Book review | A learned tribute to our artisans and their textiles

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Crafting a Future is a must-read book on hand-woven Indian textiles and what the future may hold for artisans. Despite its deceptive, coffee table book-type appearance, it is, as Laila Tyabji in her foreword puts it, “a scholarly book.” It traces the history of cotton, silk and wool, in the Indian context, interspersed with several evocative photographs.

The cotton section also deals with the dyeing of khadi, muslin and indigo; the silk section covers tussar, mulberry cultivation and northeastern breeding, the wool section covers fine pashmina as well as coarser wool from Uttarakhand and Kutch. Executed as a sort of travelogue, between 2018 and 2020, the book engages, informs and also forces us to think. Its material is encyclopedic; with exhaustive information on the subject, but the writing style is informal and very relevant.

In his introduction, while writing about his visit to the Kalakshetra Weaving Center in Chennai, Shah writes, “Anyone who has ever worn kanjeevaram sarees would swear by their soft, buttery feel and beautiful drape. The new sarees looked attractive, but did not drape like the old kanjeevaram silks. Upon closer inspection, I realized the difference was the yarn… the very twisted machine-made yarn which is strong but not flexible like hand spun yarn.

The book is relevant in several respects, notably economic: about 200 million artisans depend on the craft sector for their livelihood; around 30 million are involved in the artisanal textile sector. Comprehensive, it also deals with related activities, spinning, dyeing, embroidery and retail trade, and also details the main establishments in each region and their niche expertise. The immense research involved, the impressive facts and figures and the immense geographic area covered are taken lightly; the book is an engaging page turner and easy to read. This despite being a real authority on the subject; there are practical examples of successes to be achieved, interesting stories from various projects and an analysis of how government institutions have lost their relevance in the field.

The fashion section links the relevance of the artisan tradition to environmental concerns and sustainability. The need for patronage, this is how the tradition flourished in the past, is highlighted.

The list of the most common types of weaving centers in each Indian state is fascinating; from “kani”, “tilla dori”, “namda” in Kashmir to “settu mundu” in Kerala; from “jamdani”, “kantha” and “baluchari” in West Bengal to “patola”, “bandhani” and “ajrakh” in Gujarat. Shah does not forget lesser-known weaving techniques like the suspender looms of Arunachal Pradesh, or the “bomkai” and “kotpad” weaves of Odisha.

One of the most endearing aspects of the book is the author’s clearly visible love for craftsmen. His lifelong passion for handcrafted textiles is not only the product, but also the construction process and the practitioners.

Francis Pyrard de Laval wrote in the 17th century: “Everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, is dressed from head to toe in the product of Indian looms”. We realize the immense potential that we still have, 400 years later, in the production of quality hand-woven fabrics. Shah’s Crafting a Future gives us the facts and contributions on the subject to make it a reality.

Making a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices
By Archana Shah
Niyogi Books
pp. 276, Rs. 1495


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