Handloom Love: Don’t just buy, sometimes DIY

Our Guest Post by Kavita Rayirath echoes much of what I heard yesterday at the inauguration of Kalakshetra’s Niram-Thiram Festival. I got to know of it, courtesy Nalini and Simrat of Shilpi who have helped curate this series of workshops, lectures and exhibitions organized around the craft of natural dyeing techniques that exist across India.

My update of the Green Bazaar shared some notes about natural dyeing which formed a part of the Sustainable fabric workshop that I co-hosted with Chakra Design studio on Sunday.

The Kalakshetra festival chose to showcase the other aspect of why so many of us are fans / enthusiasts of natural dyeing – the intricacy, effort, research and craft that goes into the subject.

4 master craftsmen have been invited to share and demonstrate their craft over the course of this 4 day festival, and every day you can watch and get to try out a small portion of the craft yourself on your own dupatta which you can then take home.

Indigo Integrates India

We were introduced yesterday to Haji Ahmed Badshah Miyan, a traditional tie&dye (leheriya) master craftsman from Jaipur. Badshah Miyan has been recognized for his in-depth knowledge and understanding of colours, and the intricacy in his work. He received the National award in 2004 and the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini award in 2011. He is considered a master in the craft of Leheriya using azo free dyes, natural dyes and environmentally friendly methods.

1. badshah miyan leheriya

Leheriya is a textile craft that originated from Rajasthan and our earlier post covered some of the origins of the craft. The design pattern is inspired by rain drops, something a Rajasthani craftsman looked forward to and is made from fabric that has been rolled, tied and then dyed.

Badshah Miyan addressed the audience gathered yesterday almost exclusively in Hindi. He spoke about national pride and identity as he pointed out that almost every other country except ours speaks in the language of their nation when they travel. This master craftsman was also surprisingly humble and encouraging of his craft which has been honed for generations in his family. “Agar aapko ek accha cup chai banana aatha hain, tho aapko natural dyeing bhi aasani se aajayaga” – “If you know how to make a good cup of tea, then you too can learn to dye using natural colours”:.

I saw and heard a strong sense of Cultural integration and national pride when I listened to Badshah Miyan. He narrated with ease how Lord Shiva was considered to be the patron of natural dyeing and how he handed over this craft to the first dyer. He then quoted from the Atharva Veda and explained how a specific page in the Atharva Veda documents the making of Indigo dye.

“Why are we afraid of competition especially from China”, wondered Badshah Miyan. “We have so much of natural bounty, and such evolved ancient arts and crafts such as natural dyeing with us. All we need to do is to be true to our crafts and tradition and we can conquer the whole world,” he said with pride.

That natural dyes are dull and cannot be as bright as chemical dyes was a myth he broke in a few minutes as he proudly showed us samples of some of his and his father and grandfather’s work. A 100 year old pagdi worn by the Maharaja of Jaipur shone in pink looking like it had just been dyed.

3. 100 year old pagdi

Of course the process of natural dyeing is environmentally sustainable as well – it uses materials that are available in most kitchens (papaya peel, pomegranate rind, turmeric, etc), saves water, and is safe on skin and the planet.

A pH tester was one of Badshah Miyan’s tools – to test the pH of the water to make his dye. Only good water would make a good colour fast dye, he said, urging all fabric craftsmen including a weaver to use a pH meter.

2. pH meter

We noticed that Badshah Miyan was wearing an Indigo dyed shirt as he spoke. He told us that natural Indigo was a material that would insulate the wearer from extreme heat and cold – and that even if the wearer were surrounded by fire; he would not feel the heat if he wore Indigo dyed fabric!

4.badshahmiyan indigo


Handouts don’t help Handlooms

The inaugural address by Jaya Jaitley after Badshah Miyan’s workshop echoed the crux of the point that Kavita Rayirath is making in her post below.

Ms. Jaitley spoke about the vibrant revival of crafts and artisans today. She said she had no patience for either consumers or craftsmen who declared crafts were dying, and were depressed and “moping around”. We needed festivals like “Niram Thiram” to help us understand and appreciate crafts in order to continue to support them.

4.jaya jaitley

When we discussed writing this series at Krya, we were clear about staying away from despondent pleas, appeals, and anything which was in the nature of an entitlement or handout. Crafts and weaving traditions should be supported not from a bleeding heart story (although several exist) but from a sense of wanting to preserve something that is both aesthetically pleasing and superior as a craft.

