Thanks To Indore’s Royal Lady, 300 Women Weavers Are Reviving Madhya Pradesh’s 500-Yr-Old Heritage

Image Credits: WomenWeave

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For centuries, the Maheshwari sarees and handloom fabrics from Madhya Pradesh have definitely maintained their esteem among the true blue handloom enthusiasts, but, with the advent of power looms and the booming popularity of imported and synthetic fabrics, the proud heritage of Madhya Pradesh started disappearing from the common man’s wardrobe.

As a result, in the post-Independence years, the weavers of Maheshwar were losing out on work. Worse was the condition of the womenfolk, for whom financial independence was a far-fetched dream.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

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Determined to revive the dying craft, a young woman from Dallas, USA emerged as a saviour for Maheshwar’s weavers’ community. Sally Holkar, a Stanford University graduate got inducted into the royal family tree of Indore after marrying prince Richard Holkar in 1966. Intrigued by the prowess of the weavers and the finesse of Maheshwari handloom, Sally Holkar started REHWA society in 1978 to revive the dying industry with the women in the forefront.

She was the first person to recognise the efforts of the women and envisioned to propel them to prominence. So her workforce at REHWA comprised exclusively of women weavers.

The pride of Maheshwar

The fascinating weaving pattern of Maheshwari handloom, where warps of cotton yarn are interspersed with wefts in silk threads, has received consistent patronage from the royal Holkar family of Indore since the 18th century when Rani Ahilya Bai of the dynasty is deemed to have fashioned the unique style herself.

But the post-independence setback for the industry took a heavy toll on the livelihood of Maheshwar’s weavers. Some were even compelled to uproot themselves from the craft of their ancestors and start working as mere labourers in textile factories.

How WomenWeave came into existence

The story was far more compelling for the women. From dyeing, drying or spinning the yarn to adjusting the spindle or setting up the handloom machine – the steps leading up to the final task of weaving were all silently performed by the feisty women of Maheshwar. However, their labour was unsung, their role was unheard of. Being a weaver’s mother, wife, sister or daughter sufficed their identities, even though they had to put in the hardest efforts behind the final handwoven marvel. Sally’s REHWA society managed to address the woes of these women, turning them into expert weavers.

WomenWeave Sally Holkar

For a long time, the enterprise continued using imported silk from China. Soon, the realisation dawned upon Sally that they can actually make a complete shift to indigenous cotton yarns, sourcing it from local farmers and empowering them in turn as well.

With this objective in mind, in 2003, she established the charitable trust WomenWeave.

Present stature of WomenWeave

At present, WomenWeave provides regular employment for over 300 women in Maheshwar, who are graciously keeping their tradition alive in a completely sustainable manner. Another group of around a hundred young men and women from all over India are being trained in traditional weaving at The Handloom School set up by Holkar.

WomenWeave Sally Holkar

A global forerunner in the sector of sustainable textiles, WomenWeave products are procured and coveted by conscious consumers and designers all around the world. The magic designed by the women weavers of Maheshwar is sported by supermodels and celebrities on glamorous ramps and glitzy events.

The feisty women weavers of Maheshwar

“My husband now cooks for me on Women’s Day and I love it,” beams Swarna, one of the weavers at WomenWeave’s Gudi Mudi Khadi project. The scenario might seem a bit unfamiliar in a rural setup, but therein lies the success of WomenWeave. Over the past one and a half decades, not only have they empowered the women with full-time jobs, but they have also succeeded in altering the household dynamics.

“We have always believed very firmly that women have essentially been the backbone of the weaving industry. Only their efforts went unnoticed. With industrialisation in the sector, men migrated and moved to work with automated machines that reduce their labour. But, we noticed that women have the kind of patience to weave by handloom and maintain the elegance of the famed fabric,” shares Nivedita Rai, the managing director of WomenWeave.

