By Spandana Gopal
This conversation came about when I stumbled on the work of Geert De Neve, Geert De Neve. Professor of Social Anthropology & SouthAsian Studies (Anthropology, Sussex Centre for Migration Research) Tiipoi’s first collection of woven textiles called the Jamakhan Collection, was made in Bhavani, a small town in South India. Bhavani is home to a community of weavers who create a famous textile, a floor covering called a Jamakkalam, that inspired the design and the name of our own collection of rugs. (Read more about the design of our Jamakhan collection here.)
This interview specifically highlights how handloom, that is a home based industry, is more sustainable than having factories set up powerlooms in smaller towns like Bhavani. It makes me think about the way we approach a product as a designer, when we have to consider costs, but also the cost we pay when we don’t realise the context or the impact of changes in production systems. Especially on communities that have sustained a particular way of life that has worked on a number of levels. In Bhavani specifically, having a handloom involved lower set-up cost, and a de-centralised way of working offering greater independence. Somehow, there is a space for greater innovation here – and expertise with technique and design emerges organically.
In conversation with Geert De Neve…
1. Can you tell me about how you ended up working out of Bhavani? What about this town was particularly interesting or relevant for your own work at the time?
I was looking for a place to start my doctoral research. I had visited several place in Tamil Nadu in 1994 and then started my doctoral research in the summer of 1995 (fieldwork from 1995-1997). I was particularly looking for a small sized town, usually much understudied in the anthropology of India, and for a place that was lively and developing as my initial aim was to work on changing consumption patterns in India. Once I saw the weaving, however, my project quickly shifted from consumption to production and I become interested in the everyday working lives of weavers. I started looking at the local organisation of weaving, workers’ lives, sociality on the shopfloor, unionisation among handloom workers, trade, etc etc. My research in Bhavani then also led me to research in Kumarapalayam, the town on the opposite bank of the Cauvery river and linked to Bhavani through a couple of bridges. In Kumarapalayam all handlooms had been replaced by powerlooms and so my doctoral thesis ended up being a comparative study of handloom and powerloom workers. I had a feeling that the jamakkalam handloom industry in Bhavani was slowly shrinking, and it was not until a few years later that I saw a transformation in in this industry. My thesis ‘Tamil Warps and Wefts: an anthropological study of urban weavers in South India’ (1999) is available at the LSE.
During a subsequent stint of fieldwork in 1999-2000, I looked at how the looms had been adjusted to weave a new type of mats, using strips of waste cloth, for IKEA. I also noticed how this gave the handloom industry a new ability to survive by entering new markets. This was hugely important in terms of job creation. During that time, I also stated visiting a whole network of villages outside of Bhavani where local handloom weavers were now all producing IKEA rugs, having largely left jamakkalams as well as saris behind them (swindling local markets). Hence the paper on the outputting or subcontracting system that was organised from Bhavani.
2. Can you tell me a bit about the eco-system of the weaving community that was exposed to you in your work?
Oh dear! In 1999-2000 I also carried out research on the third industry in the area, which is the dyeing industry. This is unfortunately not a happy story. While I was primarily interested in the social history of dyers (an industry once run by higher caste Chettiyars and Mudaliyars but gradually handed over to the lower caste Vanniyars who obtained a degree of upward mobility through the ownership of dyeing factories), the environmental impact of garments an textiles in this region is disastrous. Polluted water, after dyeing, flows into the river, usually without any form of purification. The water then runs into fields and is used in agriculture, with lots of complaints from farmers further down the river. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Board is trying to regulate these industries and halt pollution but till date it has been an uphill struggle. Things might have changed since I last studied the place in the early 2000s, but I doubt that much has altered. What stuns me the most is that while western buyers and retailers are very concerned about child labour and labour conditions in South Asia’s garment and textile factories, there isn’t in any shape of form a comparable concern with local environmental standards, and that is a real missed opportunity.
3. The handloom offers a greater flexibility of home-based work and set-up, do you think this is a sustainable way forward for these communities as opposed to working factories with power-looms? What specifically do you think one is better than the other?
