Interview with Jaya Jaitly on weaves, saris and cultures and more
Jaya Jaitly, President, Dastkari Haat Samiti, continues to give our traditional art and crafts the sacred thread of perseverance. Inspiring the kaarigars who have inspired her and expanding their creative process in collaborations with people from other countries, she has encouraged a chain of confidence-driven interventions, generating, in the process, several opportunities for the makers of beautiful arts. From Kerala to Kutch to Kashmir, she has worked constantly, opening knots of gender, caste and identities that have compartmentalised artisans, their traditional skills and ideas. Her efforts to revive the creative ties between India and Iran flowered last month, in ‘Namayeshgahsanaye-E-Dasti Iranva Hind’, at Dilli Haat’s Annual Dastkari Haat and Craft Bazaar, in New Delhi.
The woman of many weaves, when Jaya Jaitly drapes a sari, she wears with pride, the marvellous stories from our weavers and regions woven into fabric, inspiring women across India to pass on the treasures and cultural narratives. She tells Sumati Mehrishi about the book she is writing, her projects, hashtags, how every intervention to help craftsmen needs a sensitive input, new ideas and design alternatives for sustaining weavers, her “big bindi” and more.
How did the collaboration with Iran shape up?
I went on the cultural delegation to Iran during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in 2016. My interactions in Iran gave me the hope to build beautiful relationships with the craftsmen through a cultural collaboration. I believe that friendship always comes with equal cultural partnership. We have some certain knowledge and they have some. We share. There is never a competitive spirit. You give the best of what you have and take from us and let us see if these combinations can evolve our arts which benefit your market. It has worked very well in making friendships, and therefore, I had been pushing it in the foreign ministry saying this is a lovely form of diplomacy. People from Egypt learned weaving here and went to 45 villages in Egypt, showing the art of weaving. Now, in Iran, they found that their skill is high quality but their range is not as wide. When I was in Isfahan, they were asking me what they need to do. I said Indians can learn the quality from Iran and Irani craftsmen and artists can learn variety from us. Dilli Haat gave this partnership the space to celebrate the difference.
Are you sharing more ideas with the government?
As a follow up to PM Narendra Modi’s idea of ministries integrating with each other, I wrote a draft, or a plan, where I showed how crafts can get involved into so many ministries, apart from culture; it can do something in the railways, in civil aviation and even in defence. So, I gave little examples of how they can integrate. I gave it to various people. Whether they incorporate it or not, I have no idea. Whenever I think of something, I want to write down and get it out there.
What are you working on right now?
I have been working on two projects. In Varanasi, wooden toy makers have been there for many years. They would traditionally make wooden toys for melas. Uttar Pradesh, as you know, has many melas. Melas have been the source of socio-cultural entertainment. The wooden toys and other such beautiful crafts were taken over by plastics and rubbish. Different people made and painted these toys. They are part of the same community. The wood has to be easy to cut and carve and comes from Madhya Pradesh and is difficult to get now. Now, the toy makers don’t have much orders. The painters are going through difficulty. They are hoping to earn Rs 300 a day. I have known about them. When I go to Benaras, I just don’t look at the craft, I look at everything around. There are 30 -40 thousand rickshaws. The rickshaws are the most sad-looking. I thought why not make the rickshaw better? I got the toy painters to paint the rickshaws. We now have a little money to make 16 prototypes. The calculation is that we should be able to do around 500 in 12 lakh rupees, roughly. It is an application of skill. Through the years of globalisation, we have been saying ‘export karo export karo‘. Today, the country has started realising that we have a huge domestic market, we have a rising middle class with purchasing power. Here, we have the cultural connect, plus, we have the appreciation and the understanding of the product. Please remember, Dilli Haat, where the traditional arts and crafts are showcased, was not there before. You had the emporia. In Dilli Haat, the talent came into open. And that is a very small example. We have to show how skill transfers.
Tell us about the book you are writing.
