The picturesque district of Balaghat

Mehendiwara is a beautiful village in the district of Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh, Central India. Here red kaccha roads lead to red mud houses built in a vernacular style unique to the area. Cows wander alongside honking motorbikes on these red roads, and children play by streams that run through the lush green fields. Population density is low and a visit to the closest town or railway station can take more than a day’s travel.

Weaving has long been an integral part of the community here, with exquisite jacquards in complex patterns and fine cotton handloom a local speciality.

Yes despite the incredible natural beauty of Mehendiwara, in recent years a shadow has fallen over this rural village. When WomenWeave first visited here, abandoned houses and a sense of despair prevailed amongst its inhabitants. Why?

What an earth happened to Balaghat weaving?

Up until the 1980s, Mehendiwara was a weaving hub, renowned for ultra-fine, hand spun and hand woven cotton. It is hard to describe the exquisite qualities of this traditional cloth. Both complex jacquards and ultra fine khadi were always specialities of the area. The cotton is soft, feather-light and fine, with the coolness of cotton but a texture not unlike silk. Weavers wove on looms made from local materials including reeds and shuttles made from buffalo horns.

However in the 1980s, government policy of the time encouraged the weavers to join co-operatives and switch to the plainest of weaves, the rationale for this being to compete in the market with power loom and mill woven textiles. Of course, it was impossible for handloom weavers to “compete” at this scale with machine woven cloth. Due to fierce competition from the mills as well as local-political circumstances weavers co-operatives were closed down and the weavers were left with no market for their products. Gradually the weavers lost their traditional livelihoods with many forced to migrate and seek alternative work as daily wage labourers. It should be noted that most weaving families in the area don’t have agricultural land so have little else to fall back-upon. The village once famous for weaving now has fewer than 50 looms as compared to 1000 looms 30 years ago.

Why is WomenWeave working with Balaghat weavers?

In recent years there has been a massive upswing in the urban Indian domestic market’s interest in handloom. A mini-renaissance of Indian cultural heritage has seen a revival of interest in regional weaving styles. In addition, global currents of sustainability and artisanal luxury have helped reshape perceptions of hand loom weaving both in India and internationally.

The future looms bright in Balaghat

It’s WomenWeave’s intention to capitalise upon this market opportunity with the core aim of providing dignified, meaningful and sustained employment to weavers young and old. Most of the weavers who know how to weave the intricate styles unique to Balaghat are now in their 50s and 60s. However, of the most intricate jacquards, the surviving weavers who have knowledge of these processes are now too frail or their eyesight is too poor to be able to weave. In addition the ecosystem of many supplementary roles and materials that supports a weaver at their loom no longer exists. It is no less than a tragedy that this intangible cultural heritage has been lost in the space of a generation.

However, not quite all is lost. There are still enough active weavers who can create the exemplary fine cotton weaves of old. This means that as well as providing them with sustainable employment, it is also imperative for them to be able to pass on their knowledge to a new generation. However, young people from the local community need to feel that weaving offers them a good livelihood with potential for self-betterment and entrepreneurship.

In the space of less than two years, WomenWeave has been able to rebuild some of the eco-system of fine cotton weaving in Balghat. There are now 10 new looms in operation, with WomenWeave ensuring the weavers sufficient support and market linkages to optimise their livelihood opportunities.

As well as weavers, WomenWeave has been providing outreach in surrounding areas to tribal, lower caste women who sit at the very margins of society. By teaching these women spinning of the cotton yarn, a whole new livelihood opportunity has opened up for them

WomenWeave is providing assistance in terms of technical orientation, skill up-gradation and better work opportunities in order provide round the year employment to women in these interior areas of rural India.