Hmm… difficult one, but yes, I think that on balance it is. Much of the weaving in and around Bhavani was traditionally organised through home-based production, often involving the entire family. Gradually the jamakkalam was organised in urban workshops of 10 or 20 looms in which workers were employed for wages. In the villages in 2000, most weavers were still home-based weavers and the new IKEA rugs certainly give the industry a new life. One of the things I remain most fascinated about is the ways in which Indian handlooms have always re-invented themselves through new technologies, new markets, new products and new skills. The IKEA rugs only required minimal adjustment of the technology and the new rugs could be produced almost instantaneously once the orders came I from IKEA. This new global markets certainly blew new life into the handloom industry and allows many rural families to continue earning a livelihood from a ‘traditional’ skill. I am not sure how far the industry still stretches into Bhavani’s hinterland today, but I would think that it still provides a good amount of employment inwhat is an increasingly arid rural environment.
Powerloom factories form a tough work environment with loud noise, long shifts and a lot of bonded labour, on which I have also written. So the work is definitely less appealing and healthy. But ultimately what makes for the most dignified livelihoods is autonomy, and most weavers (whether they run their own handloom at home or work in a workshop on someone else’s looms) remain dependent for work and wages on traders who sell their products. And that is where some of the exploitation begins; handloom work is sustainable – and in my view – desirable, as long as weavers can earn a decent living wage. There is some interesting work on paying living wages in Tamil Nadu’s garment sector at the moment.
4. Can you tell me a little bit the story of how IKEA came to Bhavani (or there was an order from IKEA)
I am not sure how initially they came to Bhavani but the company had obviously been sourcing through local agents and contacts, and had got in touch with one of Bhavani’s largest trading families who started to subcontract the new IKEA rug orders to weavers. Once this trade relationship got firmly established, they kept getting orders from IKEA on a more or less continuous basis, with very little seasonality, which again is good for the weavers as it provides continuous employment. I imagine this trader is still dealing with IKEA although I haven’t followed this up in recent years. I would love to hear how you found out about the place too!
5. As a design studio, we are working with reinterpreting design classics from India by working the communities that have produced these objects for a long time – as designers we feel that we need to translate back and forth – to our audience to reveal the context of the object, as well as to the person making the product – about how it has to change or evolve. What in your opinion could be the consequences of more designers working or engaging with communities of Bhavani – do you feel it would involve the younger generation more – and for them to continue?
Definitely, I think it is a wonderful idea! There weren’t masses of younger people coming into weaving in the early 2000s but this might have changed now. It would also be great if you could work with the skills they used to have. I myself learned to weave a jamakkalam from an old man with lots of skill in weaving patterns like peacocks, lions, goddesses, flowers, names, etc onto the carpets. I am not sure how much of this skill has survived today compared to 15 years ago. But working with them to restore and retain some of those weaving skills would be fabulous; it would be great to use them in carpets that then also appeal to a western market/taste because the IKEA rugs were very basic and were to a large extent de-skilling a previously highly skilled workforce.
6. And finally, What do you think Indian design is – or rather design in India means today (this can be purely your perspective/idea of design and its importance in india/where and how do you see design in India from your time there..)
Aha! Indian design is loud, colourful, bright and has clear images on it – often temples, gods and goddesses, lotus flowers and many other religious symbols. That’s at least what they used to weave on the ‘traditional’ jamakkalam and that’s what has largely disappeared with the arrival of plainer rugs. But also plenty of secular patterns were used such as lots of flower and geometrical designs, a bit like the kolams they make on the floor in front of houses.
Tiipoi’s JAMAKHAN collection of rugs and cushions are inspired by the traditional floor coverings or Jamakkalms of this region are handwoven in Bhavani by the same community weavers who make this fantastic woven textile. Bhavani is home to some of the largest looms in India spanning upto 16 feet. Tiipoi’s collection is hand-woven and hand-dyed using the weaver’s old methods. Only VAT dyes are used, that are non-polluting to the environment, and properly recycled. The design of the Jamakhan collection looks to keep design features of the original textile by highlighting them, and throwing light onto a very cool, design led craft.
Geert De Neve received a degree in Economics (1993) from the University of Antwerp, and an MSc (1994) and PhD (1998) in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics. He came to Sussex in 1998, and is currently Professor of Social Anthropology and South Asian Studies. Geert has conducted extensive fieldwork in south India in since 1995 and has received funding from the ESRC, the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy to carry out research on the textile and garment industry in Tamil Nadu under trade liberalisation, as well as on MGNREGA implementation in South India.