In the middle of the 18th century, Bengal handloom weavers were a free and happy lot. They were hard working and unbelievably skilled. There was no monopoly in sight. Any perceived oppression could be taken care of in the local courts, however imperfect they might be.
Bengal handloom weavers got a very good price for a large variety of muslins – mulmul, alabalee, tanjib, nyansook, sarbati and buddun khas among others. Weaving skill was rewarded, and it was abundant all over Bengal. European (Dutch, French, and Armenian) and local traders competed for the fabulous textiles they wove. These esoteric fabrics were a rage in Europe, were often described as “woven air”, and compared to “evening dew” or the translucent “sherbet”.
The skies darkened for the weavers when the British East India Company began trading in Bengal. Within a hundred years, Bengal handloom, the backbone of rural and cottage industry, lay shattered. And the weaving community faced wholesale extinction for the first time.
Two factors were responsible for this.
- First, the British East India Company grabbed political power after Plassey (1757) and used it to start monopoly trading in Bengal handlooms. They forced weavers to take advances and made them sell exclusively to the Company at predetermined prices (often lower than market prices by 20% to 30%), gradually enslaving the weavers and driving many to abandon the profession.
- Secondly, the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain ushered in the era of mechanised production. Like any colonial power of the period, the British needed both a market and a source of raw materials for the cotton mills of Lancashire. The Indian handloom sector was an obstacle to both; so you can well imagine what its fate was going to be!
Long after the dust had settled on the grave of Indian handlooms, the growth of Indian nationalism helped take the first steps towards resurrection. Later on, it was a frail, bespectacled man in a dhoti, called “half naked fakir” by Churchill, who jump-started the revival of village handloom and handicrafts. Gandhi’s vision has outlasted the grandeur of five year plans and industrialisation drives in terms of employment generation capabilities.
Rising from the ashes
Bengal handloom has survived colonial exploitation, the famine of 1776, the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 and the painful dislocation of partition – rising from the ashes like the fabled phoenix. In doing so it has established the resilience and artistic wizardry of the millions of handloom weavers in India. Today it is poised to take a quantum jump, recession or no recession, and you and I will live to see that happen!