Sunday, May 15, 2011

I am humbled by artists and those who empower them

Sometimes there's more to buying a beautiful garment than buying a beautiful garment.

I'd invited friends partly because I thought they'd like to see the the rather delightful display at the Chanderiyaan exhibition; partly because I hadn't met a lot of them for a while. I did say there was a story here which they may relish. I just didn't realize how magical the story really is.

I walked in and knew at once that I was going to succumb to at least one dupatta, one saree maybe. But so far it was only a talk of 'this one?' 'isn't this gorgeous?' 'hey, really love and great prices' 'keep this aside for me'. Yes, Chanderi is popular and available elsewhere but I also knew the weavers were bringing their art directly to the buyer, empowered by the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and it is a laudable initiative. And then, it became more.

Osama Manzur and Shahid from DEF sat down to tell us the stories - of Chanderi, the village with 3000 weaver families who create fabric and designs which pull in Rs. 65 crores annually, but where most families take home less than Rs. 2000 a month; a village where you walk in and out of monuments that murmer historical tales; where a culture that is 700 years old had catered to the fancy of kings and princes: a craft preserved painstakingly, weaver to weaver on old looms and on memory, consuming time and effort and loss where piece after piece could sometimes be scrapped after days because it had changed from the moment till the moment it was finally ready. The world changed - and the work of the weavers didn't know that. This world wanted different colours, a renewed aesthtic, maybe stitched garments, maybe embroidered - and they wanted more and faster. In Chanderi they only knew how to weave.

That's when DEF stepped in and we listen as Shahid tells us that the village is wi-fied, the designs are preserved thanks to technology, the piece is now laid out and experimented with on the computer before it finds it way to the loom - so much time saved, so much work contained; new skills are learned. He shares how the beauty of Chanderi attracts so many different people and tells us stories of women from other cultures who buy the sarees and then want a scissor to cut them up and make outfits - his heart breaks as the weaving and the whole design, so lovingly woven, is separated - but he has learned that this too will re-create a beauty of its own.

And then we sat and spoke of our own histories and families, our mothers and their Chanderis - some of which are heirlooms which perhaps cannot be worn anymore but which daughters preserve; we spoke of the elegance of the saree that younger generations seemed to be missing out on. We sat and spoke of middlemen and business people who are a boon to the trade but to whom the weavers had lost their very livelihoods, and the dangers of exploitation.

Yes, I did succumb to the dupattas and the saree and the stoles which are going to be gifts when I go on holiday next, carrying with me stories of the weavers of Chanderi, their looms and their regal offering.


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