Conference: Anchoring innovation in handloom weaving in India

In November 2018, while I was at NID Vijayawada, I attended a few days of a week-long conference on “Innovating Technological Cultures in Craft & Handloom Weaving” held in Chirala. The conference was organised by Handloom Futures Trust, Hyderabad; Leiden University, Netherlands; Maastricht University, Netherlands; and National Federation of Handlooms and Handicrafts.

Earlier when I attended talks and conferences I would feel a sense of pressure to learn everything and absorb all the information. But this need to make the most of the talk became counter productive. The attempt to learn everything only overwhelmed me and left me tensed. I was discussing this with Sakthi, my professor / guide / friend from NID, and he told me that we only learn what is relevant to us at that point, all other information sits in a reserve in our brains until some other new information connects the dots. This put me at ease and I started a new exercise, to leave a seminar with just three new bits of information. Anything more is bonus.

I digress. Coming back to Chirala.

I attended this conference unexpectedly and did not know what would be in store. Firstly, it was held in Chirala – a town largely focussed on handloom weaving, which set the tone of the event. The whole venue itself was quite tastefully organised, partitions and shelters were made using textiles, bamboo and other local materials. There was also live translation from English and Hindi to Telugu and other languages so the craftsmen could be included in the discussions.

So here are the few things I learnt through the conference.

  1. There was a panel discussion on the ecology & livelihoods of sheep pastoralists, spinners and weavers. Vishwanathan ji, a wool spinner from Himachal, said that earlier weavers would go to the shepherds to shear the sheep and would exchange herbal medicines. Woollen fabric was used as protective layer on the roofs from harsh weather. Shearing machines were introduced and tarpaulin became available. These reduced the need for wool and therefore exchanges between the communities also reduced.
  2. In Telangana, the demand for wool reduced. The sheep were cross-bred for better meat production which lead to the loss of the local indegenous sheep varieties. This also meant loss of genetic purity.
  3. One of the speakers touched upon how there is a cognitive, economic and emotional cycle in handloom weaving in India.
    A change in any one of these affects the dynamic of the whole process.
  4. During the Academic session, Dr. Valentina Fava discussed ‘business models to combine sustainability and innovation’. What is a livlihood vs. a business model? And changing the narrative of the former to the latter. She says, we need a new model of business for Crafts & craft related livlihoods. This model must speak the business language to be sustainable from an economic view point. On a related note, someone made a point that craft related organisations & businesses cannot be appropriately valued or judged every year, progress can only be assessed in 3-5 years.

All in all, the conference was insightful and I got to meet some inspiring people. There’s always a question of the outcome of these conferences and discussions, is it just theory? What happens once the discussions are over? Being aware of the issues, solutions, concepts that other people have encountered in various fields could trigger ideas for us to implement in our scenarios. It’s difficult to emperically define the benefits but I think, it’s definitely important to have these exchanges to expand our perspective.

Check out Sahapedia’s videos from the conference.
Read the thesis by Annapurna Mamidipudi : Towards a theory of innovation in handloom weaving in India

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