Himroo: A Loom Katha

I am happy about the online onslaught of the upcoming Wear Handloom Day, August 7. It is a worthy cause to go gaga about. In keeping with the spirit of the day, I am also thinking of the prized work I will wear, so as to honor the unknown-unseen artist who created a valuable Paithani or Chanderi or Pashmina that landed in my wardrobe. Indigenous fabrics, hand weaving, artisans, crafts persons are symbols of India’s heritage and I feel it is quite appropriate to have a national day to celebrate the collective treasure. Of late, the day has assumed new proportions at the administrative level, more so in the form of awards given to outstanding weavers; and ministers tweeting their support to the 43 lakh weavers in the country. 

But I am more interested in the `wear-handloom’ sentiment popularized by the non-governmental social enterprises.  I have been following the exemplary work of the non-profit Dastkari Haat Samiti, especially since they exhibited a rare confluence of crafts and indigenous scripts in Mumbai four years ago.  The Hyderabad-based Abhihaara, which is doing a great job of promoting the Narayanpet sarees and trendy Ikkat officewear, is also inspiring, particularly its commitment to fair wages, sustainable livelihoods, skill building and restoration of the weavers’ pride.

Antique Himroo wonders discovered in Qureshi family’s workshop in Aurangabad; the archived designs are available for perusal to any Himroo lover (All pics credited to Loom Katha)

In that realm, I was happy to be privy to a handloom revival effort made by another enterprise named Loom Katha which has its operations in West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. It has won several awards like the Acumen Prize for Social Entrepreneurship and the Fondation Chanel Prize at WomenDeliver.  But my connect with Loom Katha rested on two operative words: Aurangabad and Himroo! The historic City of Gates has been close to my heart for many reasons. First, it has been a gateway to the famous Ajanta Ellora caves and the Bibi Ka Makbara; second, I have had enriching exchanges with students and faculty of the super active Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada university which was once the cynosure of a momentous political agitation; and third, the Himroo shawls-stoles-home furnishings that represent Aurangabad’s self-image. Once patronised by the ruling Mughal nobility, Himroo is a distinctively double-sided handwoven twill fabric made of silk and cotton, dating back to Mohammad bin Tughlaq’s Aurangabad rule (1328). It is woven on a 4-shaft loom with a denting pattern of 4 yarns per dent. Since weaving is done in a twill weave formation, the warping (preparatory) process for Himroo is extremely complex and time-consuming. It looks luxuriant because of the ornate designs of paisleys, marigolds, vines and fruits. The weave is linked to a slice of history when the premium luxury fabric was woven for the royals, in pure silk and gold threads. In the post-Mughal period, Himroo enjoyed sponsorship of the Nizam of Hyderabad.

However, as the Loom Katha research report (titled Himroo: Aurangabad’s Lost Art of Handloom Weaving) suggests, and which is a truth that I have experienced first-hand at Five-Star hotels, the current Himroo handloom weaving in Aurangabad is only for token display purposes at popular tourist shops.  The shawls and stoles, touted as handwoven, are made in a mechanised process. They adhere (more or less) to the aesthetic of the original, which is why they can be passed off as “fresh-from-the-loom” for the uninitiated. Only the insider can recognise the thick yarns and prosaic designs. Ironically, the tourist shops, where these ‘show piece looms’ are set up, are selling products sourced from Amritsar, Ludhiana, Surat and Benaras, with Himroo tags, states the report.

Market-ready evolved Himroo designs in the offing: Craftspersons respond to suggestions

It is sad that while there is a clear demand for Himroo products in Aurangabad and beyond (a captive market in star hotels indicates the popularity), the supply chain is broken and retailers are sourcing products from elsewhere. Through interviews with local historians and other textile experts, Loom Katha has traced the decline of the traditional art – from its peak in the mid 19th century (when approximately 2500 Himroo handlooms in the city drove the industry) to a ‘powerloom Himroo’ era when only four authentic handlooms remain in the city, of which only two are functional. The report factors in voices of 25 surviving members of the weaving families and also those trained under government schemes. Officials of the Weavers Service Centre (Delhi), Paithan Sari Kendra (Paithan) and technician-yarn suppliers from Yeola add their perspectives too. The documentation of antique Himroo samples available at the Salar Jung Museum is precious; so is the voice of textile historian Suraiya Hasan Bose who has a small training and weaving centre for the preservation of Dora Himroo.

