The geometrical, red-and-black patterns on white cotton cloth are unmistakeable. Intricately worked on shawls and stoles, quilts and jackets, this beautiful, traditional hand embroidery known as pohor is unique to the Toda community that lives in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. The design appears woven and the fabric is reversible.
But a few months ago, People’s Archive of Rural India and a business newspaper reported that a popular fashion label and an e-commerce portal were selling cheap printed or machine-embroidered imitations of the Toda embroidery. This violated the GI tag for pohor that had been granted by the government in 2013.
At the time of writing this, at least one fashion portal was still selling a pohor imitation product on its website. “It is not possible for vulnerable communities like the Todas to legally take on the might of large corporations that appropriate their craft designs,” says Mathew John, founder-director of Keystone Foundation, one of the organisations that worked to get the GI certification for the Todas.
This instance of copying is reminiscent of another high-profile case last year, when French luxury brand Christian Dior plagiarised a block print created by designer Orijit Sen, who works with Indian artisans on reviving traditional crafts. Dior reached an out-of-court settlement with Sen.
Such high profile cases might make it into media reports, but the more routine and rampant appropriation of traditional designs, which impacts artisans in very substantial ways, often goes unnoticed. The widespread malpractice naturally affects the handloom economy — the country’s most important craft sector that, according to the latest official figures, enables 43 lakh people to make a living.
After Independence, several textile products were reserved exclusively for the handloom sector in order to protect the craftspeople. Then came the 1985 Handlooms (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act, which set aside 22 textile items for the handloom sector. But a little over 10 years later, this Act was further diluted and the number of reserved articles was reduced to just 11. And now, even this small margin of official protection has been flagrantly violated by powerlooms that copy handloom designs across the textile map of the country.
Every job created in the powerloom sector, which floods the market with cheap imitations of handloom weaves, displaces 14 traditional weavers. Advanced powerlooms cause even greater displacement. In several markets, machine-made textiles are passed off as handwoven to unsuspecting consumers, as the administration and bureaucracy look the other way. Thus, for instance, in 2010-11, the number of convictions for such imitations were as low as nine. The Handloom Mark initiative to help customers identify genuine handwoven fabric has largely failed. Moreover, protection for distinctive handloom fabrics from different centres under the GI Act, to which the Todas have also taken legal recourse, has proven ineffective in practice.
Visit any well-known handloom centre in the country, and weavers will tell you about a powerloom centre that is widely known to openly, and illegally, copy their traditional designs. For instance, the famous zari-bordered handloom designs of Mangalagiri town in coastal Andhra Pradesh are copied on powerlooms in Nagari town in Chittoor district. The renowned Banarasi handloom silk saris are copied by the powerlooms of Surat. These are just a couple of instances of a widespread phenomenon of appropriation. Such replication goes unchecked, shrinks the market for genuine handwoven textiles, and takes the life out of weaving communities. Powerlooms fitted with electronically controlled jacquards are now able to copy even intricate and complex handloom designs.
The government’s textile policy, which has fully supported the explosive growth of powerlooms, has always paid only lip service to the handloom industry. A series of policy documents created down the years reiterated that the weaving of intricate luxury fabrics would be the preserve of the handloom industry. Now, however, even luxury saris and fabrics are produced by jacquard powerlooms, including those that were once handwoven in famous centres such as Varanasi, Kota, Pochampally and Kanchipuram. As a result, handloom weavers are finally losing out in the luxury market as well. “This last bastion of the handloom sector has also fallen,” says handloom expert D. Narasimha Reddy.
The proliferation of powerlooms might be a feature of independent India, but the imitation of the enduring designs of Indian handlooms actually has a much longer history. It is well recognised that Indian cotton was the kingpin of world trade from 1500 onwards. While Europeans were accomplished in wool and linen textile manufacture, they did not know how to work with cotton. Europeans acquired sophisticated knowledge of cotton products, markets and craft techniques from India in the 17th and 18th centuries. This knowledge was central to the ascendancy of England in the global cotton textile trade. And it was able to displace India from its dominant position only after a gradual and extended process of borrowing craft techniques and designs from the subcontinent.
A case in point is John Forbes Watson’s celebrated 1866 work The Textile Manufactures of India, which catalogued 700 specimens of Indian textiles in 18 volumes. It was this that enabled Europeans to compete with Indian cottons, finally leading up to the large-scale import of readymade textiles and the crushing of the Indian handloom industry.
Fast forward a century-and-a-half later to the present, when computer-aided designs and smartphones have made it even easier for our own powerlooms to produce ersatz versions of our handlooms. For the embattled weaver, life has indeed come full circle.
The writer is working on a book on the human and environmental story of cotton in contemporary India.