Delhi chugs along, caught in the vice grip of a medieval modernism. Joy and sorrow, suffering and success – stories of all kinds flow over on its streets. But the weaver, engaged in his craft in obscure parts of this city, has only sorrow to share – a primal wound visible in the sinews of his body, a deep pain reflected in his soul.

We speak of a glorious tradition of craft, whose renown goes back into antiquity, spinning its history into empires and civilisations. But the story of the men responsible for this marvel is frayed.

The fabrics that draped kings and emperors, or covered a naked fakir, are created through a complex of functions that brings together farmers, spinners, dyers, and masters who wind the warp and woof. At the end of this critical chain is the weaver, who rhythmically hammers out the intricate designs we often take for granted.

Weaving and the repetitive act of spinning, is like a series of meditative mantras, a veritable contemplation of the divine. We glimpse this in the imagery of the mystic-poet-philosopher-weaver Kabir, and in the spiritual politician Mahatma Gandhi, whose gaunt, spindly physiognomy seemed crafted to imitate the impoverished weaver.

Gandhi chose this, among the many beleaguered traditional occupations, to symbolise the struggle for self-reliance and national independence. The irony is that his choice did nothing to alleviate the distress of the Indian weaver, or to shed light on his tragedy.

Today, as leaders and elites spin yarns about a great renaissance, India’s handloom industry is dying. Across the country, the upheaval of change is casting a cruel shadow over millions of people, as men and women upholding centuries-old traditions are made redundant. Their voices are weak, unheard, and they remain powerless to alter their destiny.

Through history’s wormhole, we look at Silesia in Prussia towards the end of the 19th century. The plight of its weavers, pushed to the brink as a result of the dramatic transformations produced by the Industrial Revolution, eventually provoked an uprising. It was this revolt that led Heine to write his famous poem, The Silesian Weavers, and which inspired Gerhart Hauptmann to write his celebrated play, The Weavers.

Where thrive only shame and degradation,
Where every flower’s plucked ere its bloom,
And worm’s thrive in the dank rot and gloom –
We’re weaving , we’re weaving!

— ‘The Silesian Weavers’, Heinrich Heine

Crucially, it was this rebellion that prompted Karl Marx to recognise the power and potential of the proletariat, and the integral linkages between economics and the state. This was a time when desperation inspired revolt, literature and a new way of looking at the world.

Here, in the heat and freeze of Delhi, not far from the seat of the nation’s final arbiters of justice and power at Raisina Hill, thousands continue to die slow deaths, quietly disappearing into the darkness. Can anyone shine a light on them?

