Bengal handloom sarees – catching up with urban tastes


Bengal handloom saree border

Bengal handloom saree border design

Ever wondered why Bengal handloom sarees you generally find in stores are too loud in colour?

I have been asked this question many times by friends or acquaintances, and by Chandana Pathak here on this blog.

Why do we find the subtle and understated Bengal handloom saree of our choice only in designer boutiques or exclusive stores?

Well, there are a number of reasons. 

For one, boutiques or designer stores  actually pick and choose a lot during procurement. Often they provide exclusive design inputs or colour schemes to the weaver. Some saree trading houses also have dedicated looms that weave exclusive designs.

They manage to cater to the understated urban taste and charge a premium for that.

But the handloom weavers  get little or no share of this premium. Boutiques order in very small quantities, and the handloom weaver’s overheads like loom set up etc. get spread over a small batch size. Cost per unit is therefore higher.

The Rural Bias

The bulk of Bengal handlooms are still worn in the districts – in villages and small towns. And handloom weavers find it easier to produce sarees in louder (brighter – no offense meant) colours that seem to be preferred in the rural and semi-urban markets. So Bengal handloom sarees are losing out on the urban market share, in spite of having a steady and loyal clientele.

Problems

The Bengal handloom saree weavers are facing a huge lot of obstacles, like

  • Little access to institutional credit for working capital
  • Severe dependence on moneylenders (Mahajans) who squeeze out margins
  • Poor marketing opportunities for the independent weavers
  • Failure of the cooperative system – including State government aided Tantuja and Tantusree
  • Poor access to modern designs and technical inputs
  • Competition from powerlooms (now allowed entry into the handloom sector) churning out sarees in bulk

So much so, that weaver families at it for generations are turning away to other professions – even to work as unskilled labour in other sectors. Truly tragic, this, considering that Bengal handloom is a cottage industry that has produced handloom textiles of the highest quality for centuries, enthralling the world with its jamdanis and muslins, balucharis and tassars.

Is the picture too grim? Please don’t lose hope!

Success Stories

There are success stories even in these hard times, like Bappaditya Khan of Shantipur, all of 32, who started out from scratch and is doing excellent work already besides providing employment to a number of fellow weavers (expect a post on his work shortly!).

Government Intervention

The Union government has planned a massive intervention in the handloom sector by adopting the integrated cluster approach. 20 such clusters are already under way all over India, providing a boost to traditional handloom weaving. Five mega clusters have just been announced in the 2009 -10 budget, including one in Nadia district covering Shantipur, Fulia, Habibpur, etc.

Government agencies like NABARD too have been running handloom clusters.

Why Clusters?

The purpose of these integrated clusters is to provide raw material (yarn) at mill gate rates, provide technical support and advice over all aspects of handloom weaving, create a diverse range of products, and help in the marketing effort as well. Structural changes like forming consortia and self help groups are also on the agenda.

Designers

Trained designers (including yours truly!) are now working with these clusters to help the weavers blend tradition with modernity and cater to current tastes in a proactive manner.

So hopefully in a few months’ time you’ll find the Bengal handloom saree you are looking for right in your neighbourhood saree store!

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