Bengal Handloom Down the Ages


Happy days

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 tassar sari

bengal handloom tussar sari

Woven Air

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”.

Dark skies

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!
bengal handloom tassar sari detail

bengal handloom tussar sari detail

Resurrection

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!

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10 comments on “Bengal Handloom Down the Ages

    • You will, you will! These are prototypes developed somewhere in Western Bengal (mystery!). We will soon arrange an exhibition of Bengal handloom sarees in Kolkata – directly by weavers’ cooperatives.

      Watch this space (“exhibitions” page to be added soon), or you could be notified by e-mail if you like.

      Thanks,
      Aditi

  1. Why isn’t there diversion into handloom fabrics which can be made into other kinds of clothes, salwar kutas or dresses or shirts as is done with south indian cottons?

    • Dress materials are being developed with Bengal handloom, but somehow they haven’t yet flooded the market as yet. You will get to see a lot this festive season. Government sponsored handloom clusters at Shantipur, Samudragarh, Kalna and others are taking the initiative in this direction.

      Aditi

  2. Dear Aditi,
    Thanks for your replies.
    As a middle aged office goer addicted to handlooms I find that these sarees are mostly designed with bright contrasts. We find few sarees with a more sophisticated colour palette using say contiguous colours on the colour wheel.
    Hand loom sarees should be designed keeping in mind various age groups/ occasions/seasons. We however rarely find this except in some exorbitantly priced designer stores. Is there any remedy?

    Chandana Pathak

    • Hi Chandana,

      Sorry for the late reply! I got caught up in a bad deadline situation, just extricated myself.
      Please take a look at the new post – I hope that answers your question!

      Aditi

  3. While handloom is perhaps neglected by consumers in Bengal (unless the same is given garish makeovers by use of fabric paints or other such embellishments), in places like Delhi, people who run “boutiques”, would procure the good stuff in bulk and sell these for atleast double the price to their clientele. In fact, sitting in Calcutta, one may procure the best of Fulia and Shantipur in elitist stores like Weaver’s Studio, Fabindia or Artisana.

    It is a common complaint of weavers that powerloom products have killed their business. To instigate interest in handloom, new designs / experiments are welcome. However, even with our present ware, what is primarily required is adequate exposure of the variety of handloom products to the common people at regular retail outlets in West Bengal. Once the bridge is built between the discerning consumer and the products, I am sure, fresh blood would be infused in the ailing handloom sector.

    • Dear Bedabrata,

      Thanks for your well thought out comments!

      You have rightly pointed out that such stores add a high margin, and I wouldn’t mind them doing that if they put in some real effort to promote the stuff, or nurture the weavers. After all, they have their overheads and their margins to think of – retail margins in India are so high that you find big players entering the market everyday. In the end, margins are bound to taper off – if the marketing effort from the weavers (or the agencies working on their behalf) do a good job of widening the market.

      What I do mind is the way they suck out working capital from the poor weavers by making payments long after they have actually sold the products – sometimes as late as six months or more. Often they end up not paying the weavers at all!

      These stores are only after quick profit, and they push working capital costs so high that weavers have to fall back on Mahajans for credit. That pushes the wage rates of skilled weavers to abysmal depths, sometimes as low as the minimum wage rate for unskilled labour in West Bengal.

      As I said, the situation is grim but not hopeless. Watch this space for updates!

      Thanks,
      Aditi Mukherjee

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