WomenWeave Sally Holkar

Women of all ages – from 22 years to 65 years of age – are diligent weavers at the weaving studio in Maheshwar. “Some are single mothers, some are helpless widows while a few of them are differently-abled as well. The one thing that all of them have in common is the crude experience of being marginalised by a patriarchal society. Today, they are proudly earning their livelihood with honest hard work,” expresses Nivedita.

“The best part about my work is how I get to nurture my creativity. Customers come from faraway cities and countries and give us orders for unique designs in products. I really enjoy weaving those,” shares Girija, who has been a Woman Weaver for the past thirteen years. The delight in her eyes tells that her work is more than a matter of sustenance, but one of deep, deep passion.

The paradigm transcendence in household dynamics

Some of the farmers supplying cotton to WomenWeave are women – the hard-working lot who toil in the field yearlong with a plough, a sickle or bare hands to assist them. There are the spinners and the processors for the yarn, and finally, the weavers, all of whom are exclusively women.

It would not be fair to overlook a tainted past in the weaver households when the domineering men would squander their income on drinking or gambling. The women hardly had a say in the financial facet, and they had to make do for the month with whatever paltry amount their husbands handed over to them. Be it cooking food or feeding the children, everything had to be accomplished within that amount.

Today, they are heading the finances at their homes, thus eliminating alcohol abuse and instances of domestic violence. The single mothers whose husbands estranged them no more need to live at the mercy of their in-laws or elderly parents. The clickety-clack of the handloom thus translates to the powerful voices of these women that resonate within the four walls of their home.

Sustainability – from farm to fabric

“From farm to fabric, we strictly follow a sustainable procedure,” emphasises Nivedita. “Our handloom machinery does not run on electricity. Everything is manually operated. The dyes used are completely organic and each motif or pattern is precisely handcrafted,” she elaborates.

As of now, WomenWeave finds a global market among patrons of sustainable fashion. “Since the raw materials for sustainable textiles are quite expensive, the end product becomes somewhat high-end. Still, the concept is slowly trickling down even to the middle-income strata of the society. Synthetic clothes are cheaper, perhaps more convenient as well. But, we hope WomenWeave helps to raise awareness about eco-friendly fashion,” Nivedita shares.

Weaving khadi sarees or silk fabrics every day, the women have grown aware of sustainable practices in their daily lifestyle and help promote the same.

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It's not how much we give
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- Mother Theresa Quote

A Group Of Karnataka Women Pushes Alcoholic, Abusive Husbands & Social Stigma Aside, Earns Through Recycling Workshop

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At thirteen, Neela was married off to a husband much older than her. At sixteen, she became a mother, and at nineteen, she was a widow. Despite having no regular income, she was faced with the daunting task of taking care of her in-laws, her own parents and of course, her little daughter. For young Neela, life has never known a trajectory where her voice is heard and her destiny is not blamed. That was until she came under the ambit of Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation and discovered a new identity for herself. The taste of financial independence was indeed delightful for her, but her zeal to work hard for a newer, better life stood at the helm of it all.

No one has ever become poor by giving – Anne Frank

Founded by Kameshwari from Bengaluru, the foundation works with distressed women in three Karnataka villages, helping them to earn their livelihood by handcrafting a wide range of decorative or daily-use household items. Like Neela, nineteen women with struggles similar or worse, have found a new lease of life at Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation. Every piece of item created at Hosa Belaku is recycled from leftover fabrics, paper, dry waste or scrap metals.

Hosa Belaku – a new dawn

“I have been working in the social sector for the past two decades. Since 2013, I got associated with Belaku Trust, who was working with rural women in Karnataka,” shares Kameshwari, a former legal executive. 

“Most of these women were victims of alcohol abuse and harassment on the domestic front. Some were widowed, single mothers or differently-abled – making life all the more hard for them in a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, circumstances led Belaku Trust to close their operations in 2015. The women were left in a lurch,” she narrates.

Some of these women desperately pleaded with Kameshwari to let them sustain their only source of income and independence. Moved by their plight, Kameshwari resolved to do her best to help as many women as possible. Investing a sizeable proportion of her own savings, she launched the Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation in 2017.