I had started writing my political… you cannot call it autobiography. You can say experiences of life, including in politics and mainly politics, my background, coming from Kerala and that culture. For a woman to be in politics is completely a different sort of experience. How was it for me? What kind of background I had and how I ended up in politics is all very unusual. I thought it was necessary (to tell the story). I have many experience of the world. And then, I have many experiences of 20 years in Kashmir. It is very important for me to share. I was not in politics when I was in Kashmir. I am writing the whole Kashmir chapter. I have written all about Kerala and the social conditions I come from and times when we lived in Japan, my father, the treasures that came from Subhash Chandra Bose’s flight. I found the letters which my father wrote to Pandit Nehru.
Your interaction with the crafts has made you travel narratives. How has the journey been?
Yes. That never stopped. That, for me, was always a combination of social-political-economic service to a section of the society. It combined with my very great passion for aesthetics and culture. Pride in India has to be expressed in many ways. I read something recently, where the writer says that national pride is not a good thing, it is meant to humiliate somebody and the ultimate thing is war. I completely disagree. All my life, I have been proud of my country. Look at the kaarigars! Such beautiful work which I am proud of, and then, you see them in miserable conditions. That is why, my whole life’s work is to keep them out of those conditions. I see their lovely skills. You can stay in your country and fight the things you find wrong. But to declare yourself an independently mobile republic is self-indulgence.
You understood cultural identities. How did it help in your work?
I look at my area of work as being very important for cultural identity and heritage, in a positive way, by retaining it and making people proud of something which is so wonderful and has skill and creation. I must help them to be self-respecting and earn and feel they have a status in society which the caste system had deprived them of. My motivation for being in crafts and politics combines these two things.
Every single individual is part of the society. It is about living in society as groups. When you have groups, you have roots, you have cultures, you have contexts and you have identity. Identity can be something you can use positively, or it becomes something that creates a crises, the radical ideas. Everybody wants a recognition for their ethnicity and identity. It depends on whether it is positive or negative. In handicrafts, everyone expresses an identity. It has a root in a culture. It can be Vedic. It can be Islamic. It can be tribal. It can be in a particular ritual in particular village. But all that points to a certain identity which they express. That is a positive expression of the identity.
You say that the caste system deprived the craftsmen and artisans. Has it helped in the passing of traditions?
It helped people by keeping them in their caste and not keep them making leave their work and go somewhere else. It was a compulsion or inherent thing. The entire crafts sector has been taught for free by their ancestors, parents and their neighbours. People don’t demand a thing. Remarkable. People don’t get credit for it. How have these traditions traveled generations? It has been a transferring of knowledge. The transferring of knowledge was not because it was felt it was a wonderful thing, but because they were not made to feel wonderful in the society, until a point when caste did not matter and it was a division, into guilds and professions. Then, they had a use in the society. Farmer needed a porter. The raja needed a fellow who decorated his gun. It was integration of a professional skill.
The temple priest needed the weaver to make something. It was then recognition of a professional skill. But when caste became heirarchical, anything to do with hand became lower in society, and with that, people belonging to OBC or minority or tribal or women groups. Gandhiji spoke about the respect required for manual labour. It is ok to just speak. What are we doing about it today? I am saying that this labour is very high skill. It is sophisticated and culturally-evolved skill. And the kaarigar must be given opportunity to earn from that, both in terms of money and respect. What is left of his cultural identity if he leaves his tradition and takes up another job?
When Minister Smriti Irani went to the textile ministry, it was interpreted by some as “demotion”. Your comments.
It was condescending. As if this whole sector is nothing. I find that very annoying. It happens systematically, without people realising they are going against the very notions and are trapped in their (biases). This sector had a lot to do with women. ‘Education is something for the upper castes.’ Is not that the reaction? The ministry she went to is for the hand workers. Why are you undermining that? Even if I am supportive of the NDA and have been part of it, I pride myself of being very objective. And I will look at the person’s actions and intention rather than their label. I feel that a woman had never been there. She (Smriti Irani) is very proactive. The sector needs a lot of proactive stuff, concern for policies, and some worrying about the industrial part. This job will have to balance all three aspects. The textile garment industry needs an uplift and a push to become state of the art to be able to compete with Taiwan, South Korea and Sri Lanka. The government has taken some steps by infusing money into this sector and changing the labour laws. It is a nice combination of women working together in both sectors. They are sensitive to all aspects. At least, this helps improve things when there are people with alert minds who want to listen and do.
