New Delhi: Talk of a change in the Handloom Reservation Act, which has since 1985 protected handloom weaves from being copied by machine-made and powerloom competitors, has got veteran designer Ritu Kumar worried about the plight of millions of India's weavers who are already fighting for their livelihood.
A notable name in the Indian fashion industry, who has focussed her efforts towards resurrecting the handloom industry and craft of local weavers from different regions, Kumar says that any change in the Act may not only impact the lives of over four million weavers but could lead to the death of handloom itself in the country.
"The Act has protected handloom for decades. It has protected yarn and allows our weaver community to thrive. There's a movement to scrap that in favour of powerloom. I am strongly protesting against it," Kumar told IANS in an interview here.
"If they take away the reservation of handloom, it will affect 4.4 million weavers and there won't be handloom left in this country," she added.
It has been speculated that the government plans to amend the Handloom Reservation Act. The news comes against the backdrop of efforts by the powerloom lobby to get parity with the handloom sector, which has called on the government to implement the act.
Asked if the amendment will affect the charm of the weaving process, for which India is known for globally, Kumar said: "More than the romance and charm, what we will lose will be a huge chunk of livelihood."
The designer, who has spent over four decades in the fashion industry and has witnessed the changes in the interests of national and international buyers, also shared how "there is a strong lobbying happening around the country".
As part of her contribution to the weaving sector, Kumar held a sari exhibition in the capital. It saw rare handblock prints from Bengal -- and it's an effort on her part to revive craft from the region and create employment for weavers there.
For the line, Kumar has taken inspiration from former Danish colony of Serampore, which she had explored in mid-1960s when she was a student of art history.
"I couldn't understand why there was no work (for weavers there). Of little samples that I saw, it was so beautiful and I wondered why they had no work. They were painting polka dots for export to America at the same price as synthetic scarves, and it was terrible. I wasn't really a designer of print, but I said, 'Let me try and do something'. I made blocks and asked them to print them on saris.
"It's an old heritage which came back to life. Over the years, we carried the block printing and I also used Bhagalpur silk, which is made from ahimsa silk from that region," Kumar explained.
The designer hopes that with her work she "will be able to give at least that amount of work to those weavers once again with the renewed interest". But awareness needs to be created, she stressed.
"We need to create more awareness about Indian handlooms. More education is required. People hardly know what they are wearing," said Kumar, whose creations have been flaunted by names like Jemima Khan, Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai and even the late Princess Diana.
Kumar's work and involvement with weavers keeps her away from glitzy runway shows, but she's not complaining.
"I am taking some time off to focus on these weavers, but I have not quit. I think Label (son Amrish Kumar's designer label) is doing wonderfully well in maintaining our signature crafts in a modern way."
(Nivedita can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)