At present, the foundation has active workshops in three villages in the suburbs of Bengaluru, namely, Halasuru, Achalu and Kadahalli. 

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The gritty women of Hosa Belaku

At the prime of her life, Pavithra’s husband left her for another woman. Heartbroken and devastated, she was clueless about how to earn her living. The story is similar for many other women in these villagers, with careless, abusive or estranged husbands, most being alcohol addicts. The pangs of poverty would sometimes become more unbearable than the constant physical abuse by their husbands. Yet, they had no way to have some respite from the ordeal. Few women did work seasonally as agricultural labourers. The backbreaking toil in the sun would take a toll on their health, while the deplorable situation at their homes would haunt them for the rest of the year.

Empower Poor Women To Rise Out Of Poverty

Kameshwari mortgaged her jewelery for Rs 6 lakh to start Hosa Belaku Artisian's Foundation. Most of the women employed in this foundation face domestic violence in their homes. Kindly donate here : bit.ly/hosabelaku

Posted by Efforts For Good on Sunday, July 21, 2019

Society, with its primitive doctrines, only made it worse for these women. For instance, nobody was willing to marry Shivlingi because she had a facial deformity. After a point, her own brothers abandoned her as if she had become a liability.

If one visits these women now, they would be found basking in their newfound success with Hosa Belaku. But, not only the women, Hosa Belaku’s workforce comprises a 19-year-old young man as well. All his life, Yogi, who is affected by Polio, had accompanied his mother everywhere. She used to work with the foundation until she recently passed away in an accident. Yogi’s father is visually-challenged, so the entire family received a major emotional and financial setback after his mother’s sudden demise. A helpless Yogi would painstakingly drag himself from door to door in search of work. “We took him in and trained him in toy-making. Now you would find him in a corner, making beautiful toys for children,” shares a proud Kameshwari.

Sunshine, Lamp and Dawn – Illuminating lives

The women groups at the three villages are designated with three unique names and assigned with a unique task each. Kirana (Sunshine), the group at Kadahalli is involved with paper products, making notepads, bags and jewellery.

The Halsuru group Deepa (Lamp) has adopted the art of block printing. Vibrant, stylish and beautiful handbags, cushion covers, stoles and notebooks are curated with the utmost care and precision by the women.

At Ushe (Dawn), needle and thread rules. Women who were already skilled in sewing and embroidery now earn by making stuffed toys, patchwork products and embroidered fabrics.

True to their names, the groups have indeed brought new light into the lives of their employees.

Suma and Jayamma are both senior workers at Kirana who have succeeded in constructing small concrete houses for themselves, a huge step up from the dilapidated huts they spent their youth in. Another aged lady in the same group has another compelling achievement to be proud of. Bearing the taunts and trauma from her drunkard husband all her life, she has single-handedly raised a son and a daughter with proper education. Her son, who is currently an aspiring engineer, was supported with a laptop from Hosa Belaku. Honamma, a young widow from the group Deepa is treading a similar path, raising her son all on her own.

The only solace

How much gratitude these women have towards Hosa Belaku is perhaps evident from Shri’s unwavering dedication. Diabetes is taking a toll on her eyesight yet she refuses to give up and continues etching her grit on the ornate block-printed fabrics.

The reason for such gratitude is manifold. For the conscious urban consumers, Hosa Belaku is striving to save the environment with their 100%-recycled policy. But, for the workers, it is the lifeline which not only offers them economic security but also allows them a place to voice, share and resolve the problems plaguing their lives.

“They come here and find a peaceful break from their household obligations. Some still face domestic violence regularly, the workshop is an escape for them. They discuss their issues and try to find feasible solutions. It takes the load off their tired minds. The work here is a breath of fresh air for them,” Kameshwari asserts.

“We have been assisted time and again by established non-profits and retail chains across Bengaluru, who have graciously showcased and marketed products made by our artisans. We would like more people to know about Hosa Belaku and its incredible women, and respect their brilliant spirit by purchasing their crafts,” Kameshwari expresses her wish.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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