'Craft'y comeback

'Craft'y comeback

Chanderi textiles

'Craft'y comeback

It is common knowledge that one of the most sought-after saree types in India is the gossamer-thin, hand-woven Chanderi, an exquisite blend of cotton, silk and zari threads, which can be found in almost every saree connoisseur’s wardrobe.

Yet, what many don’t know is that despite its popularity, this traditional handloom was on the verge of dying out, before being revived through the efforts made by the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), a Delhi-based NGO, headed by Osama Manzar.

DEF brought the power of the digital world, combined with Information Communication Technology (ICT) to the weavers’ hub of Chanderi, in the Ashoknagar district of Madhya Pradesh, where the weaving culture can be at least traced back to the 14th century, if not earlier. 

The Chanderi fabric, borrowing its name from its place of origin, finds mention in many a historical account, including the Ain-e-Akbari, written by Abul Fazl during the Mughal emperor Akbar’s reign, and the Maasir-e-Alamgiri, written during Aurangzeb’s reign, which talks about the weavers producing an extremely fine fabric with gold and silver woven into it. A fabric so exceptional, and expensive, that it was woven only for members of the royal family and the aristocracy. 

Although the tradition of weaving in Chanderi continued well into the 20th century and beyond, the Gazetteer of the Princely State of Gwalior reported in 1907 that the industry was ailing. Even in modern times, where more people had access to the fabric, there came a point when the demand for Chanderi sarees began to deteriorate, owing to various reasons.

The next generation of weavers was no longer interested in carrying the burden of a dying legacy. Most began migrating to other towns in search of work, while the rest took up menial jobs to make ends meet. However, a timely intervention by DEF at the behest of the then IT minister, Jyotiraditya Scindia, resulted in project Chanderiyaan being initiated in 2009. At the helm was Shahid Ahmad, the project head, who has nurtured this initiative ever since. 

Plan of action

A baseline survey undertaken by DEF threw up distressing facts. It revealed that the monthly income for a weaver’s family averaged a little over Rs 2000. Also, that their poor living conditions, lack of education, inadequate working capital and inaccessibility to the direct markets guaranteed weaver exploitation by middlemen. Plus, absence of modern technologies including digital media in their lives was enough to sound the death knell for such an ancient craft. 

To get things going, Ahmad brought digital literacy classes along with basic English lessons to the community. Next, he introduced them to the advantages of Computer-Aided Design / Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software. The weavers were trained to move on from the tedious process of hand-drawn designs on graph paper to the computerised ones. Digitisation made the task of churning out new designs quicker — the entire process now only took a few hours, instead of days.

The designers also learnt to take photographs and draw inspiration from the motifs and stone carvings on the hundreds of historical monuments spread across Chanderi, which they then incorporated as patterns and designs for the sarees. Today, the design library holds more than 20,000 designs for the weavers to choose from.

The next most important ICT intervention was to make weaving on the jacquard loom more efficient. Instead of the process of manually punching hundreds of cards in a sequence, Ahmad devised a way where they could be punched automatically in a machine, guided by the design software. This significantly reduced the weaving time, thereby increasing productivity. The weavers now had enough work to last them an entire month, unlike earlier. Ahmad’s first goal of getting them more work was accomplished.

He then introduced these weavers to additional options of livelihood through stitching, block printing and embroidery. They could now create accessories like stoles, dupattas, kurtas etc for the domestic and international market. With fresh designs, innumerable colour options to choose from, and a faster supply chain in place, the Chanderi was once again in demand.

As luck would have it, around this time, actors Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor visited Chanderi to promote their film 3 Idiots, and also highlighted the cause of the weavers. Aamir bought a beautiful black-and-gold saree for his co-star, which brought the attention of the media and further brought the Chanderi back into the limelight. Till date, the excited villagers haven’t stopped talking about it.  Another proud moment for Chanderi was when one of their trained designers had his design entry picked for the tri-coloured Chanderi stoles that were gifted to athletes during the 2010 Commonwealth games in New Delhi.

Holistic change

Ahmad calls the development in Chanderi “holistic”. A weaver’s average household income has more than tripled. The community now has access to cybercafés, ATMs, Wi-Fi enabled schools with computer labs and a local health centre, that offers tele-health programmes. With a new website in place, tourism too has picked up. 

To further connect the weavers directly with buyers and eliminate middlemen, www.chanderiyaan.net, an e-commerce website, was launched. Ahmad proudly claims that today, weavers and their families can complete the entire sale process independently, from designing and weaving, to photographing the finished product, editing the photos and putting them online, to even handling the packaging and dispatching of the products. 

Figures show that from an annual turnover of 65 crores, the Chanderi handloom industry has grown to over 150 crores, in a span of five years. A joint case-study by the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Kolkata and the Institute of Rural Management Anand, (IRMA), was also undertaken to document the success of project Chanderiyaan.  So successful is the model that DEF has been asked to replicate a similar rural development initiative in other weaving clusters of Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. 

A software engineer by profession, Ahmad laughs and says that he’s more of a textile engineer now. But his plans for Chanderi are far from done. He wants to explore the possibility of growing silk worms in Chanderi and manufacture silk, helping weavers to produce their own raw material and cut down on import costs. He sees it as an additional source of livelihood for the community, bringing them a step closer to preserving Chanderi’s textile legacy.

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