Feature story

Riding the weaves

Handloom artisans laid low by the lockdown rose to the challenge by understanding and tapping the power of digital to reach far-flung customers

Itishree Sur has soared from despondency to delight in what seems like the blink of an eye, and she has the wonders of digital media, not least, to thank for it.

An artisan from Gopalpur in Odisha who makes a living from weaving sarees and dupattas (stoles) in the famous Odiya traditions of Tussar and Gheecha, Ms Sur was pushed to the brink when Covid-19 struck. The pandemic-induced lockdown hit India's handloom sector hard and Ms Sur's income looked set to vanish. Instead, the enterprising 37-year-old has managed to sell products worth 1.1 million in seven months.

Ms Sur and her family worked together to upgrade their merchandise, clicked photos of these on smartphones and, importantly, harnessed the power of digital — social media, WhatsApp and email — to connect with customers. Bringing it all together, Ms Sur and 31 other weaver entrepreneurs have been nurtured through Antaran — the craft-based livelihoods programme of the Tata Trusts.

Minu Das
Minu Das from Assam's Kamrup village is a beneficiary of Antaran Artisan Connect, which helps India's handloom artisans develop entrepreneurial skills

Antaran Artisan Connect is the medium through which Ms Sur and her compatriots have found a lifeline, and more, to get ahead in these trying times. The initiative is part of a wider effort by Antaran to help India's handloom artisans develop entrepreneurial skills and find a pathway to different marketplaces.

Antaran strives to strengthen the craft ecosystem in the country, revive handloom textile processes that use natural fibres, hand-spun yarn and natural dyes, and reinterpret traditional weave designs to make them alluring for global markets.

Incubation centres and design and entrepreneurial education for artisans are crucial components of the Antaran project, which has empowered 956 weavers till date in six clusters across four states: Kamrup and Nalbari in Assam, Dimapur in Nagaland, Gopalpur and Maniabandha in Odisha, and Venkatgiri in Andhra Pradesh.

The artisan connect campaign has been particularly striking for what's been achieved. It has facilitated the sale of products worth about 10 million. Beyond that, the Antaran intervention has benefitted 956 artisans, who have generated business in excess of 30 million by working with business buyers on designer collections and through retail exhibitions in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chennai, and even a trade fair in faraway Paris as well.

The digital thrust and prepaid orders paved the way for Ms Sur and other artisan entrepreneurs to beat back the lockdown blues and seek out customers. The idea stemmed from concerns that the artisans themselves voiced. They had stocks but were unable to supply to buyers. This would affect their income, along with that of their associate weavers, mostly daily earners.

Weaving a support framework

The second issue was lack of new orders as marketplaces were shut. However, there was no question of living off monetary support or charitable donations. The artisans were clear that they wanted to earn through their work. That gave rise to the digital campaign, creating a direct link between artisan entrepreneurs and customers — including loyal buyers from before the lockdown, and Tata group employees among others.

Rajesh guin
Rajesh Guin, a handloom weaver who is a part of Antaran, works the loom in Odisha's Gopalpur town

The artisans assessed their stock and had it photographed. There was a hook. The artisans offered their products at wholesale rates to deliver greater value for retail customers in exchange for their support in the form of advance payments.

Details got cemented and a website — www.antaranartisanconnect.in — was launched to increase accessibility and make it convenient for customers to select and order. The promise was that their purchases would be despatched as soon as the lockdown was lifted.

Once the website went live, the team designed a simple flyer about the initiative and shared it through WhatsApp. What happened after that was beyond everyone's expectation.

"People loved the idea of being able to support artisans and also get good quality products in the process," says Sharda Gautam, who heads the crafts programme at the Tata Trusts. "They began sharing the WhatsApp link about the campaign within their circles and it went viral."

