Ever since Mahatma Gandhi renounced western dress in favour of simple handloom-woven cloth, making a political point as he did so of course – and in fact long before that, weaving has been a central part of the culture of India.
In Punjab today these ancient crafts – weaving, knitting, embroidery – are at risk of dying out. The reason for this is twofold: firstly such labour-intensive goods can still only command very low prices, in part because of the volume of production from elsewhere (including China) and in part because of the lack of belief in the value of craft as work.
Secondly, weaving is perceived as something your Mum does at home. Girls want a better life than that of their Mum – and Mum quite understandably encourages her daughter to be ambitious. While traditional dance, for example, is flourishing and still perceived as a hugely desirable skill, craftwork is in decline, seen as unskilled and unrewarding work.
Young Indian women like these do not often aspire to be craftworkers. They want to be doctors and lawyers and managers – and that is of course quite right. But they cannot all enter these high-flying professions. There are still many youngsters better suited to craftwork in supporting a more traditional household role.
Marriage is still most girls’ dream here, driven by Bollywood ideals and cultural expectations. In order to support these particular young women, who may marry and then find themselves without an income stream of their own, a new workshop has been launched in a rural village outside Sangrur by Kiran and Rana Grewal.
This intrepid couple took stock of their city life a few years ago and found it wanting. They returned to run Rana’s family farm, much to the consternation of their families (it is more traditional to hire a farm manager and live off the profits in town). Rana now relishes the satisfaction of seeing things done to a higher standard under his own supervision.
After a while artist Kiran realised, to her distress, that traditional craftwork was all but dead in the village. Just a few older mothers could remember how to do any of it. Kiran and Rana took action, planting the seeds of an enterprise which they have tended as tenderly as the villagers tend their sacred tulsi trees.
They have researched traditional tools (such as the traditional iron bedframe loom, which Kiran supplies), techniques and patterns with some spectacular results. Equally importantly, the villagers have grown to like and trust Kiran and Rana.
Kiran soon realised that it was not enough to encourage local craftworkers like this family to renew craft activity in their own homes. She saw how badly young women want a job – and that means they must be able to leave the family home and travel to a place of work.
And so she and Rana decided to build one.
Coming together like this to work there has many benefits: skills can be shared in a virtuous upward circle, and new skills learned. They embroider, knit and sew here too.
It is also a convivial place for the women to meet and chat, combatting social isolation and enabling domestic issues to be discussed and resolved.
Kiran feels the workshop is now ready for its ‘next step’. When I stayed with Kiran on my #MajorTomsWar book tour we agreed that seeing their skills valued by the outside world would mean a lot to the ladies engaged in craftwork. It would also provide an opportunity to share skills in both directions, initially perhaps by Skype tutorials and possibly, in future, with residential workshops based around Kiran’s lovely home.
I have begun to put out feelers on this among craftworkers in Scotland and have already had a very positive response.
If you or your craft group (SWRI, Embroiderers Guild, Knitting Circle etc) would be interested in a meaningful and sustainable holiday involving a practical exchange of craft skills with a rural Punjabi community, do please get in touch with me via www.majortomswar.com
Vee (Verity) Walker is a heritage consultant and author based in the Scottish Highlands. Her award-winning consultancy Interpretaction was founded in 1999 and has a client list which includes most British and many European heritage agencies. www.interpretaction.com
She is touring Punjab and Delhi 29 November – 17 December 2019 with her novel #MajorTomsWar, which is out in Kindle on December 13 (launching on 13 December at the Chandigarh Military Literature Festival) and in paperback in February 2020. She is also speaking at the USI in Delhi at 11am on 9th December. #MajorTomsWar commemorates the role of the Indian Cavalry in the Great War. www.majortomswar.com