The series of lockdowns caused by the Covid pandemic across India has left debilitating and far-reaching implications for the handloom industry. Not only has the weaving of fabric almost come to a standstill, the supply chain from the weaver to the agent to the shop has also been disrupted. The biggest fear staring these artisans in the face is that even when the supply chain is restored and shops and stores open as they have already started doing, will the consumers show enough appetite to buy the beautiful fabrics that they have woven.
The silk weavers of India, from Kashmir to Kancheepuram and in between, have taken a really drastic beating, and this includes the weavers in Chhattisgarh who weave the beautiful kosa silk sarees. Kosa is the Sanskrit word meaning ‘silk’.
In a recent article in The Print, Kanhaiya Dewangan, a master weaver and trader of kosa silk in Raigarh district, Chhattisgarh, was quoted thus: “More than 25 handloom weavers who work for me have not had any work since the lockdown began. I don’t have raw material to give them.”
Kosa is often described as a kind of tussar silk, but it can often be different from tussar, being a little rougher in texture and lacking the shine of tussar, explains Archna Agarwal, president of Rotary Club of Bilaspur Queens, RID 3261, an all women’s club with 38 members. She has conceived and launched a project to help several families, particularly women, engaged in weaving kosa silk. Aptly, and rather poetically, titled Sapno ke dhaage (dream threads), this project envisages helping the weavers and their families in a myriad ways, particularly in the brutal aftermath of the Covid pandemic.
Kosa silk occupies the pride of place in every Chhattisgarh home, and adorns women’s wardrobes across India.
Archna says that for almost a year she has been deliberating “on doing an impactful project that will change the lives of people. In Rotary we all select projects that have a service component in it, but during my year as president, I wanted to carry out work which will include RI President Shekhar Mehta’s focus area of empowering girls/women by skilling them, and then helping to market their ware in a very tough environment,” she says.
Seeing the plight of the weavers of kosa silk, which is so beautifully transformed into the graceful and elegant sarees that occupy a pride of place in many Indian women’s wardrobes, the club launched this project which was inaugurated by President Mehta before he left for the RI headquarters in Evanston in August.
Kosa is often described as a kind of tussar silk, but it can often be different from tussar, being a little rougher in texture and lacking the shine of tussar.
The fulcrum of this project will be Umreli, about two hours’ drive from Bilaspur, “because after a lot of research and visiting the area I found both talent and great need among the women here. Many of the girls and women can’t go outside the house, they are not educated and are totally dependent on their husbands or fathers. And if you consider the fact that these talented kosa silk weavers are the shaan of Chhattisgarh, I thought we have to promote their welfare,” says Archna.
On the difference between tussar and kosa silk sarees, she says that while tussar has a light shine, kosa is rougher in texture, but with a lot more varieties. “The price starts at ₹6,000 to 7,000 and can go up to ₹25,000. But the weavers don’t get much. A woman takes 1.5 to 2 days to make one kosa silk saree for which she gets ₹400–500, but there is no guarantee of work every day.”
There is both talent and need among these village women. As these talented kosa silk weavers are the shaan of Chhattisgarh, I thought we have to promote their welfare.
– Archna Agarwal, President, RC Bilaspur Queens
Prerana Surana, project chair says, “Kosa silk occupies the pride of place in every Chhattisgarh home. Our love for handlooms has made the kosa silk cross the nation’s borders and it is highly sought after by designers worldwide.”
She adds, “All of us involved in this project believe that weaving is a great combination of creativity, focus, patience and concentration. It is much beyond making and selling, and the finished saree is really a product resulting from the labour of love.”
The club members were really moved by the fact that so many of the girls who weave these sarees expressed their desire to improve their lives and livelihoods through better education. “One girl said that I want to learn computers. Then there is a family with five daughters and they are really in need of our help. So I have given them the commitment that we will try to do a big project, maybe through a global grant, and if that comes through, we will help in the marriage of these girls… not only these girls but also other young women,” says Archna, a trained lawyer who also works in real estate.
She explains that as theirs is an all-women’s club, big funding from the members is not possible. Her husband, Arun Agarwal, a past president of RC Bilaspur Midtown, is a chartered accountant and she has personally donated ₹2 lakh for this project. The members also have plans to do a Covid vaccination camp for at least 1,000 people.
On why she became a Rotarian, she says that she was “always involved in Rotary and its activities and projects, first as a spouse and then as a Rotarian myself. I realise that god has given our family both talent and wealth… there is so much need and opportunity for service in our communities, so we should do whatever we can to help.”
When I compliment her on the rather poetic name for the project title, Archna beams and says that while brainstorming on this aspect, “we felt as all the dreams of these women are related to weaving, this would be an appropriate title.”
On the road ahead, Prerana says that the club members are now creating an online platform for these women to help them market their ware at a better price. “We will set up a website called www.sapnokedhaage.com; our plans also include three centres in three villages, including Churi and Shivni, and as the girls want digital literacy, we will put five computers in each centre, apart from sewing and embroidery machines. Classes will be organised in tailoring and embroidery so that they can increase their product line and get more income.” A crafts mela or exhibition is also being planned to market these sarees.
Adds Archna, “We will hire a tutor to give them digital literacy, hold adult literacy classes through the TEACH component of RILM, and also give basic education to their children, so that they don’t lose hope in their future.”
We believe that weaving is a great combination of creativity, focus, patience and concentration. It is much beyond making and selling, and the finished saree is really a product resulting from the labour of love.
– Prerana Surana, Project Chair
The club also has plans to establish a small financial entity from which loans for tiny self-enterprises can be given to the women. “We have so many plans and want to apply for a ₹20–30 lakh global grant to improve the lives of these families, and empower the women.”
The inspiration to make this a “bigger and bolder project” came from RI President Mehta, when he inaugurated it on the National Handloom Day in August, with Rashi Mehta, RID Mahesh Kotbagi, RI Membership Committee chair Kamal Sanghvi and DG Sunil Phatak (RID 3261) and PDG and Member of Parliament Vivek Tankha, adds Archna.