#HandMadeInIndia: An ode to the saree

#HandMadeInIndia: An ode to the saree

This week, as I write this column, I want to share with you a small jubilant Yay! moment. About a month or so ago, I noticed that social media giant Facebook launched the online Avatars? option. When I looked to create my own Avatar, I was shocked to see that for an Indian-origin woman there was only the choice of someone dressed in a hijab.

Livid at this cultural misappropriation and exclusion, I took to social media and wrote a couple of opinion pieces and ran dedicated campaigns asking Facebook to include the saree and bindi (as also other ethnic Indian wear) to make these emojis more inclusive and truly diverse. It was a big fight, and I felt like I was alone, but I persevered.

Own heroes

I received many messages telling me how many modern Indian women did not wear sarees to work and that the demand for a saree and bindi was quite ridiculous. Of course, there were hundreds of thousands of others whose sentiments resonated with my own, and they chose to support my campaign.

Finally, on July 1, not only the saree but also the salwar-kameez, dhoti-kurta, turban and, for those in India, the bindi, tilak and jhumkas made it to the Avatars! A small but significant step forward and a big lesson in diversity and inclusion, for media campaign planners and for us all to note how important it is to speak up for yourself sometimes we just have to be our own heroes!

Made in India

So today, I pay tribute to our shared civilizational identity in the form of the handwoven, handloom drape that is known the world over as the saree. If you call yourself an ethnic Indian, these hand-spun outfits must feel like a piece of your own heritage that you own and flaunt with pride.

Cotton was first cultivated and woven around the 5th Millennium BCE and silk around 2450 BCE on the Indian subcontinent. The term 'sari? came from saatika?, a three-piece ensemble made up of antriya, the lower garment; uttariya, a veil worn over the shoulder or head; and stanapatta, a chestband forming the complete ensemble or poshak. This has been described in ancient Indic Sanskrit literature and there are references to it in Buddhist Pali literature during the 6th century BCE.

There are 80-plus recorded ways of draping a saree, an outfit loved equally by India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The saree is today a fashion ensemble and worn by many leading lights and celebrities around the world. Though commonly thought to be 9 yards, its length may vary from 3.5 to 9 yards, depending on what style you drape it in.

Power outfit

My love affair with the saree began when I was five years old. My first handloom weave was a Calcutta cotton saree gifted to me by my mami (maternal aunt). At 40 years old today, I not only wear the 6 yards for the love of it but also as it gives me a sense of power, identity and confidence. My bindi and saree are inseparable from me now.

The Indian handloom industry produces hand-woven fabrics that constitutes 95 per cent of its global production, according to the Handloom Export Promotion Council (HEPC). Nearly 15 per cent of all cloth production in India is from the handloom sector, which employs over 4.3 million people, directly and indirectly, making it the second-largest employment provider for rural India after agriculture. With nearly 2.4 million looms of varied design and style and varying production capacity, this industry has a strong infrastructure base.

Pandemic impact

As the Covid-19 pandemic struck all of us, it hit Indian artisans and associated vocations in a way that was unimaginable. Stalled and often cancelled orders, a lack of cashflow, the loss of seasonal products and market opportunity are a few catastrophes faced by the sector. With an already shrinking skill base, many artisan families have moved on to adopting other professions, giving up their family heritage and craft.

Since each piece often takes days and months to produce, owing to the high level of skill and craftsmanship required, these fabrics need to be ordered much in advance. Many traders, facing cashflow issues, have stopped these advance orders and have even cancelled many, resulting in artisans and associated trades being hit with massive losses.

In order to support the Indian handloom industry, a number of cluster supporters and boutique owners who sourced their sarees and products from the artisans launched dedicated campaigns to encourage consumers to buy handloom and support the community.

Indian Artizans

One such campaign was run by Indian Artizans, an initiative of two sisters Preeti & Pallavi. A simple video appeal by Pallavi reached me and it broke my heart as it highlighted the plight of the artisan community during the pandemic. The appeal was simple: #PreBuyHandloom. It sprung me into action and I bought my share of handloom sarees, shared and encouraged others to do the same. It is amazing what passion and a simple call-to-action can achieve!

Another campaign that has been making waves and predates the Hon ble Prime Minister of India's clarion call of Atmanirbharta? (self-reliance) is the #HandMadeInIndia, urging people to support original Made-in-India products, handloom and handicrafts.

As you all enjoy your Indian? Avatars on Facebook, the result of a single voice calling out for inclusion joined by millions of others, may I please remind everyone that it is World Handloom Day on August 7. So, can we all try and do our little bit to support #HandMadeInIndia and #PreBuyHandloom?

Lakshmi Kaul is the London-based UK Head & Representative at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and an active Indian diaspora campaigner. In this regular Talking Point column for iGlobal?, she will focus on issues that deserve spotlighting within the Global Indian community, referencing her personal experiences.

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