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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.