Majid Ahmad Mir, a 39-year-old master weaver from Srinagar comes from a lineage of master pashmina weavers dating back almost 600 years. (Image above of Majid Ahmad Mir on the left and a Pochampally Sari on the right)
“Our specialisations include the Kani shawl (which carry aesthetic recreations of designs inspired by nature using a very fine twill tapestry technique), Plain pashmina shawl and reversible Pashmina shawl,” says Majid, in a conversation with The Better India.
“I’ve won multiple awards in Pashmina weaving like the National Award alongside my brother Altaf in 2010 and multiple State-level prizes. My other brother Fayaz also won the National Award and was felicitated many times for his work. I have been invited to teach Pashmina weaving and its history at various workshops across India and abroad,” he adds.
Despite their rich heritage, tradition and recognition at multiple levels, the Mir family were devastated financially when the pandemic struck in March 2020.
From March 2020 till May 2021, their sales came down by 95%. The very few who bought their shawls did so on humanitarian grounds, claims Majid. On top of all that, the Mir family racked up a significant amount of debt because they had to continue paying people supplying materials and other weavers, who were dependent on them.
On 13 May 2021 (Eid), however, Majid got in touch with the Weaver Resource Bridge, a volunteer group of six women from different parts of the world helping master weavers across India find buyers for their products.
The Weaver Resource Bridge comprises Talish Ray (a Delhi-based corporate lawyer) Meenakshi Vashisht (heritage specialist), Mani Tripathi (homemaker from Lucknow), Namrata Varma Kaul (real estate professional), Shruti Mathur (IT consultant living in Melbourne) and Monika Srivastav (based out of Bahrain).
“Thanks to Talish Ma’am and the Weaver Resource Bridge, we’ve been able to establish contact with buyers, who have placed orders and relieved some of the financial distress we are facing. I cannot express in words how much they’ve helped us in these times. Besides generating sales amounting to approximately Rs 3 lakh, we have been able to pay off more than a third of our debt and still employ about 35 to 40 people in our factories, some of whom have been with us since our grandfather’s generation. It’s not just our family, but about 50 families who have received financial relief as a result of their work,” claims Majid.
Similarly 45-year-old Gopal Chippa, a master weaver engaged with the delightful craft of Bagru printing (a traditional printing technique done using natural colours by members of the Chippa community in Rajasthan), also found solace through the Weaver Resource Bridge.
“Our family has been engaged in Bagru printing for generations now. We can employ Bagru printing on cotton, silk, silk-cotton, khadi and other fabrics, making saris, shirts, T-shirts, etc. When the pandemic struck, there was no work for us. We were dependent on our meagre savings to survive the pandemic. This was the case for all us craftspersons in Bagru, a village located 32 km away from Jaipur. Since teaming up with the Weaver Resource Bridge, I’ve been able to sell products worth approximately Rs 5 lakh. This has not merely helped my family, but others associated with our work,” says Gopal, speaking to The Better India.
Picking up the Pieces
For Talish Ray, a 41-year-old corporate lawyer and mother of two children based in Delhi, the Covid pandemic has been nothing short of cruel. As she tells The Better India, “the pandemic took away an entire generation of my family”.
She found two ways of dealing with loss:
1) Start a helpline/resource bridge for people looking to access medical resources.
2) Wear saris and other formal ethnic wear at home while working. “Also, I’m a sari enthusiast, know my master weaves and can gauge the quality of the work,” she adds.
One person who reached out to Talish on Facebook was Meenakshi, a heritage specialist, who had herself just recovered from a serious bout of Covid-19 and wanted to volunteer with the medical helpline. Instead of volunteering at the medical helpline, Talish suggested to Meenakshi that they could start a similar resource bridge for struggling weavers.
That’s when they reached out to Mushtak Khan, a highly skilled crafts professional with over 40 years of experience, who had earlier worked with the National Crafts Museum in Delhi.
From his residence in Bhopal, Mushtak-Ji told both women that master weavers were in very bad shape financially with negligible sales for over a year.
“We asked him whether they would need any financial assistance since we knew people willing to donate or buy their inventory. As craftsmen, they are very proud of their work and Mushtak Ji expressed doubts whether they would want such assistance,” she recalls.
Despite his doubts, Talish and Meenakshi asked Mushtak-Ji to send across a list of craftspersons he knew and their contact details. Out of the 20 master weavers they reached out to from across the country only eight decided to come on board, but even they expressed scepticism about whether buyers could come and purchase their inventory.
Leaving behind the medical helpline to other volunteers, Talish decided to completely venture into establishing a Weaver Resource Bridge alongside Meenakshi.
“Once we got 8 weavers on board, I put up a post on my Facebook account, where I have over 800 friends with whom I keep in touch regularly, talking about our initiative. In the post, I said if anyone wants to buy items from these award-winning master weavers, they should reach out since these are artists who need all the support they can get,” says Talish.
