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India’s Disappearing Hand-loom Weavers
Text & Photography ©Nayan Sthankiya
The hand-loom is an ancient industry in India and its use varies throughout the region, in some parts of Kerela, Tamilnadu, Assam and Orissa, it has become a mature industry, while in other parts it is still used primarily as a household staple.
The last 100 years has seen the mechanized loom take over the industry. Still a somewhat viable means to earn a living in India and most Asian countries like Srilanka, Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia but in part, due to competition and the ever insatiable need for higher and higher profits the hand-loom has all but disappeared in most modern countries and is slowly joining that fate in India and Asia.
With the current energy and environmental crisis looming over the entire planet, self sustainability is becoming more and more important. Hand-looms are environment-friendly and is an independent and autonomous technology. Energy impacts are almost zero. The industry lends itself to sustainable development and reduction of negative impacts on environment and ecology as well as providing sustainable employment for rural India.
There are some 200,000 to 500,000 weavers on the subcontinent producing some of the most coveted saris in India but they receive only a fraction of the selling price. With the market flooded with cheaply made saris from mechanical looms many weavers are poorer than ever having to resort to farming, manual labour or begging to make ends meet.
Power-looms became increasingly common in the 1990’s, producing several sari’s a day – the same time it takes a traditional weaver to produce a yard of classic six-meter sari on a wooden hand-loom, thread by thread. Weavers, to compete, have to work 12 hours a day or more for less money.
The weavers are typical of the millions of rural Indians left behind by market forces, rapid industrialization and global free trade while the country’s metropolises enjoy prosperity from a booming economy.
The national and state governments do have several programs pertaining to production inputs, market support and development, meant to safeguard the interests of the weaving community, but ineffective implementation of the schemes and the changing context of the textile industry – increasing competition from the power-loom and mill sectors – has been largely responsible for the crisis in the hand-loom industry.
Even the Chinese have jumped on the band wagon producing machines made sari’s that are sold by dishonest dealers as the real thing. Indian weavers say they can’t compete leaving many looms to fall silent. The trenches dug in the floors of their homes to house the looms’ pedals now resemble unfilled graves.
Before in the early days the families earned so much that they could afford to build multi-storied homes, grand by Indian village standards. Today, once proud artisans have to sell off family heirlooms for money and rent land to farm.
Though it employs the largest number of people in India the hand-loom industry is considered a dinosaur industry. The headlong drive of modernization often marginalizes tradition for new and quality for quantity. However there are still many advocates of hand-looms for reasons of tradition, culture, quality and ideology. Despite these voices in the wilderness the hand-loom industry is in dangerous decline impacting the livelihoods of the weavers and also instituting an artistic bankruptcy for future generations.