Indian fabrics have been an enduring thread running through the tapestry of world history since ancient times. From Alexander the Great’s soldiers, who fell in love with Indian cotton clothing, to the significance of cotton and indigo to Roman trade routes throughout the Mediterranean, textiles have served as a timeless ambassador for India’s rich and diverse cultural traditions. The Portuguese trading route spread them further into Europe, while the subsequent popularity of Chintz forced countries like France and England to enact laws to restrict their imports.
While leading India’s freedom movement, Mahatma Gandhi felt that the spinning wheel represented hope for the downtrodden masses and symbolized their fight for liberation. He extolled the “Khadi spirit” and exhorted Indians to reject British-manufactured textiles and weave their own cloth. In 1917, he also led a landmark protest against British rulers by the farmers of Champaran, who were being forced to cultivate Indigo rather than food crops, which were fundamental to their subsistence.
Today, India’s handwoven and hand-spun fabrics and master artisans find themselves at existential crossroads, facing obsolescence from power looms and mass production, while urbanization threatens pastoral livelihoods and discourages the next generation from carrying the tradition forward. That is what makes Archana Shah’s book Crafting a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices (Niyogi Books, 2021) a timely intervention. Shah, a practitioner who has spent four decades working closely with artisans across India, fashions an appreciation for handcrafted fabrics with modern designs.
This informative book takes the reader through the history of some of the more familiar Indian fabrics, broadly classified under three sections: cotton, silk, and wool. Shah looks at the skill, creativity, and meticulous process involved in their making and shines a light on how closely these textiles are intertwined with the social lives of the communities that create them. In many cases, textile production also reflects an interdependence among diverse communities that enriches the Indian cultural fabric. When it comes to Banarasi sarees — the luxurious silk brocades from Varanasi characterized by embossed patterns in gold and silver, which remain bridal wear favorites to this day — the weavers are mostly Muslim while the raw material suppliers, traders, and customers are primarily Hindus, in what has been a symbiotic relationship for generations.
The book also provides enlightening thoughts on how modern consumers globally can make more informed and eco-friendly choices — for instance, Eri silk fabrics are produced without killing silkworms, handcrafted Pashmina can be sourced from nomadic livestock in Ladakh (as opposed to the cheaper mechanically produced pashmina, in which nylon is added and the manufacturing process damages the pashmina’s natural texture and luster), and synthetic dyes can be replaced with natural indigo, whose color is more subtle and unique than the synthetic version.
While her study is updated with experiences she’s had on her travel across India from 2018 to early 2020, it also builds on the wisdom she has accrued over years of collaborating with artisans throughout the country. The book is richly illustrated with images of communities at work, as well as the fabrics themselves and modern designs. It also raises many pertinent socioeconomic questions: How do we return a sense of dignity to the work of the rural artisan; how do we enable them to extract more value, which makes the occupation sustainable; and how do we involve the next generation of makers and patrons in carrying forward the enduring appeal of the craft? On a deeper level, the book is a clarion call against the detrimental effects of “run-of-the-mill” consumerism, and for the urgent need to support indigenous handcrafted and eco-friendly fabrics.
Crafting a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices by Archana Shah (2021) is published by Niyogi Books and is available online.