Handloom Heritage

text: Julie Hall

The woven saris of Maheshwar are reborn via Rehwa Society’s “barefoot business” techniques

Roshanara Bi was unlikely to become one of the top weavers of aheshwar. Born into a poor family from the Muslim area of town, at age 16 she was married off to a young man from a neighboring village. She bore a son but did not want to stay in the marriage, and after three years returned home. Shamed by her decision, her father insisted that she stay inside the house, but a staff member from Rehwa Society offered her a place in its one-year training program for hand-loom weaving and she defied her father by attending.

It was a challenge for Roshanara, but slowly she became an excellent weaver and upgraded her skills to a level unmatched by any other woman in Maheshwar. Today Roshanara is the only woman in town
who regularly does jorni, the very precise and painstaking work of tying 5,000 threads from a recently completed warp to a new warp. She’s the top-paid weaver at Rehwa and has passed her knowledge along to five family members.

Despite her exceptional courage and talent, Roshanara is modest. She keeps her eyes lowered when she speaks and uses her headscarf to hide her smile, but when the discussion turns to her weaving her eyes alight and shine.

Since its inception over 30 years ago, Rehwa Society has given training and employment to dozens of women with limited opportunities and has positively impacted countless lives. Its profits support housing, heathcare and a school for the weavers’ children. Perhaps more importantly, Rehwa acts as a haven for these women. It’s a place where they can be independent, gain skills and self-confidence, and broaden their horizons. Rehwa storekeeper Sheila Bai said of her experiences, “The most important thing Rehwa has done for us is to show women what’s outside of their world. As we travelled to different cities selling our saris with Rehwa, we saw and remembered every little detail of the outside world and brought so much back to our lives here!”

Maheshwar has been a weaving center for centuries. Its beloved 18th century ruler Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar produced the Maheshwari sari, one of India’s finest textiles. Distinguished by narrow borders of gold thread (zari) woven with tiny lines and geometric patterns, the Maheshwari sari measured nine meters and was woven of fine cotton in rich shades of blue, green, pink, purple and gold.

But in the mid-20th century hand-looms went into decline and in Maheshwar almost became extinct. In 1978 the town’s few remaining weavers approached the Maharani’s descendant Shivaji Rao (Richard) Holkar and his American wife Sally and asked for help. It was a call to action for the young couple who met as students at Stanford, and a year later they founded Rehwa Society.

Today Rehwa employs 150 weavers and produces a range of stunning textiles, each piece a unique blend of traditional craft and modern design, all made by hand. Their products have been effectively marketed throughout India and are so well-known that customers now ask for Rehwa textiles, meaning Maheshwari textiles.

Their success has reignited the town’s handloom industry, which now numbers over 2,000 weavers. Rehwa serves as an unofficial information center for the town’s hand-loom community. Design, color and proportion all flow from Rehwa’s looms to the other weavers in town, who are free to replicate its work. Prosperity is steadily increasing in Maheshwar and people are optimistic about the future.

This is no small feat. India’s incredibly rich textile arts are struggling to survive and face extinction without support. Sally Holkar, who now heads WomenWeave Charitable Trust, still brims with great ideas: “India is the world’s global treasure of hand-loom. If French cuisine can be added to UNESCO’s world intangible heritage list, so India’s hand-loom should be acknowledged as world heritage and honored and supported accordingly. Hand-loom supports thousands of lives in rural India, where employment it scarce. Pump in design, raise awareness, teach “barefoot” business methods and link hand-loom to tomorrow. Those are our objectives. But we are tiny and the subject is vast.”

Rehwa may be tiny but the ripple that it has created is huge. The organization could serve as a model for preserving India’s world heritage of textiles, focusing on women as the agents of change and transmitters of knowledge. As more people are looking for authenticity, beauty and a human connection in what they buy and wear, the time is right for this tiny revolution.

Julie Hall is a documentary photographer with a passion for traditional arts and cultures. For the past several years she has focused on India. To see more of her work, visit juliehall.net. For more about the Rehwa Society, see www.rehwasociety.org.