Tell us about Akshara, the project for airports.
It is a vibrant project. ‘Akshara’ brings crafts and saksharta together. ‘Kala aur saaksharta ko raise joda jaaye‘ (bringing art and literacy together) was the thought. Calligraphy is something the kaarigars do not know about except for the Urdu-writing kaarigars. They were always coming to us, saying, “main anparh hoon, main gareeb hoon“. Why? Because they don’t know computers and English. We said you don’t need either. You have a wonderful skill. You are rich in your skill. Very rich in your heritage. You have beautiful language and scripts. Calligraphy is making that script artistic. Find some shloka, bol, alphabet and bring that as a craft. We made 150 products which are museum quality. I told them bas wo karo ki dekhne wala waah bolna chahiye. Ek ek mein (waah) hua. I just gave them a little idea here and there, changing colour scheme, guided them through, but I was not designing the products. Just gave them an idea. It has been extremely successful. We showed the works in Egypt, Paris, Bombay, Delhi. Now they are experiment with it. The Odiya fellow is bringing his design. Painter in Rajasthan is bringing his craft into it. I want the designs inside the airports. If we get the artists to make a painting to bind the language of the state where the airport is based, with its art form, the cultural connect develops. We have so many languages. Why should we be anparh? Why should only China and Japan develop their art? The Middle East has done it. We have made a beginning.
There are younger people working towards the revivals of crafts and tradition. Are they doing it differently?
My generation of people are doing it as seva. Today’s generation looks for earning.
Is that wrong or is the approach different?
We used to wake up the kaarigar at 1:30 am in the night, Gujarat mein. Lantern laga ke kaam hota thha. Now the designers are doing it. It is a generational. We have the ideas but we are undermining ourselves. I have seen corporates come and give lectures on handicrafts, branding and packaging. I keep asking them, “What brand?” Brand India is enough. This is individualising. Like the West does. We have a community spirit. Let us not break the community spirit. The brand should be just kalamkari and not an individual. Coming to packaging, Japan has wasted so much on packaging. It (packaging) does look lovely. It helps you buy and gift, but you throw it away for the object. What is wrong with using material from the state? Like, if you are in Bengal, and you have bought a sari, wrap it in an old Bengali newspaper and try it, make it neat, you can block print on it and tie it with jute which is also from Bengal. We are talking about eco friendly things. That newspaper will add charm to the sari. Everything is indigenous. Everything is enough for the kaarigar. It is recycling. Why can’t we think of packaging in those terms? Even in 1990s, I used to write this. We have all this. Our future is our past. One needs to change people’s thinking. I do not want people in the West to tell me how we should recycle.
Recycling comes naturally to us. How can weavers benefit from it?
I heard PM Modi talking about India and how women recycle. He was referring to a sari. How a sari gets moksha when it becomes a pochha (duster/mop). The way he connected the idea of moksha with the sari recycling was so perfectly Indian. Everybody loves the moksha story when I repeat it. Now people come and say hand work is very good, it helps you calm your mind. We do not want your theory. We know it. I do not like people supposed to be from liberal societies, telling us this. In France, you pay for that big fat carry bag. We have to integrate. Every weaver does not have to make a nice wearable sari. Have distribution campaign by the youth. Go to every market. India is the textile king of the world. Let the bags get stitched by livelihood programmes in the village.
There is a notion that handloom saris are expensive. How do you make people understand the pricing?
