Kharad, Mashru, Tangaliya, Rogan, Ajrakh … over the last couple of years my vocabulary has suddenly exploded with all manners of new terms. I have had the good fortune to visit Kachchh, a huge arid expanse of grassland and desert in India’s western state of Gujarat, home to an amazing diversity of crafts and bio-cultural ways of life.

Damabhai Mangubhai Marwada talks to me without pausing his work on a mobile loom on which he is weaving an intricate wool carpet. “Kharad weaving”, he says, “is so called because it is very strong, based on local sheep and camel wool; it has been going on for generations but now only one or two families are practicing it, and I decided to learn it to continue the heritage as also earn a livelihood.” Where did he learn it? From the master weaver Tejsibhai Marwada, one of the last expert practitioners. Damabhai’s brother Balabhai, sitting on the other side of the loom, smiles and tells me he too has learn recently, and weaves in the evenings after returning from his job at a nearby factory.

Damabhai and Balabhai are part of an impressive revival of several crafts in Kachchh. This is in part led by young people who are taking up their ancestral occupations against the general tide of youth moving into more ‘modern’ sector jobs that the dominant development discourse incites them to enter. In Siracha village, over a dozen youth have quit (or were laid off from) working in the nearby Tata and Adani factories, and are back into weaving in their homes. Another dozen or more are wanting to do the same if they can get some help re-establishing their looms.

In Nirona village, I visited Siddik (Ali) Lohar in his tiny workspace and shop, where he gave me a live demonstration of how a metal bell is made. He then showed me the various kinds of bells he makes, ranging from those used by Kachchh’s pastoralists to doorbells to those sounding like the impressive gongs in Buddhist monasteries. Having inherited the craft from his elders, Ali is now experimenting with various design forms and uses, in yet another impressive demonstration of how the youth are combining tradition with contemporary needs.

Interestingly, the revival of crafts has also brought about, and in turn been spurred by, women expressing their agency. In handloom weaving, women were traditionally always behind the scenes preparing the thread for the men to weave, but now from teenage years they are sitting on the loom and expressing their creativity. Jaishree Habubhai of Adhoi village has even taught her husband, a farmer, to weave; Champa Siju Vankar of Awadhnagar takes photos of landscapes in Kachchh and then renders them into her woven products.

In a corner of his house in Bhujodi, one of the most prominent crafts villages of Kachchh, young Prakash Naranbhai Vankar weaves some of the most innovative cotton carpets. He has learnt from his father Naranbhai Vankar (who is also a great singer of traditional devotional songs, bhajans, having helped make a club of young singers to revive that artform). I ask Prakash why he has stayed in weaving when he could have gone into computers or engineering, and his response leaves me speechless: “my loom is my computer.” He is indicating the fact that the task is not mechanical, it requires creativity, concentration … and love. Like all the other weavers (and embroiders and bell-makers and potters and other craftspersons) in Kachchh, Prakash weaves his intricate designs straight from the mind, without any models drawn out in advance.

Amongst the many interesting aspects of the revival of several crafts in Kachchh is the narrative accompanying it. For the youth, it is of course about the fact that they are getting decent earnings from it. But it is also much more. Dama, Prakash, Champa, and many others I spoke to expressed that they enjoyed the craft, that they found freedom and identity in it, that they were happy to work in their own homes or close to their families, and that they were proud of their heritage even as they found creativity in innovating for the current times. No alienated labour here! Rather, perhaps a dramatic departure from the alienation that capitalist production entails, as clearly exposed by Marx. And, to boot, an unintended re-affirmation of Gandhi’s emphasis on the dignity of manual labour?

These last 2 years I was studying the economic, social, cultural, and economic impacts of the revival of handloom weaving in Kachchh. This was part of a global study, the Activist-Academic Cogeneration of Knowledge for Environmental Justice (ACKnowl-EJ), sponsored by the International Science Council. To understand the various dimensions of transformation, we used a participatory analytical tool, the Alternatives Transformation Format. This tool was developed by the environmental action group Kalpavriksh on the basis of learnings from Vikalp Sangam, a nation-wide process platform for alternative initiatives in various fields. The study in Kachchh was a collaboration amongst the weaver community, Kalpavriksh and Khamir, a craft facilitation institution.

One of our motivations was to find out why a craft like handloom weaving was reviving in Kachchh, given its general decline across India. India’s famed textiles were once the largest and most diverse in the world, exported to all parts of the world for at least the last 2000 years. But they declined sharply under British colonial rule in the 19/20th centuries, due to heavy taxation and duties, and flooding of Indian markets with cloth from England’s mills. Post-independence, macro-economic policies that favoured mass machine production over the handmade, continued the decline. This went diametrically opposite the wise counsel of people like Mahatma Gandhi, who stressed the need for labour-intensive production processes. On top of this is the continuation of colonial education that places traditional occupations at lower status than modern ones, leading new generations to view their parents’ livelihoods as passé.

Kachchh’s countertrend is a result of many factors. The innate innovativeness and adaptability of its communities, interventions in designs and market-creation by groups like Khamir, Srujan, Kalaraksha, formal artisanal schools that taught young people about new designs and markets, and more lately communications technologies … all these combined with a lingering sense of the social bonds and psychological freedom that such livelihoods provide, and availability of guidance from elders, have triggered the revival.

This ‘hybrid’ culture pervades the revival of vanaat. Young people are flowering into their own, expressing their creativity in ways their elders would not have imagined. But they stay solidly faithful to the unique ‘Kachchhi chhaap’ motifs, still learn the basics of weaving at home, and continue to respect the wisdom and expertise of their parents. They also now use online platforms to find and create new markets. As young Shamjibhai told us in Kotay, “I directly market my produce digitally; I can work from the comfort of my home while making a good living”.

Our study (limited to handloom weaving) found that the transformation has multiple dimensions. The overall enhancement in economic well-being has been accompanied by an unwelcome increase (at least visibly) in inequality within the vankar community. A section has done very well, connected as they are to promoters of innovation and to urban markets; others without these or without the necessary capital to invest, have got left behind. Then there are the social dimensions: women and youth have found new ways to express themselves in a society that is otherwise heavily dominated by men and elders. As the most oppressed caste in traditional Hindu society, vankars have also found release from social marginalization, with their new-found economic status being a significant factor.

Additionally, we looked at the ecological footprint of weaving. Once made exclusively for other local communities in local barter or monetary transactions, quite a bit of the production is now for national and global markets. Even much of the yarn does not come from the local (organic) Kala cotton, and is imported. So the fossil fuel footprint must have increased. On the positive side, the revival of Kala cotton is hopeful, for we found that its ecological impact is significantly less than that of the genetically modified Bt cotton (that has taken over most of India’s cotton producing lands). This mixed picture is probably true of the other Kachchhi crafts that have revived; for instance a lot of the ajrakh (block printing) textile is being exported out of the region, but of late there has also been a visible revival of organic or natural colours.

The multi-dimensional nature of craft revival in Kachchh needs to be understood and discussed with and within the craftsperson communities. In particular, what steps could be taken to enhance positive impacts and reduce negative ones? Our study has helped start some such dialogue amongst the vankars. Along with a series of films produced during the study, our findings are proposed to be used to generate a dialogue between elders and the youth in the community, regarding the future of weaving. They could also become tools to influence public policy, which may be necessary to help craftspersons deal with issues like the ecological footprint and socio-economic inequities. All this would create the hope that the revival of Kachchhi craft can become even more worthy an example for how India create ecologically and socially more just livelihoods.

(A full report on the study, Sandhani: Weaving Transformation in Kachchh, India, is available on request from the author).