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?
All photographs courtesy Chitvan Gill.
This photofeature is part of an on-going project to document the state of India’s handloom industry.