It is getting too elite. I want everybody to be able to wear handloom saris. We make sure, at my little shop, that things are not that expensive in spite of the design input and shop rent. Things we are selling at Rs 1800 would sell for Rs 5000 if the designer put the name to it, but I refuse to do that. A designer came to us. He showed us Mata ni pachhedi saris and said he wants a platform. I told him that he can always do an exhibition at my shop but not exceed the price limit. If you want to sell a sari for Rs 1.5 lakh, you are free to do it elsewhere. Yahan nahin. I want the elite to simplify and find the beauty in something that is not expensive. I do not want it to be for the elite. Pataera anchoo was revived. It had almost died. Gamchha was introduced. People bought it. It was limited. People still bought it.
The love for handloom saris makes women balance cost. How do you arrive at what you want to buy?
I do that with sari costs itself, that I can buy three for this price (laughs). Yarn price, cotton price, dying price and other factors (determine the price). We have proved over and over again that handloom saris are not expensive. In the West, cotton is a luxury. Here at Nalli, which is for profit, you can buy a lovely sari for Rs 600, whereas you can easily pay Rs 600 and give Rs 200 hundred to the weaver. How do you get people to understand that? It depends on motivation, and on whether the motive is to show off or to look nice. Boys have come and told me, ‘Please ma’am tell the girls, they look lovely in saris, they dress differently thinking they would please us, but we like the sari.’ Then I prachar- karo that (laughs). The young generation wants to boast that it is difficult to wear the sari. It is not difficult.
Tell us about your focus on the gamchha sari.
Ally Matthan, who started the 100 Sari Pact (with her friend Anju Kadam), is my friend and wanted advice. We introduced the gamchha sari there. In Chandrababu Naidu’s smart village, 300 people are being trained to make them. I saw pictures sent to me and 290 saris came. There was a girl from the village who did a very nice presentation. Sometimes, you have fancy people walking in and asking for discount on 100 saris and talking down to people from weaker groups. We need to protect them and their skills. We got orders for the gamchha saris on Facebook. People liked it.
Tell us about the Janta Sari Scheme. How did it work (and not)?
Back then, the government was everything. They were the mai-baaps and rightly so, because the others were not around. Weavers were not getting work. It was 15 years prior to the weavers suicides in Andhra Pradesh. George (George Fernandes) saab started the Janta Sari Scheme where they said that, in those days, Rs 10 a day must be paid and they would sell the cheap saris, from Rs 30 to Rs 50 to Rs 60. People would get them cheap and get work. It worked for some time. The saris were for the poor, but it was so cheap that the rich wanted them. Once the rich wanted them, they wanted them in pale colours, whereas the poor always wear the dark colours because the mitti should not show when you are working. Then it came to pink mein banao, pale blue, pale yellow mein banao (make it in pink, pale blue and pale yellow). The rich bought them, 30 at a time, distributed them. They were left with stocks of things that would not sell. The poor were not earning. The government did not last long. Governments changed. The scheme was scrapped. It could have been only a temporary measure. Subsidised saris work in a subsided economy. Times have changed.
Polyester came. What did it bring?
Polyester came. That was a disaster. The 1985 Textile Policy and Handloom Industry Policy came. Purely dictated by the polyester lobby. It was the first time that goals and objectives of a policy were reversed from making employment the priority to making low cost the priority. Cheap filament yarn. That caused a lot of problem. People would adjust. The weavers would get the yarn and they started making the polyester sari. The poor found it less trouble to wash. The poor started wearing it. It stank because it did not absorb sweat. Khadi absorbs sweat. Nobody realised that in America, the workers in the Coca Cola factory were going on strike because they were demanding cotton uniform. But we are, of course, angrezon se bhi angrez.
How can government intervention be made more effective?
Because of PM Narendra Modi’s association with Varanasi, there has been a heavy dose of too many things in a hurry. There have been weavers doing their exclusive things but the things they make remain close to their chest and do not come out in the open. Market is full of power loom, fake saris, and Chinese imitations have caught on. The public does not care. The elites can say anything. I have not agreed with the policy of any government roping in designers. One of the well-known Indian designers, who is very talented and a good friend of mine, revived 3-4 benaras saris. Puraane design ko lekar banaya. She felt the drape these days is too stiff and has to be softened. But how many weavers will benefit from saris worth Rs 1 lakh to 1.5 lakh made by a top designer? How many people will buy? It benefits the designer, the name and the elite who wants a designer sari. I think differently. How are my aesthetic better than yours? Who will decide?
