Thursday, November 7, 2013

The resilient handloom

The handloom is a resilient tool, and coton handloom weaving has survived many deliberate attempts to destroy it. Well documented studies of such efforts include the decimation of the cotton industry of Bengal by importing subsidized machine made yarn and cloth. Dr James Taylor speaking of the city of Dhaka in 1840 describes the results thus:

"The manufacture of thread, the occupation in former times of almost every family in the district is now, owing to the comparative cheapness of English thread, almost entirely abandoned, and thus the arts of spinning and weaving, which for ages have afforded employment to a numerous and industrious population, have in the course of 60 years, passed into other hands that supply the wants not only of foreign nations, but of the rivalled country itself. This decline of manufactures and commerce, as may be naturally expected, has occasioned a diminution of the population of the city. In 1800 the inhabitants were 200,000, but now they do not amount to more than 68,038 in number, according to the census of 1838. Poverty has increased in a far greater ratio than population has decreased, … the majority of the people belonging to the lower classes, are from want of work in a very destitute condition, and are glad to procure any employment, however unsuited to their previous habits, to enable them to earn a subsistence for themselves and families.

The town presents symptoms of decay corresponding with the diminished population and reduced circumstances of its present inhabitants. A great number of houses are unoccupied or in a state of ruin. Drains, ghauts, lanes, and bridges are neglected from the want of funds to keep them in repair. The suburbs are overrun with jungle, while the interior of the town is filled with stagnant canals and sinks, containing refuse
animal and vegetable matters, which taint the water of the neighbouring wells. Disease prevails as may be supposed, to a great extent, throughout all classes of the community, but especially among the poorer inhabitants in whom it is aggravated by their impoverished diet. It is chiefly dependent however on locality for its development, and has its origin in the unwholesome water and the numerous muddy canals and stagnant pools above mentioned. These sources of malaria are extending widely every year, and whilst impure exhalations thus generated, affect the great body of the people with disease, incurable maladies and infirmities of the most humiliating character, are every where presented to our view in a crowd of wretched, helpless objects, who procure a precarious subsistence by begging in the streets."

Even the Governor-General, William Bentinck, was forced to report that 'the misery hardly finds parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.' Crocodile tears, because he did nothing about it.

So its pretty amazing and a great tribute to the resilience of the handloom industry that in the 21st century it is the largest employer in India after agriculture, hanging on in spite of cheaply made powerloom fabrics pretending to be handwoven, while the Government looks on and does nothing, like Lord Bentinck. In fact the Government itself has produced a new threat: a plan to change the very definition of handloom to include several mechanized processes!

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