economic conditions of shawl weavers

Two aspects of the constraints I’ve heard mentioned regularly already that kani shawl weavers work and live under, their basic low rate of pay and the competition for the unknowing buyer of look-alike goods made by cheaper technologies, were given an impassioned reading for me tonight.
My perspective as a student of the antique, museum-quality artifacts featured in coffee-table books, has been to advocate the restoration of current design and weaving practices to their historical norms, one way or another connected to following a line of talim instructions for two picks of weaving instead of four.  The revival of these methods can be used both to reconstruct designs from antique fabrics and to create new designs.
Kani shawls have always been expensive, luxury goods, and quality needs to be evident to the discerning eye, to support not only the price of that piece but also the reputation of the craft.  Historians have conjectured that the decline in the fashionability of the “paisley” shawl in the late 19th century was partly due to the proliferation of cheaper versions.  The craft has been pronounced dead by authoritative commentators at intervals ever since.  A further macabre twist to this pessimism is that the recent decades of uprising and repression in Kashmir were good for the preservation of traditional crafts, because the workers were kept at home by disruption and shrinkage of the local economy, unemployment, and curfews.  To the extent that the economy has reopened, workers are shifting to other opportunities.
Now I’m told that the practice of two picks per talim line survived till as recently as the mid-1990’s, and two days before I saw dated samplers from that time in the Craft Museum of the School of Designs that showed some evidence of two picks per talim line.  Maybe the shift to four picks has more to do than I thought, with the introduction of CAD programs for carpet design based on the square grid.
Two years ago I was told that a shawl weaver might expect to receive as little as 4000 rupees a month, about $80.  To receive 6 or 8 thousand was a sign of the weaver’s superiority and the employer’s recognition.  In light of inflation and devaluation of the rupee, what are the numbers today?  Not only is the pay low, but there is a tough winter season to get through that’s only heard-about by the visitors in the temperate summer months, and a lack of social safety net.  A serious illness or family emergency can be a financial disaster, diverting children’s school fees to necessary but futile treatments and unreliable medicines.  Add to this the still uncertain security of the military occupation, the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the not knowing when or whether someone gone out and overdue, will come back.  Many times in the past two weeks I’ve stood in front of casually levelled automatic weapons, reminded of the judge in the recent terrorist incident in Islamabad who, the story goes, was accidentally shot by his own startled bodyguard.
In these circumstances, even if I argue I’m not trying to make shawl designs more detailed or difficult, the full-time weaver, trying to maintain his economic foothold, will object to spending twice as much time reading talim instructions, and getting no benefit from having half-memorized the sequences of steps he’s worked in two picks already.  If the difference in the quality of rendering the design is recognizable it should be worth more, but that may only happen at several removes from when the weaver got paid.  To demonstrate the value of two picks instead of four, I should be editing acceptable contemporary designs, instead of trying to reimpose the old elaborate ones.
I don’t know the terms under which the weavers work.  They should be paid on a time basis instead of piecework.  It should be the dealers commissioning difficult designs who take the economic chances.  Buyers need to recognize the difference and intrinsic value of the goods they are considering – this is not likely to happen with passers-by lured into souvenir shops – at best they will be shopping for price.  The Indian market, knowledgeable and intimate with the living tradition, perhaps not so preoccupied with antiquarian value as the West, is probably more discerning and reliable.  Maybe the biggest part of my benefit to the shawlweaving craft has been thrust on me by the ready audience for my popularizing articles and talks in the West.

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~ by Peter Harris on 13/04/2014.

One Response to “economic conditions of shawl weavers”

  1. Reblogged this on Galerie Werkstatt NUU and commented:
    beautiful work, serious art

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