When the post went live, three of her friends showed an interest in volunteering—Mani Tripathi, Namrata and Shruthi— decided to step in. Another person who reached out was Monika Srivastava, who is based out of Bahrain. She wanted to buy their items but also volunteer with the Weaver Resource Bridge in any capacity.
“Before going live with the Weaver Resource Bridge, we wanted to ensure that products made by these master weavers were up to scratch in terms of quality. So, we initially bought a variety of pieces from all the eight weavers which included two award-winning Banarasi weavers, a hand block printer from Bagru (Gopal Chippa), Maheshwari weaver from Madhya Pradesh, Kota Weaver, Chanderi Weaver, Chikankari craftsperson from Uttar Pradesh and a Pochampally weaver from Andhra Pradesh. When we checked the quality of these products ourselves, we found them to be impeccable. Within days of the initial conversation Meenakshi and I had, we went live with the platform on 9 May 2021,” she recalls.
Less than a week after they went live, they included a ninth master weaver (Majid). Since then, about 300 buyers have bought products from these weavers with sales touching nearly Rs 60 lakh.
Nearly 60% of the 300 who engaged in a transaction are repeat buyers.
SOP for Buying Works of Art
Interestingly enough there is no official social media page or website for the Weaver Resource Bridge.
As this document shared by the team states:
“The core idea was: the craftsmen were in financial trouble, they needed patrons. We, the six of us, would be the bridge, and help both the craftsmen and the patrons/buyers cross the chasm dividing them. We reached out to people only through Facebook posts, WhatsApp messages-status and a few personal texts to our like-minded friends and they in turn asked their networks! Since the launch there has been no looking back,” it states.
The SOP of a transaction with these weavers is simple:
1) When a buyer reaches out to any one of six volunteers (on their personal social media handles or WhatsApp), they are asked to commit a minimum spend and ensure they keep that promise. A minimum spend can be as low as Rs 600 for a hand block printed Bagru shirt and maximum about Rs 2 lakh for some of the truly exquisite pieces on sale.
“If they commit say Rs 5,000, the patron can buy from any of the nine master weavers. We share the name of the craftsperson, their credentials and range of product, but not their contact number. We politely tell the patrons that we can’t share all their numbers because with Rs 5,000, you can’t buy from all of them. We ask them to pick a particular craftsperson’s work. If they insist on seeing all the craftspersons, we tell them ‘Can you walk into a restaurant, ask them to show you all the dishes, taste some, and say they don’t feel like eating there?’ The restaurant example works well. We guarantee our patrons the quality,” says Talish.
2) Say, the patron wants to purchase a Pochampally Silk Sari. The number of the Pochampally master weaver is shared with the patron and the number of the patron is shared with the craftsperson. Following this step, the craftsperson shares further photos of their products with the patron, who is told three things: ‘Please do not haggle, honour your minimum spend and do not do anything to offend his dignity.’
Buyers are also told what languages the weavers are comfortable communicating in, particularly through WhatsApp. These buyers are directed to send messages or voice notes, and avoid direct calling as much as possible because weavers work throughout the day.
“We communicate to the weaver that even though the said patron’s budget is Rs 5,000, show them other pieces of art they’ve created. They may not buy the Rs 25,000 piece, but once the patron likes it, they will come back in the future for a purchase,” she says.
This minimum spend commitment also keeps out middle men looking to exploit weavers.
4) Once the patron selects a piece, the weaver either makes it or does the final finishing for a piece of unsold inventory, packs it up, waits for the money to hit their bank account, and then dispatches the order either through courier or speed post. As soon as the order is dispatched, the buyer receives a courier slip from the master weaver. All transactions are done through the formal banking system. There are no direct cash transactions involved.
“I live in the mortal fear of patrons cheating the weavers once they’ve dispatched the order. That’s why we keep telling them to wait for the payment to hit their account before they dispatch the product, which they don’t always abide by. All six of us do not receive any money from either the patron or the craftsperson, and want to keep this strictly volunteer-based project free from any commercial motive,” she claims.
“Finally, they have refused to increase their prices despite growing demand. Each one of us advised them to raise the prices by 25%, which was still relatively cheap, but the weavers refused to do so in unison,” she adds.
Beyond Economic Relief
The Weaver Resource Bridge aims to touch Rs 1 crore in sales for the nine master weavers by Independence Day (15 August), and then call it off. Later this month, these women will conduct a workshop for the nine master weavers, where they will seek to further strengthen their SOP for sales and enhance their technological capabilities.
Through this workshop, they are looking to arm these master weavers with the necessary tools to advance further once their initiative concludes. However, the centrepiece of their workshop will be to impart the spirit of creative dignity.
“We are explaining to them that they are creating living, wearable and breathable art. If you walk into any luxury Italian boutiques, you’re not even allowed to touch the clothes. Consumers here don’t respect the art form. Buyers are allowed to commit all sorts of indignities because weavers are grateful for the sale. Our weavers must think they are worthy of that dignity. For the long term, we want their existing buyers to create a pool of other patrons,” she says.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)