I was happy to see this being echoed in Ms.Jaya Jaitley’s inaugural address as she urged us to not give handouts to craftspeople, but to appreciate their crafts through learning and understanding.

A guest post by Kavita Rayirath in our Handloom love mini series

As a part of our Handloom Love series, I’m honored to share this thought-provoking and insightful piece written by Kavita Rayirath.

I immensely admire Kavita and love reading her many blogs and participating in the thoughtful groups she has created on Facebook. I am inspired and continue to learn from Kavita‘s sense of aesthetics and design and love for craft, and am always touched by her generosity. I reach out to Kavita for any craft related project I am a part of, both personally and professionally and am always touched by her through, warm and large hearted response to my queries. Kavita was one of the first people I shared Project Merry (our sustainable reusable menstrual cloth napkin) with and took her design inputs and thoughts to help us with our design and construction ideas.

About Kavita Rayirath

Kavita believes in serendipity. She is insatiably curious, loves poetry and making lists. She has an endless list of what she would like to learn and do, is interested in a million different things and how they connect to each other. Her blogs include Collecting The UniverseMy Creative BusinessThe OrdinarynessDays of Discoveries and Indian By Design. On most days, you will find her on Pinterest. She enjoys organising and styling spaces, loves helping people get closer to their dreams and is happy to have discovered the joys of sewing and craft.

Here is Kavita sharing her love for handlooms and her belief that appreciation for textile crafts comes with a greater immersive experience – of learning to work with your own hands.

Preethi asked if I could write a post on why I support Handloom and Khadi. My reasons are not political, social or experimental. They stem from simpler things – growing up in various parts of India, having roots in Kerala, and my mother. My wardrobe is filled with natural fabrics, mostly handloom cotton, Khadi and woven silks, because I instinctively reach for them.

My earliest memory of Handloom cotton is of the Torth (Kerala towel). It was inexpensive, easy to wash, quick to dry, tiny to travel with and to store. I still use them. My mother had her share of Dubai polyesters gifted by visiting relatives but when she bought for herself, she reached for Handlooms – be it from Bengal, Andhra or Kerala. Those are the ones she cherishes and preserves – many of which I borrow to wear now. When I began to build my wardrobe, I favored south silks, Maheshwaris, Chanderis, Gadwals, Bengali cottons, Mulmul from Lucknow, fabric from Khadi Bhandaar and traditional saris from a weaver’s village in Kerala. It was what I grew up with and loved.

There is no doubt that a great need exists to preserve and promote the industry that gave me those fabrics. To preserve, documentation is essential – books and libraries dedicated to study and publish the rich traditional knowledge and museums to catalogue and showcase all that has been created so far. To promote, we require education, vocational training and infrastructure – not just for weavers, tribes or women’s foundations. But for all of us.

Mahatma Gandhi spun and wove his own fabric to encourage Swadeshi, and to discover independence in the true sense. I see the wisdom in that today. In the mid-1800s, John Ruskin and William Morris reacted to the post-industrialized reality of Britain with the Arts & Crafts movement.

5. william morris

They worried that industrialization and assembly line production would destroy the skill and beauty of handcraftsmanship. The movement mirrored in America, Europe and Japan. Guilds and associations for preserving, promoting and teaching craft were set up. It resulted in a revival of many practices that have influenced the art, architecture and craft of those regions ever since.

One of my great joys from the little time I spent in London was discovering the many opportunities to learn craft. Local councils offered courses which were inexpensive but detailed and well taught. CityLit was a college for adult education where one could take courses in the evenings or weekends. Royal School of Needlework did workshops and offered diplomas in embroidery. A local lace making group near my home met once a week to teach and share lace making lessons. These opportunities were open to all. And it was possible because the infrastructure required was set in place. Materials were available, as were great teachers and spaces to learn.

A while ago, I did three interviews for WomensWeb on women who run handmade businesses. I was inspired to see how Textile designer Karen Barbe uses a miniature loom to create fabric for herself, how an experimental knitter like Yokoo Gibran taught herself knitting, sewing and photography, how Natalie Stopka used vintage fabric and bookbinding and brought them together. These are not just designers, they are also craftspeople, creating their own product with the labour of their hands. I see Craft revival being adopted by a strata of society that previously saw itself solely as a consumer. Thus breaking a hierarchy of makers and consumers and creating a fluid society where the need to create and the need to buy is not based on financial dearth and position in society, but on love and respect for the craft. Anais Nin once said, ‘You cannot save people, you can only love them’. I would say the same for Handlooms.