In the illustrated classic series of comic books that I loved reading as a child, there were vivid and beautifully crafted drawings that narrated those magical stories. Today, in the real world there are moments when I suddenly glimpse a slice of life that seems to be a perfect duplication from that illustrated world. This is what struck me when I slowly opened a door of a large abandoned shed in a weavers’ colony in Delhi. The huge hall was imbued with the stillness of frozen time, row upon row of solid wooden handlooms, their wood tempered into a deep caramel lustre, some of them still carrying the threads half-woven into fabric covered with a thick mist of cobwebs, gently swaying in the breeze that wafted in through the broken windows and skylights. The evening sun caught in the glass reflected its glow through the room, turning this scene of banal disuse into one of quiet sorrow. It was a vision from Sleeping Beauty, a world forgotten, lost in a cursed sleep.
A man and a woman stand amidst the wreckage of what was once a thriving weavers’ colony, Sundarnagri. Similar scenes of ruination are found across Delhi's traditional handloom colonies and centres in Sawan Park, Bharat Nagar and Nandnagri, among others.
“Here I stand, Robert Baumert, master weaver of Kaschbach. Who can bring up anything anything against me?... I’ve been an honest, hardworking man all my life long an’ look at me now! What have I to show for it? Look at me! See what they’ve made of me!” – ‘The Weavers’, by Gerhart Hauptmann. Hira Lal, one of the last weavers in the handloom cluster of Sundernagri, ekes out a living on the edge of destitution. “All these plots around me were once flourishing clusters of looms. Earlier, everything worked on handlooms, ab iss kaam ko power le gaya (now everything has been taken by powerlooms). There were at least 500 handlooms in this area. Now there is no work, everything is shut down. Earlier we could earn well in this line, now we can’t even feed ourselves. We know no other work, what can I do now? My hair has gone white. I am 70 years old. I have been doing this work since I was 15.”
The spiritual font of Kabir, the civilising craft of a nation, the handloom has woven its intricate threads into the annals of history. Mohammad Umar comes from a family of traditional weavers from Kendwa village in the Konda District of Jharkhand. He was forced to shift to Delhi at the age of about 35, as work in the village dried out, with more and more villagers opting for readymade products. “There is no work there [in the village] for weavers now. Earlier, everyone bought the local output. Now there are no buyers. My family has shifted to other work to earn a living. I wanted my children to carry on this family tradition, but they have refused.”
“Stretched on the rack day after day,/ Heart sick and bodies aching,/Our heavy sighs their witness bear/ To spirit slowly breaking.” – ‘The Weavers’, by Gerhart Hauptmann. The sheer physical demands of the profession and its mounting hopelessness sap both the body and soul.
India’s glorious craft, once renowned the world over, today finds expression in the suffering and poverty of the men who wield the loom. The weaver works on “piece rates” that often yield Rs 100 to Rs 120 for ten to twelve hours of backbreaking work. Mool Chand has worked as a weaver since childhood. He came from Village Mahab in Saina Tehsil, Bulandshahr, to Delhi in 1980, as work became hard to findin his village. “Earlier, things were very good in the village, but when the work from Gandhi Ashram stopped coming, everything became difficult. People became unemployed. When I came to Delhi, there was a lot of work in the handloom industry. Under Indira Gandhi, things were good, both for workers and owners, and there was a lot of work. Now that is no more. Nowadays we can’t earn more than Rs 150 to Rs175 per day and there are many days without work. Today you can only find old people weaving.”
How did we descend to this? In the heart of the Capital of this nation, unseen, unknown, utterly neglected, thousands of workers eke out a bare living, while not far away, in splendid, palatial surroundings, others expound on an imagined renaissance of this great tradition.
The interiors of one of the enormous factory sheds set up by the government for weavers’ societies.The long-unused machinery improvises as domestic furniture for workers who have nowhere to go. Sunehri Lal is an out-of-work weaver who took up cudgels on behalf of workers who had not received the benefits that the government had announced for them, but that had been cornered by the owners of various societies. “The government had announced provisions for workers to be given residential quarters in the Bharat Nagar Weaving Complex, but the ‘owners’ did not construct these, for fear that the workers would then get a ‘permanent’ status… The government had announced many benefits for workers, including bonus, wages, etc. But the owners have always given us nothing more than a piece rate, a minimum rate per metre. This project was set up for weavers, but it is the ‘owners’ of the societies that have benefited, they have grown enormously and set up businesses elsewhere. The officials have all colluded with them.”
Driven by sheer hunger and in a chokehold of debt, the tragic condition of weavers has passed largely unnoticed. Zakir Hussain was a weaver in his village in Bihar, and used to supply cloth to Nepal, but that demand died out, and he was forced to come to Delhi in 1986. “Things started worsening right from 1987. They started exporting cotton, and yarn became very expensive. Today, we get just Rs10 per metre and can produce barely one metre per hour. So I can make at best Rs80 to Rs100 a day. The government gave us identity cards, but we get no benefits, no proper place to stay, no health service. The government has given money for handloom, but all these things are for the owners, not for the workers. We are not allowed to stay in these factories. But the owners let us stay here, since we are paid so little. You will not find anyone below 50, 60 or 70 years old among the weavers today.”
“We are in an awful state here. It’s not livin’ an’ it’s not dyin’. A man fights to the bitter end, but he’s bound to be beat at last – to be left without a roof over his head, you may say without ground under his feet. As long as he can work at the loom he can earn some sort o’ poor, miserable livin’. But it’s many a day since I’ve been able to get that sort o’ job.” – ‘The Weavers’, by Gerhart Hauptmann. Jugal Kishore came to Delhi from Bulandshahr, where work was no longer possible to find, at the age of 12, and has worked in the handloom industry since. “Earlier, there was a lot of work here, it used to go on night and day. After Indira Gandhi’s death, it went down. It’s because of government policies that things work or don’t. I can’t do anything else. I’m too old to take up any other work, or to learn something new. I live here on the factory floor. My daily output can’t be more than 10 or 12 metres, so I can’t earn more than Rs 100 to Rs 125, and I get no more than 15 days of work a month. I keep taking loans from the owner to meet my needs, whether or not I can pay back. No new people come into this work, so the skills are dying. I will work for another year or two, till my arms have strength. I am about 65 years old now.”
In a dark, dusty shed, Naseema Khatoon quietly winds shuttle after shuttle. She belongs to Bihar, and her father, afflicted with polio, could not work. Her mother used to do housework in kothis in Bombay. She married when she was 14 and her husband’s family worked on handlooms in Delhi. “When I came here there was a lot of work, all the looms here were being used.There were fifteen looms in this factory. At that time we were all prosperous. But then the owners slowly began to set up businesses elsewhere, in Mumbai, Surat, saying that handloom doesn’t sell. Slowly, all the looms fell into disuse. My husband started working in a factory manufacturing mobile chargers. Now he has fallen sick so he stays at home. We can barely feed ourselves. We have worked for so many years, and nobody thinks we are worth anything. What would our children’s worth be if they were in this line?
The intricate web of conflicting policies has driven the handloom industry into extreme distress.
No more shall I weave a garment of pain/ For You have come to me drawn by my weaving/ Ceaselessly weaving Your Name on the loom of my mind.” – Sant Kabir

All photographs courtesy Chitvan Gill.

This photofeature is part of an on-going project to document the state of India’s handloom industry.