Unsung Heroes Creating Livelihoods In Rural India
Rural & Marketing|March 2017

The second largest employment provider in India, handloom and handicraft sector is the most neglected and undermined by policy makers. It is only social will of some individuals and organisations, the sector is witnessing a transformation from within. Mohd Mustaquim brings to fore unsung heroes of the sector.

Mohd Mustaquim

A sense of satisfaction was clearly visible on her face. With an average daily earning of Rs 400 to 600, Laharinbai, 38, was today able to send her 12 year old son Prem and 9 year old daughter Janki to the village school in remote Bajga village in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh. A transformation from traditional weaving to a skilled artisan, though not very easy, resulted in regular and modest income for her family. 

Belonging to a socially and economically backward community, Lahrinbai came into touch with a local not-for-profit organisation, WomenWeave in the second half of the year 2011. Inherited from her ancestors, earlier she had been doing traditional weaving in the village. After getting training from WomenWeave, she is now a skilled artisan who does weaving at her home. It fetches a modest earning to her. “Today I am able to spend easily on the daily needs of my family,” she says.

WomenWeave, Madhya Pradesh

With an aim to connect maximum number of women from the socially and economically backward communities, to provide them employment and to revive traditional weaving, Sally Holkar founded WomenWeave Charitable Trust in 2003 in Maheshwar district of Madhya Pradesh. As the business grew, the Trust established another training centre in 2009 at the remote Bajag villages in Dindori district of the state. The project has now established good business in both Indian and overseas markets.

Thus, a failing traditional craft is being revived and traditional tribal weavers earn much more than ever before. In 2015, a similar project has been started in far eastern, MP in Balaghat district.

The first challenge before WomenWeave was to establish credibility with downtrodden and disenfranchised tribals. Once the tribals were able to trust the project, they also began to improve their learning curve and gradually learned spinning and weaving up to international standards. This was a slow, but steady process as they were completely ignorant of advanced techniques and equipment. The yarn they learned to spin on Amba Charkas led to shrinkage and breakage that took time to overcome. When those challenges were overcome, the project began to make inroads in both national and international markets.

Design inputs from textile graduates of National Institute of Design were a big help in creating products acceptable in the international market. But the native skills and designs of the local tribals brought much to the saleability of the products.

“Getting skilled weavers with advance techniques was a big challenge. Thus, WomenWeave started The Handloom School in Maheshwar to impart training to young weavers for six months period. These weavers are taught barefoot business techniques, use of smartphones for business dealings, barefoot English, Colour and Weaving theories, Costing and pricing of products and many other subjects which enable them to deal directly with their markets,” Nivedita Rai, Executive Director- Gudi Mudi Khadi Project, WomenWeave.

The programme attracts traditional weavers between the age of 18 to 27. After graduating, the students return to their native places where they continue to weave special orders allocated by The Handloom School. Now, they are free to deal directly with their buyers. Many of them have already formed small clusters of independent 'business weavers' and are getting good income.

Promoted through numerous exhibitions, social media and local sale at Maheshwar, the Gudi Mudi Khadi products of Maheshwar have developed a large following and steady markets both in India and abroad. The products are expensive, by normal Indian standards, therefore they attract a select market both in India and abroad.

In the initial stages, WomenWeave raised funds from The Dallas Foundation (USA), from the Tata Trust, from HSBC Bank and from the MP government. After successful journey, the Gudi Mudi Khadi project is self sustaining today. However, the newest project at Balaghat requires funding. For this, WomenWeave is approaching many different government and non government sources to find the required funding. The Handloom School is presently funded by Tata Trust.

Highlighting future plans, Rai says, “WomenWeave plans to expand production in Khadi through various clusters where there are economically and socially deprived women willing to learn and work with Amba Charka spinning and weaving. The location of these clusters will become clear with time and experience.”

Craftizen, Karnataka 

Similarly, another initiative, Craftizen Foundation was founded in Bangalore in 2014 with a vision to preserve and evolve Indian craft skills so that they remain an integral part of cultural fabric. “We focus on craft based skill development and income enhancement, coupled with strategic interventions and business acumen support to enable sustainable livelihoods,” says founder and CEO, Mayura Balasubramanian.

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