Not just Buy, but DIY too

 Paramparik Karigar, an association of craftsmen, held workshops along with their exhibition of Indian crafts within a museum complex in Mumbai. I signed up for three classes. The one with Satyanarayan Lal Karn, the last of the Mithila Painters, inspired me the most.


He was a natural teacher – entertaining, wise and giving. He taught us how to make colours from flowers (from the temple or someone’s home, never plucked just for his art). He also spoke of the discipline of being an artist. At the end of the workshop, Satyanarayan Lal Karn expressed a desire to teach a few people his craft. He asked anyone who was interested to get in touch with him and come to his home in Delhi to learn. Craft in India is currently remote from my life. I can only engage with it as a consumer. This is why the Paramparik Karigar workshops are such an important step. They invite me to learn and interact with craftspeople. It is a small beginning, and a vital one that we must build on.

This of course means unsettling the neat corner that I’ve been told I sit in – as a consumer and saviour. In India, we aim to be Lawyers, Engineers, Doctors, Actors, Fashion Designers and Investment Bankers, but not often weavers, woodworkers, tailors and carpet makers. When the child of a weaver can study to be a doctor and the child of a doctor study to be a weaver, we will have a society that encourages fluidity of choice and brings respect to all crafts, arts and professions. And thereby raises the standard of education, living and funding in those sectors.

If we continue to believe that weavers and their families need to follow the profession regardless of their dreams or living realities, the industry will have little impetus to improve. Our relationship will remain in a hierarchical field of ‘you make, I take’ where maker and user is assigned a fixed state and we dole out charitable efforts in the name of supporting the industry.

Government and private sector action can play a vital role in sustaining the Handloom Industry. But, I believe, what will tip the scales will be the opportunity for all of us, regardless of social standing, to become part of it. By being able to learn and practice it as craftspeople who engage in making because we value and respect it, we will weave a nourishing bond that will alter the fabric of our lives forever.


End Notes:

Our special thanks to Bindu Kasinadhuni  of Chakra design Studio for the pictures at the Kalakshetra event.

I am inspired by Kavita’s insightful piece and agree with her. We can help participate and contribute meaningfully to the revival of Craft only if we learn to appreciate it through immersive experiences. Please do visit your local Crafts Council and look for lectures, workshops, events and festivals to help create your own immersive experience.

Ms.Priyadarshini Govind, Director of Kalakshetra, shared an interesting piece of information yesterday with us. Kalakshetra is soon launching a 6 month course for children to teach them the basics of weaving and this is both for children who come from traditional weaver families(who may have now left the craft) and non weaver families Courses like this will really help us understand our crafts better.

And if you are in Chennai, please consider visiting the fantastic Immersive experience put together by Textile Craft Enthusiasts at Kalakshetra, Niram Thiram. The Niram Thiram Festival continues today until Friday evening at Kalakshetra Weaving and Research Centre. The festival will feature two unique exhibitions which will be on display: the Kachchh Ji Chaap exhibition: 500 years of Block and Batik Print & Revival of Kodali Karuppur Saree . The craft workshops still to come are:

  1. 10th Sept: Ajrakh by Sri.Sufiyan Katri
  2. 11th Sept: Batik by Sri. Shakil Ahmed
  3. 12th Sept: Kalamkari by Sri. Chakram Prabhakhar

Registration for the workshop can be made by contacting theatre@kalakshetra.in or Please contact: +91 44 2452 0836/1169/1170 .

This post is a part of our continuing series on Sustainable fabric and India’s textile traditions. The rest of our series can be read here: 

  1. Our introductory post on the sustainable fabric series
  2. On the One Person Satyagraha and why you should start one
  3. On the environmental and human health hazards of chemical dyes
  4. The primer to sustainable Indian fabric is here
  5. The first part of the textile traditions of India that suit Spring and Summer is here
  6. The second part of the textile traditions of India that suit Monsoons and Winter is here.
  7. Our post interviewing Lata Ganapathy-Ravikiran on Handloom love and why she chooses to support this industry is here.
  8. Our post on the warped state of Handlooms in India and what ails the sector is here.
  9. Our post on the dangers and all pervasiveness of Bt Cotton is here .
  10. Our post on Onam, the Mundum neriyathum and wearing your culture is here.
  11. Our post on the Sustainable Fabric Workshop conducted at the Green Bazaar exploring natural dyes is here.
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