As part of Antaran’s first phase, Gautam and his team have targeted six clusters or communities — two in Odisha and Assam, respectively, and one in Nagaland — whose craft is not just peculiar, but also on the verge of extinction.
Sustainability, as a trend, is big in fashion across the globe. From fashion shows in New York, Milan, London to Paris and India as well, designers are increasingly becoming conscious of how damaging fast fashion is to the environment and the stakeholders involved. Slowly they are moving over feelings of repulsion against replications, borrowed references and use of certain colours to focus exclusively on making sustainability a norm.
Sustainability is an omnipresent phenomenon now, not just on runways, but even on the streets. “The movement towards slow fashion has been fairly recent, particularly among millennials, who are realising that their buying pattern is not eco-friendly. It is especially not fair for those who are involved in preparing the garment. They receive very low wages,” said Sharda Gautam, head of crafts at Tata Trusts, on the sidelines of Lotus Make-up India Fashion Week held in New Delhi recently. “The fabric requirements also vary. For instance, if you have a cotton top, it consumes around 700-800 litre of water, depending upon the design. This is a mere wastage of resources,” he adds.
In his personal capacity, Gautam has been spearheading Antaran, a crafts development initiative undertaken by Tata Trusts to uplift India’s handloom industry, which had fallen victim to the ever-evolving trends of fast fashion. As part of Antaran’s first phase, Gautam and his team have targeted six clusters or communities — two in Odisha and Assam, respectively, and one in Nagaland — whose craft is not just peculiar, but also on the verge of extinction. For instance, weavers from Assam know how to work their way around eri and muga silk, Nagaland weavers are skilled in Loin Loom, Maniabandha artisans of Odisha specialise in weft ikat weaving. A handful of handloom designers from these communities have been trained in Antaran’s incubation centres. Their weaving skills have been honed as they got the opportunity to try their hands at weaving on cotton and other forms of handloom. “I had been doing some traditional weaving on loin looms, also known as back-strap looms, for the last eight years. I had never weaved on cotton before or created something like cushion covers. The style of weaving was pretty basic, but now I know how to experiment and play with different kinds of colours and designs. The exposure has been very rewarding and empowering,” says 37-year-old Vekuvolu Dozo, an artisan from Dimapur, Nagaland.
Tucked away in a quaint corner of the lustrous fashion week, Antaran’s stall could be easily spotted for its originality and authenticity. No two saris, scarves, cushion covers and yardage adorning the mannequins had the same pattern or design. For Gautam, attaining this pinnacle of creativity was the underlying motive behind setting up Antaran. “India produces 95% of the world’s handloom textile, and we believe that it can turn out to be a good GDP contributor to the country, provided it is given the right spin. Currently, the handwoven industry is being looked at from a productivity angle, and the focus needs to shift to creativity instead,” he says.
Antaran not only seeks to impart weaving knowledge to artisans, but also teaches them about ethics and fair practices for equitable growth in the value chain. “I essentially grew up watching my mother weave, but I got formally introduced to the art form through Anataran around six-eight months ago,” says 20-year-old Firoja Begum, an artisan from Guwahati, Assam. “I did not understand colour combinations this well before. Here, I’ve learned a lot about colour play, motifs. I have become all the more interested in weaving. Till sometime ago, people from my village were weaving using archaic designs. Now we have begun experimenting,” she adds. A former saleswoman, Firoja is now confident of setting up her own business as she has not only learned how to weave better but has also acquired business acumen.
A popular notion, better be called dampener, that discourages people from investing in handloom is that it is relatively expensive than fast fashion apparel, which is usually prepared in power loom or mills. While handwoven textiles, dexterously created by artisans involving a lot of labour, would entail an extra cost for the effort and skill gone into the making of such garments, Gautam believes removing middlemen from the picture would make a lot of difference.
“Handloom or sustainable fashion is not expensive if you consider its benefits. If you purchase a power loom or mill-woven fabric, it normally comes in polyester or artificial fibre, which is not skin-friendly, particularly in India’s hot and humid climate. However, in a handwoven fabric, the spacing has been done in a way to suit the weather in our country,” he says. Besides, in the tech-enabled world we are living in, it is not too hard to remove middlemen from the space altogether — let artisans engage directly with consumers. “Technology is a big enabler for fashion nowadays. There is 3G connectivity in a lot of villages and people use smartphones to watch videos etc. Why can’t they use it for productive work and conducting business? That’s where we help them. Artisans can directly engage with customers via Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms. This way the role of middlemen would phase out, automatically bringing the cost down,” he adds.
Going ahead, Antaran will be adding three more clusters in Assam, Odisha, and Andhra Pradesh. The cluster in Andhra Pradesh’s Venkatgiri will be launched soon. A professional team is working on the ground, round the year to facilitate artisans’ and buyers’ relationship. The team is also looking at setting foot in international fashion shows, so the world gets to know of the untapped potential in the Indian handloom industry. “The biggest satisfaction comes from artisans becoming independent and saying they do not need us anymore. Our plan is to work in 17 states over a period of 10 years, if we get the desired quantum of resources,” Gautam says.