the big department stores. Try Co-optex or Apco or Tantuja or Mrignayanee, at least occasionally. Your small detour might save someone's livelihood or life, and will definitely save a part of your heritage from disappearing.
I am a political scientist by training. My research interests lie at the intersection of gender, security and governance issues. I like to write and this blog represents to me an independent middle ground between academic or consultancy writing and the more personal writing that I sometimes do.