Indian Weaving in the time of COVID-19

These are the stark images from India that fill news feeds today: The exodus of India’s migrant workers, from its mammoth cities, enduring hunger and despair to get home, in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown. In contrast we point to images from craft activists in India, of the invisible artisans of rural India, still able to produce stably in their homes, even in these times. Invoking legislation that would permit the movement of cotton yarn as an essential commodity, they promise in return the production of all the masks and protective gear the nation needs. They argue that handloom weaving and craft work have solutions for our beleaguered cities, proposing that policy makers rethink the role of weavers in economies, and societies, at this time and for the future.

For the millions of artisans in India, the slowing down of life and work, limited to small social units located in geographically distributed communities, the concern for older people and the care for the young, frugal use of inputs, flexible outputs, valuing of communication networks — all are still embedded in their way of life. These are important lessons for society to learn about finding work in the time of COVID-19. In the silence of the pandemic lockdown, as the giant machines of globalised production grind to a halt, there has emerged a space for conversations about craft production. Craftspeople, activists, village co-operatives, web-based platforms, corporate funders and historians of science and technology are talking to each other, hopeful of a safe and stable industry that reflects the  understanding we, as a society, are gaining about what is important, in this changed world.

“Why do we need handlooms when there is advanced textile technology that can produce much more efficiently and cheaply?” is the common question that craftspeople face. This framing of artisanal work as drudgery that is unproductive in competition with modern power-driven technology is insidious in our thinking. Our museums and visual worlds are filled with India’s crafts and textiles; through iconic products like the fine cottons and the painted chintzes, through the iconography of tropical botanical art and the decorative paisleys. They have been debated in national and international policy, inspired Gandhi to take up the spinning wheel, discussed as economically vulnerable livelihoods, development projects and cultural heritage. Even as a substantial part of India’s multi-billion-dollar export industry though, crafts are always positioned in opposition to modern science. There seemed to be no gainsaying this; before the pandemic, it seemed that for the most part, handloom weaving was an anachronism in this age of AI led technological marvels, at best indulging the fancies of a nostalgic and nationalistic elite.

What has changed then, in the time of COVID-19? The shutdown of both the cramped sweatshops and the power-driven textile factories, with no prospect yet of when they may wake again, highlights the ubiquitous handloom that continues to produce cloth across villages in India, as data from over 300 co-operatives across the Southern States of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana show. Weaving work seems undeterred by fear of the virus that permeates the environment, even as it continues to conform to the law of the land. As millions of migrant workers on the other hand, in the cities, come under the spotlight of the world press, carrying their meagre belongings, caught in mid-flight, the strong words of labour historian Jan Breman come to mind. He speaks of the “aborted transformation” in mid 20thcentury India, where unlike in the West, the great transformation that brought wealth and prosperity through industrialisation to its modern cities never fulfilled its promise here. He uses the powerful metaphor of the “footloose migrants”, who seeking work, leave the villages for the city, but are forced back time and again, setting them on a journey with no destination.  Almost fifty years later, his words remind us that rather than a migration that is newly being caused by COVID-19, it is an old journey of an invisible population that is being made visible by it.

Jan Breman speaking in Chennai, 2016

Indeed, unsustainability due to competition from mechanisation notwithstanding, research shows that handloom weaving has the capacity to absorb huge work forces, historically, when times of demand are high. Karuna Mariam tells us that until the crackdown on production caused by the import of mechanised cheap fabric from Manchester in colonised 19th century India, 70% of the workforce was of the Dalit caste. This ease of movement into weaving continues today, as a result of robust mechanisms of transmission of technical skills and support in training for new comers, when demand is high, within contemporary communities of practice in weaving villages. This is aided by the low financial cost means of production which allow for low barriers to entry. 

Indigo dyeing, Hyderabad, India

Yet the notion of weaving as tradition that is not scientific plagues our imagination. Science is perceived as abstract knowledge -codified in numbers and formulae, technology is then understood as coming from its application, that is born as the brain child of hero inventors. In contrast is traditional Indian weaving, that continues to be practiced by millions of craftspeople, perceived merely as repetitive labour. Yet, as our research in the PENELOPE project, across weaving in ancient Greece and live coding of experimental hand operable looms demonstrates, weavers engage mathematical algorithms constantly. Weaving requires cognitive decision making on the loom involving numbers, counting, pattern making, and can offer insights to artificial intelligence, in understanding how algorithms work or fail when encountering material. Embedding part of the algorithms in social rules, others in their body, some others in the loom, weavers perform a mode of distributed cognition that enables complex decision making. This allows them to operate as we see in many countries of the global South, as composite systems of unitary production that work across distinctions of the body and the mind; the individual home and the global network, or even the material and the abstract.

