Click-clack—the weaver pulls the batten, flicks the overhead cord and the shuttle darts across the loom; the legs pedal in tandem. There is a rhythm, even playfulness in the movements. It is fascinating to see taut threads converge into a beautiful saree on the beam. This small saree production unit in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, is run by Mulchand Shravnekar, a fourth-generation weaver. The silk-cotton sarees from the handlooms here are known for their characteristic zari patterns on the borders.
Shravnekar began weaving in childhood and supplied sarees for merchants and wholesalers for a pittance. Now, in his middle age, he owns a few looms and a retail shop in the town. At the workshop, Shravnekar shows me the process of making the Maheshwari saree. The late morning sun streams in through the large open windows. outside, in the narrow lanes of Maheshwar, stray cows ruminate silently.
Maheshwar is situated along the banks of one of India’s holiest rivers, the Narmada. The riverfront abuts the Maheshwar fort. Imposing stone stairways from the ghats reach up to the numerous intricately carved temples along the ramparts. Maheshwar is believed to be situated on the site of ancient Mahishmati, a place mentioned in many Puranic legends. In modern times, the town gained prominence as the capital of the Holkar dynasty during the reign of its most accomplished ruler Queen Ahilyabai Holkar in the late 18th century. Known as an effective yet benevolent queen and a patron of Hindu temples and traditional art, Ahilyabai established the textile industry in Maheshwar to provide a means of livelihood to her subjects. Though the craft was practised for centuries in the Malwa region, it is said that the current form and style of the Maheshwari saree is based on the designs created and commissioned by the queen herself. The royal family, even today, is involved in several handloom-related social initiatives in the town.
My visit to Maheshwar is on the suggestion of Prashant Kondle, vice president at GoCoop. A company that is helping Indian weavers market their textiles to consumers, GoCoop was founded in 2014. It aims to create sustainable livelihood for individual weavers and weaver cooperatives by providing them direct access to customers through their website and help them make better profits.
The business model has been successful. According to news reports, GoCoop processes more than 3,000 online orders a month. It gets a small commission on each sale and a listing fee from the weavers and cooperatives featured on its website. GoCoop recorded a 100 per cent year-on-year sales growth in the 2015–16 financial year. The highest- selling category on its online marketplace is the handloom saree. The most popular among these is the Maheshwari saree produced in Maheshwar.
Now in Maheshwar, mannequins stand in Shravnekar’s shop window. Inside, a long low table covered with a white sheet is used to spread out sarees. It faces a bench that seats customers. Metal racks against the wall stock sarees of different shades and fabrics.The shop attracts tourists who often stop by on their way to the Narmada River Resort at the end of the road. This retail venture, along with his association with GoCoop, is helping Shravnekar make higher margins than he ever made as a supplier to traders and middlemen.
Shravnekar gets notified on his smartphone whenever a customer buys his saree from the GoCoop website. The local GoCoop representative in Maheshwar helps him pack and ship the orders. Payment from the customer is kept in an escrow account and later credited once the product is shipped.
GoCoop has been investing considerable time and resources in reaching out to weavers to establish such partnerships. Shravnekar says that the GoCoop team in Maheshwar met and conducted information sessions for weavers to help them understand the online business. After Shravnekar signed up, they assisted him to photograph the products and write the related information to be featured on the website.
Striving to find a place in wardrobes today, Indian handloom has had a glorious past. Handloom fabrics were one of the main items of export from ancient India. Several accounts from the 1st century CE describe the craze for fine Indian textiles in Europe. Amusingly, Pliny the Elder, or Gaius Plinius Secundus, an author, naturalist and philosopher of the early Roman empire, in his writings, admonishes noble women for spending too much gold on Indian luxuries. This extravagance, he worries in his book, is responsible for Rome’s trade imbalance with the East.
Old Indian literature is replete with interesting descriptions of woven fabrics and embellishments of distinct types. A striking description from Kadambari, a romantic novel in Sanskrit composed by the poet Bāṇabhaṭṭa in the first half of the 7th century CE, describes the king wearing ‘his two silken garments, white as the foam of ambrosia, with pairs of swans painted in yellow on their hem’.