Book on the burner


Book on the burner

New Delhi : Why a book on Indian textiles never reached the right audience

Last month, after I wrote a column on the divide between handloom and fashion lobbies, I received an email from dancer and textile exponent Mallika Sarabhai. She told me about Tanabana, a set of two books and 20 videos she had produced for the Union Ministry of Textiles in 2007. The idea was to give these to designers worldwide so that they and the government could work together. “As far as I know, it languishes in the ministry. We also suggested that a single-window authority be created to ensure the smooth execution of orders placed, or products developed so that designers felt safe regarding deliveries and quality. This too wasn’t put in place,” she wrote.

Tanabana: Handcrafted and Handwoven Textiles of India commissioned to Sarabhai when Shankersinh Vaghela was the textiles minister is a memorably put together set. It documents — insightfully and beautifully — lesser-known textiles. With text by Romanie Jaitly, a textile expert from National Institute of Design, photographs by Yadavan Chandran and Roopesh Maroli, the books, which have been edited by Sarabhai, were produced by Darpana (her Ahmadabad-based organisation), before being printed in Singapore. The project took the team two-and-a-half years of travel and research. It is a pity that it hasn’t been marketed well or commercially sold.

When contacted, the ministry of textiles refused to divulge the production costs of the book (the volumes are not for sale) or Sarabhai’s fees, but insisted that the set has been gifted to political dignitaries and ambassadors who visited India. What no one can answer is why instead of 1,000 copies, as Sarabhai claims, only 200-odd were printed. Out of those, if I could get one in April 2011, surely copies still exist.

In the process of locating Tanabana in the handloom division of the Ministry of Textiles, I ran into suspicious bureaucrats who see fashion journalists as bad news. What emerges is not only the disagreement between handloom weavers and the fashion industry, but also a disconnect between government officials and top handloom experts.

When I asked Rta Kapur Chishti and Ritu Kumar, the former a textile expert and the latter a fashion designer, if they had heard about Tanabana, they said they hadn’t. I presume neither have Marc Jacobs or Belgian designer Dries Van Noten. Incidentally, the latter works regularly with Indian textiles. Last year, for his spring-summer collection, he used Ikat and tied a Telia Rumaal like a sarong on a female model. So it would make strategic sense to have the existing Tanabana reprinted and better marketed or have a Part II commissioned. The Handloom Week, launched as an annual event by the Ministry of Textiles in 2009, similarly needs a new lease of life.

The tapestry of Indian textiles — grassroot level weavers, urban fashion designers, fashion media, the Ministry of Textiles and private entrepreneurs who support handlooms like Fab India, Good Earth or Anokhi — is split at the seams. They have their own plans, though ostensibly everyone is trying to contemporise textiles. A link of some kind would be imperative to market India as more than just a sourcing centre. For the handloom division, joining hands with the fashion industry won’t just turn a Maheshwari dupatta into a bubble skirt, and a Kanjeevaram into an evening gown, but will lead to an association of bolder fashion photographers, stylists and internationally trained window dressers who could change the way textiles are displayed at state and national emporiums.

If designers, especially those who now make entire collections from textiles, join the handloom commission in its work with weavers, it would become “sustainable fashion”, a label that is used too liberally. There would be commercial gains too for weavers and designers. The tax on locally produced silk has been reduced from 30 per cent to 5 per cent, this financial year, to encourage the use of Indian silks versus cheaper Chinese or other imported options. Not everyone is pessimistic. “Giant steps have been taken to contemporise handlooms and to bring them closer to fashion; very soon, the association will be more fruitful than you can imagine,” says Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India.

That would indeed be a new beginning.