The Emerging Woman Artisan

The Emerging Woman Artisan

A tribute to women artisans in India’s crafts and cultural industries—who are breaking barriers of caste, class and patriarchy

Fifteen years back if you reported on “crafts and handlooms”, you would be taken to meet weavers, artisans, embroidery specialists and most crucially to “master craftsmen”. Strictly men. To be precise, fifteen years back, fashion journalists (a breed hard to define in the 2000s) seldom wrote on the crafts ecosystem. Certainly not as the bedrock of the fashion industry. There were the Dastkar fairs on one hand (to use the term as a genre), fashion weeks on the other.

Cut to ten years back. The barriers had begun to crumble, the coexistence of handloom, crafts and fashion had begun to be spoken about instead of being conveniently ignored.

Even so, the “weaver/artisan” was always a man and the woman the allied artisan. Except in Kutch where women from different pastoral communities have traditionally practised embroidery as a domestic art—which had been channeled into commercial projects by NGOs like Shrujan (now 50 years old)—the woman remained the allied artisan. The yarn dyer, the mixer of dyes, the chief assist in shibori tie and dye or Bandhini crafts, the associate spinner, the junior weaver or assistant printer. In coastal Andhra Pradesh’s Uppada village, you saw a couple weaving but the representative of that domestic enterprise would be the man. Women were not the decision makers of design or pattern, or of colour or craft direction. It was men who turned up at weavers’ service centres for designs and sketches—across India more or less.


Photo: Saumya Sinha

Fatima Bai aka

The most well-known Kalamkari painters are men. Even the zardozi embroiderers of Bengal have primarily been men. As in Kashmir, where men do the finest needlework. The best and most talented raffugars (darners) are men. Till today.

The word “master craftsman” denotes a person of talent, exceptional skill, arithmetic acuity (single and double ikat and other forms of weaving, like the kani shawl of Kashmir need arithmetic skills). A “master” was a person who understood artisanal legacy and could carry the responsibility of that legacy ahead, who could mix art with craft, and craft with business. Who could innovate and collaborate and enter territories of work outside his comfort zone. Most of these functions could be performed if the person had basic literacy or was given opportunities to meet and learn from other people. Only men got those opportunities.

Women were mostly denied higher education in crafts clusters in rural households. Even those with natural mathematic acuity would not be extended a chance to sit at a loom, think up weaving grammar or decode one that had been orally passed down by an ancestor.


A woman artisan weaving a kani shawl employed by Imtiyaz Aslam, a Srinagar-based third-generation crafts entrepreneur’s whose workforce comprises 95 per cent women.

There were class issues—overall the artisan classes of India had been left behind in the development agenda and remained poorly paid and neglected even when highly skilled. But there also were caste and community issues. Kashmiri artisan families did not want their daughters to weave kani shawls. The same applied to many OBC Hindu families in artisanal clusters across India and to most Muslim households in the country. Till today there are communities in Kutch, where women do exquisite embroidery but can only meet enabling NGOs through a female representative who visits their village dwellings.

Fast forward another five years. Now, when you reported on crafts (which by then was a legit, pursuit of the fashion or cultural journalist), you could meet women in crafts clusters. They no longer receded into the background. Some were learning to be interventionists in the design process with exposure through school education, television and digital or print media. Others were expressing keenness to be involved in the family enterprise. No family, whether in Kutch or Kashmir would perhaps send a girl out of the house to work as a crafts labourer or apprentice under a male employer, but some have opened up to “allowing” them to work and earn from home.



Women weavers at the product development and quality control training centre of the Nagaland-based fashion and lifestyle label Chizami Weaves.

I met Swarnalata Meher, a Sambalpuri Ikat weaver from Barpali village in Barpada district of Odisha in 2015 for a story on Ikat for Mint. It was a pleasant surprise and admittedly a bit of a wakeup call to realise that Swarnalata, from the Bhulia Meher OBC caste was a National Master Weaver Awardee. The same award had been conferred on her husband and two sons as well, but she was the first woman in the district to win one. Swarnalata had been married at 16 years of age. She had never been to school, but had learnt to weave as an adolescent. When we went to meet the family, her youngest son Devkishor introduced me to a group of young girls who came for “ikat weaving workshops” to their home, every day for a few hours. They were proper apprentices.

That same year while reporting a story on the kani shawls from Kashmir, young crafts entrepreneur Imtiyaz Aslam, who had attended a design college, invited me to his weaving centre in the Ganderbal district. A separate area had been set up by Aslam to train young Kashmiri girls in shawl weaving—mathematical interventions included.

In the last two years though, while reporting for The Voice of Fashion on members of “India’s creative, crafts and culture industries” as design guru Rajeev Sethi terms it, I have met more and more women artisans with a distinct design voice of their own. They make livelihoods, participate in fairs, introduce designs and improvise. They learn and polish their skills at communicating with urban buyers and with NGOs and crafts groups who enable them. Some have broken traditional barriers of patriarchy, class and caste.

Some months back in Kutch, at Ismail Khatri’s very progressive and famous studio in Ajrakhpur, I asked his son Junaid—known as an experimental craftsman—if his little daughter, not even 10 years old yet, would grow up to be an Ajrakh artisan. He first said no, with a bashful smile. On quick rethought he added that to enable her, he would have to set up an entire dyeing, designing and Ajrakh printing unit only with women artisans. As women from their families could not work alongside men and that would make it logistically (and culturally) complicated, he mused. But at least Junaid had begun doing the math behind the possibility.

Soon, we will report a series on women artisans from different handloom and crafts clusters of the country. Our very own emerging master craftswomen. The barrier-breaking kind who deserve applause and enablement this International Women’s Day and as matter of practice.

Banner: Illustration by Tanya Kotnala.