I was happy to see that the scope of the Loom Katha study is kept as broad as possible, so as to include vendors selling raw material, artisans working in other crafts allied to Himroo weaving, Maharashtra government’s handicrafts and small-scale industries’ promotion departments, and showroom owners selling supposed Himroo products. The research team has deconstructed the production process, tools, techniques. It has given its inputs to weavers on the finished products. Loom Katha’s founder Arushi Chowdhury Khanna clarifies that the idea is not to blame a set of stakeholders, but to gain a fuller understanding of the market dynamics, so as to reinstate the near-extinct looms. The research findings are also complemented by a consumer survey to assess the market potential of Himroo shawls; over 150 respondents in metros — New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad– have shared their appreciation of the art. The suggested changes in the Himroo motifs, also point at the expected evolution in the art and greater quality control. If Himroo has to reenter the market, it has to be stronger than ever, feels Loom Katha, which is now gearing towards market-ready Himroo products by December 2019. It has gained the support of Can-Pack India packaging multinational, which has a presence in Aurangabad. The company has also pre-ordered the first 60 Himroo artefacts originating from the revived yarns. The entire Himroo journey will be shared before a wider audience in Mumbai on August 7th (venue: Ministry of New, Fort). Two weavers — Imran Qureshi and Abdul Hamid Razzak — will share their side of the story.

The Himroo story is rooted in Aurangabad, particularly Baijupura, Nawabpura, Silk Mills Colony and Himayat Bagh where the last-known Himroo handlooms are located. The city is central to understanding the Himroo craftsmen. It is a city of contrasts (the Beer Capital of India) which was declared ‘Smart’ a while ago, but it battles with basic infrastructural woes like poor motorable roads, deficient public transport, water logging, and of course flouted city planning norms. It is home to several multinationals and yet known for unemployment and poor literacy rates. The Loom Katha research suggests that a large population, which includes the weaving community, does not have basic primary education, which has an impact on income levels. Many families reported a monthly income of Rs 3000. In such a constricting environment are located the Himroo weavers. Their city has limited resources needed for their craft. Why and how will they make an effort to travel to other towns to buy their silk, cotton, and khadi yarns? Where is the energy to travel to Malegaon or Maheshwar to buy the raw material when the looms are defunct? Himroo is a capital-intensive and labour-intensive art, which requires considerable investment in space. One shawl takes upto a week to be woven and the loom on which it is woven requires an area of 35 square feet with a minimum height of 20 feet. It is a home-based industry which collapses as soon as the loom stops and weavers take to odd jobs.

A Himroo Weaver at work: Will new weavers join?

However, the Himroo story is not a fully bleak prospect. The silver lining is that young weavers have shown willingness to come back to their hearth. They need handholding at the right juncture. They are ready to follow a road map, which in itself spells out the potential. Loom Katha has conceptualised a Himroo weavers’ collective model, based on the responses of the surviving weavers. It has recommended government intervention in identifying a new workshop space where the production resources can be shared; also government needs to locate a storage shed, so as to streamline production and accommodate ancillary equipment. In the feasibility assessment of the weavers’ model, Loom Katha specifies the working capital requirement. The research is available in public domain and open to further input, provided connoisseurs and patrons respond to the appeal.

A smiling Himroo trainee weaver

Any handloom revival effort is not an individual’s journey. It is the coming together of varied forces, which are passionate about handlooms, willing to go many extra miles and willing to forge new ties. One can sense that chemistry in the strategic partnerships forged by the Himroo project. Loom Katha founder (NIFT alumnus) Arushi Chowdhury Khanna, shuttles between Aurangabad and Mumbai, even after the four-month project is over. She was stationed in the city for the whole of 2018, so that the project would not lose its momentum. She has been earlier associated with the revival of the traditional technique of Mubarakpur handloom weaving in Uttar Pradesh, which was recognised as a UNESCO case study
in 2016. Similarly, Paris-based textile designer Neha Lad, NID alumnus, is part of the Himroo team, with special focus on the supply chain analysis covering Yeola, Paithan and Aurangabad. Not to forget, the Young India Fellows of the Ashoka University — Chitra Nair, Gaurang Garg, Kanan Shah, Leela Chowdhury and Priya Agarwal — deserve credit for the continued dialogue with the weavers. Here is wishing success and good luck to the energies supporting the Himroo craft.

Handlooms of India deserve our collective support. Not just on a celebratory National Handloom day but on any given day of the year. Our identity as Indian people rests on the traditional weaves we wear and take pride in. Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated, advocated the study of handloom at the primary education level, so that students are sensitised to the Indian cultural core much earlier in life. I take your leave, wishing a long life to the handloom sector!