This is not to tout the ‘traditional culture’ of bygone times as a panacea to modernity. Creating a rhetorical opposition between different cultural knowledge systems and science whichever side of the opposition one is, has proven unproductive, in this crisis. What has been proven to work is the communication of solutions, across national, political and disciplinary boundaries. After all, today’s unpredictable bodily response to the virus, is tomorrow’s science; yesterday’s social segregation [with its practices of stigmatising particular occupational groups], becomes today’s social distancing technique. Consider how having enforced lockdown on a 1.3 billion population, the Prime Minister of India breaks down the science of social distancing into cultural scripts that he pronounces routinely on television. He does not, unlike the American President feel the need to use or bash experts to bolster his advice. Through references to cultural and community practices he decodes the science of viral transmission for Indian citizens, ensuring critical discipline that many had expected impossible to achieve in a population of such numbers. In fact, scientists in his government, like Dr. Gangakhedkar, the head of epidemiology and communicable diseases at the Indian Council for Medical Research laud this as teaching scientific literacy in a country “that everybody suspected is a land of tigers and snakes”, and see no contradiction between cultural practices and scientific ones.

Weavers from Laos and India exchanging techniques in conference in Chirala, India 2018

So it is that rural handloom weaver co-operatives and community organisations have swung into action in the crisis, their social infrastructure turning into pedagogic interventions in managing COVID-19. Weavers are organised in individual family and household units, and have clear social rules embedded in when, where and who works with what so that production can carry on unimpeded. Weaving continues as a mode of existence that encompasses both the technical and the social, even today. What hundreds of village weaver co-operatives carry is knowledge of combining social and economic functions — acquired over decades of experience in the balancing act of being entrepreneurial collectives that also serve public good. They would not have been a resource today, if as was touted in the liberalisation move of the 90s,  they had been shut down in favour of private marketing bodies. Today, what are considered welfare activities — production and distribution of food, provision of protective gear, health services, voluntary work, even outreach for research into vaccines and drug trials — are being provided by these organisations. Such public institutions that seemed well past their use date and their knowledge anachronistic, suddenly become critical to our existence*, and more important offer hope for new ways forward, even for the economy. How? Ask them, and unlike proprietary agencies, they will tell you. 

So how is India doing in tackling COVID-19? Clearly the containment of the disease in a high density population that seemed perched on the edge of disaster is not a story that is of journalistic interest here. The international media reports with horrified fascination instead the visuals of the migrant labours’ long walk to hell. Yet, the very effectiveness of the COVID-19 containment response which has primarily been one that enforces principles of scientific thinking into social behaviour shows us that India by being socially clever is being medically astute; and where it shows cultural ignorance, of its own history of outcasting vulnerable communities, is achieving scientific stupidity. This is probably true for every national culture that seems to be doing something completely different to ensure containment of the virus, for example, Germany stressing on social distancing as ‘responsibility of citizens’ or Israel talking of the pandemic as a ‘war situation’. Yet they all attempt to achieve the same safe outcomes for their people; to manage a problem that is always going to be local and at the same time global.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus shows us that in order for solutions to proliferate we cannot be thinking along predictable trajectories. There is order in the way the virus strikes, but the complexity overcomes the human mind, and decision making becomes counter intuitive. In dealing with this changed world, what is relevant and profitable knowledge is radically different from what it was just months before. Yet, for historians who study numbers in ancient Greek weaving, ownership claims in weaving guilds of Italy, innovations of caste-based weaving in India, as relevant objects of scientific study, there is a continuity, between those historical objects and today’s viruses, vaccines, and flattening or soaring national statistical curves. For activists engaging with not just handloom weaving, but artisanal fishing, tribal bamboo craft, hand spinning, local cotton production, the world instead of contracting, suddenly seems to expand. 

The message is simple. It is only from casting a wide and diverse net in our objects of research and engagement that such possibilities come to be sustained. Even in the journalistic fervour and frenzied focus on today’s news, they bring hope for our tomorrows, teaching us to regard well the science of our yesterdays. 

*Annapurna Mamidipudi is from Hyderabad, India. Annapurna is a post-doctoral researcher working in the PENELOPE project, and collaborates with a group of handloom activists and independent researchers in conversation with whom this argument was developed.


annapurna mamidipudi

I am a scholar writing about craft work, collaborating with craftspeople and activists in India.

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1 Response

  1. Vasavi says:

    Excellent article….captures several key dimensions about weaving as a vocation in India.

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