The positive response was a mood booster and a money maker for the artisans. As for customers, those who knew about Antaran and the artisans had no doubts. Mumbai-based Sheran Mehra, the chief brand officer at Tata Digital, is one of them. "I first met some of these artisans when Antaran hosted an exhibition in Mumbai," she says. "Right from product curation to personal interaction, I enjoyed the experience of buying directly from them. During the lockdown, I ordered products from all the Antaran clusters."

Within weeks of launch, Antaran Artisan Connect accomplished what it had set out to do, and more. Besides meeting the immediate financial needs of the artisans, the campaign created wider awareness of the work of the artisans under the craft-based livelihood programme of Tata Trusts and helped them build a bigger customer base.

Less visible but vital in the circumstances has been the role the initiative has played in sustaining weaving traditions in the clusters that Antaran is working. As Mr Gautam explains, artisans belong to the informal sector and operate with low working capital, which is why selling their products, quickly and at a good price, is critical for survival.

A new tapestry
Thageshwari Das from Assam's Kamrup performs the pre-loom warping; Antaran Artisan Connect has helped weavers like Ms Das build a bigger customer base and earn more for their effort

"Weavers lack access to credit from financial institutions to help them tide over any crisis, and private moneylenders charge a hefty interest," says Mr Gautam. "In such a scenario, the entire weaving ecosystem in economically marginalised clusters could collapse. That's why the liquidity and movement of stock has been a huge relief for the artisans."

The process hasn't been without its set of road blocks, though. For most artisans, it was a challenge to manage the swift shift to digital marketing — despite the training they had received at Antaran's incubation and design centres. Unreliable internet connections in their rural homesteads made matters worse.

Fortunately, most of them were able to climb aboard the digital bandwagon. From promoting their brands and products on social media platforms to hashtagging, from interacting with customers on messaging apps to handling online transfers, the artisans have embraced the new way of selling their products.

Other facets of the education imparted by the Antaran team, including business management, communication and presentation skills, and brand building, came in handy for the artisans. "This has been a litmus test of the training the artisans received and we have seen a positive response from them," adds Mr Gautam.

The lockdown, though adverse for the entire handloom industry, also presented an opportunity for the artisans to redefine their future. They have recast their growth plans and identified new marketing avenues for the days ahead. Fresh designs have been fashioned and themes for more than 40 new collections planned across the clusters during the lockdown period.

The next step for Antaran and its artisans is an app for business development called Craft Xchange, which will directly connect artisans with buyers. Artisans will be able to showcase their work under their own labels and customers can request customised designs.

While Craft Xchange is the immediate goal, the overarching objective of Antaran remains unchanged: to further transform the six weaving clusters by creating entrepreneur-led microenterprises across each part of the value chain. That should add muscle to the effort of making the weaving practice a viable livelihood means for traditional artisans.

Being part of Antaran has helped Dipika Kakati from Assam's Kamrup to enhance her range of products and expand her business

A new tapestry

L ike countless people around the world, Dipika Kakati could not make much sense of Covid-19 when it hit. "When the pandemic came, we couldn't comprehend its consequences," says the artisan entrepreneur from Kamrup in Assam. "Weaving is the only source of income for my family and the outbreak made it extremely tough for us, especially during the initial days of the lockdown."

The situation changed once Antaran Artisan Connect took off. "I got many orders for stoles and sarees," adds Ms Kakati. "I have been designing and selling my collections through the initiative and also working on a special preview collection which features Eri silk in natural dyes."

Ms Kakati became a part of Antaran in October 2019 and has been working closely since then with the team shepherding the programme. "I have received a lot of support from them and the training we got has helped me understand design, quality checks, colours and now social media," she says. "I have enhanced the range of my products and expanded my small business."

The digital training came in handy for Ms Kakati during the lockdown period but getting a grip on how it all worked was not easy. "We had regular sessions on social media but it took time to understand the interface," she says. "My daughter helped me and now I have my own Instagram handle, Poni Handloom. I am learning something new every day."

Her association with Antaran has changed Ms Kakati's perspective. She says, "I am creating more opportunities not just for myself but also for seven associate weavers with whom I have now joined hands."