The problem with every government and every sarkari intervention is that wo officer and ooncha level tak reh jaataa hai (remains at the higher levels). Gareeb aa kar rotae hain baad mein. They have left weaving to come to wooden toy painting and now they have become rickshaw walas. Do we ask how many weavers are skilled? How do you gintee karo(count)? Do you ask a rickshaw wala if he is a weaver? How many like him are there in the country?
Do hashtags help weavers?
Hashtags help create some awareness. A lot of people are promoting weaves on Facebook. Lots of weaves in South India are not known. Facebook seems to be more effective. Vidya Balan wore one of my Akshara saris. We immidiately got orders and told the weaver to make 16 saris. Celebs have a name and clout. Prachar ho jata hai. However, the ripple effect has to come. If unknown can get known through the weave, it is the victory of the weave, but it is not a victory of the weave if a known person has to promote it. The whole of North East, each village, each tribe has its own identity, but they are now turning to synthetic wool which is not warm, not comfortable. Everything needs a very sensitive input.
How do you get the handloom weaver to produce according to his skill and market?
Slot your work. You are getting killed by the people who want polyester and power loom. Not by anybody else. The poor weaver can make something else. We make everything glamourised. Not everything boils down to a sari. They can make gamchhas. Why gamchaa? It is indigenous cloth used in such large number by men. First find out how many people are there. What is their skill? What is the infusion they need? In terms of access to yarn at a reasonable price. How to equalise society is my political ideology. There is so much talk about environment. Ask them to weave just fabric. To make cloth bags, dusters, dhotis, shopping bags. Every shop in India must have woven shopping bags instead of plastic bags. Let the alternative be cheap. Women in villages can stitch them.
Big bindi, concern for the weavers and artisans, and love for handloom saris. How do you react to stereotyping, perceptions and confusions?
They never did it as tradition. They don’t believe there was an India before the Mughals. Talk about anything which comes from ancient heritage, they ignore, they have nothing to say. They just pretend. They go deaf. Their interests in traditions begins and ends with their leader’s big bindi and handloom saris. My bindi and my kajal is because of my upbringing. I think they have appropriated a lot of… their concern for the artisan came from where they could unionise them. I worked in Kerala. In Kodungallur, the weavers made mats, they rolled them and took them to mandi and sell. The weavers were in debt. They got Rs 2 for a mat, they were in debt to these loan sharks and they were committing suicides. My ears went up because they were artisans. I went there and saw the women, organised them. We made kind of a trade union. George (George Fernandes) saab also went. Thousands of women gathered. A union without an employer doesn’t make sense. It had to be like a cooperative where you had to collectively work to do something. We tried to organise them with little insurance scheme for the women. How do they get loans from the banks? Groups were organised. We were left untouched and allowed to do whatever we could do during the Congress time. They didn’t have any interest in this organisational kind of work. Then, things changed with political changes. I don’t organise craft bazaars in Kerala because the unions there don’t allow the people to carry the saamaan. There are concerns where I don’t understand the Left.
For them, the artisans are not organisable. There is no percentage in it. They don’t become a vote bank. They don’t give you money into your union coffers. So it is ok. They have never stood by me to talk about weavers’ problems. Even when we were part of the NDA, it was the RSS, and the younger bodies, who came to me and asked for gyaan. I would give them a lot of ideas and perceptions on this sector. And because they had better organisational base than my socialists ever had, they got going with it. They got a karigar panchayat. They got a bunkar panchayat. They held big conferences and meetings. I stuck my neck out and caused myself and everyone else a lot of discomfort.
Are you political?
I am political without being attached to any party. You can’t get out of politics once you have a thinking mind, I feel, having been in it for so long. Everything, my responses, are all political. It is not negative politics. I try to be positive. And try to, in a good way, point out where something is wrong and support what I think is right. There are certain areas which are a complete no for me.
Thanks for your time.