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In the annals of Indian handloom weaving, the saris of West Bengal occupy a special place. Each district is home to artisan and weaver communities, and known for its own unique tradition of hand-woven silk and cotton fabrics. The town of Phulia, about 85 km away from Kolkata, became an important centre in the eastern weaving belt following the Partition. With over one lakh looms, the region produces some of India’s finest handloom saris and fabrics in silk and cotton.
For Shyama Chandran, a self-confessed sari aficionado, who lives close to Phulia, it was easy to get lost in the magic of Bengal handlooms. When she quit her full-time job in 2015, this former HR consultant, who has always wanted to be an entrepreneur, found that she could turn her passion for handlooms into a business.
“I am a regular visitor to the haats in Shantiniketan where one can buy products directly from the craftspersons”, she says. On several occasions, Chandran noticed that it was common practice to haggle with weavers, strike a good bargain, and walk away leaving them with the short end of the stick. “Often, people are ignorant about the months of painstaking effort that go into hand-woven fabrics, which is why they are not ready to pay higher prices for them. This is one of the reasons for the decline in India’s handloom sector today,” she explains.
Further studying the plight of Indian handlooms, she found that it was plagued by several issues – the rising cost of raw materials like cotton, the inadequate supply of skilled labour, and a new generation, who disenchanted by a diminishing economy for handlooms, has moved out of the craft to cities in search of jobs. Most weavers face challenges with marketing their products and make small margins on them. They sell their products at local crafts markets at wholesale prices, earning Rs 400-500 for a sari that takes 2-3 days to weave. It is rare for them to make anything from the markup added by boutiques and stores, she says.
“I felt a strong need to help revive the weaving communities of the region and improve their lot.” In 2016, Chandran started Panache, a brand of handloom saris in cotton and silk sourced directly from local weavers. The online platform, she emphasises, is a place where handloom aficionados can be sure that they are getting authentic, one-of-a-kind pieces, all delivered to their doorstep. Panache showcases the choicest of Bengal handlooms in blended cotton, silk and linen featuring traditional embroidery and patterns like kantha and dhakai work.
Chandran strongly advocates recognising and promoting the potential of rural weavers and artisans with little or no intervention from designers and stylists. An example she gives of weavers’ ingenuity is khesh gurjari – a weaving technique involving the upcycling of used saris into new ones –that recently took Kolkata by storm. “Weavers and artisans have their own design sensibilities, and because of intervention from fashion designers, they do not have too many opportunities to display. The saris, stoles, and handbags they make are beautiful enough without any further embellishments. I want Panache to be a platform for them to flaunt their talent and creativity, and do not want to dictate or define what they should do,” she emphasises.
The ambitious entrepreneur sources authentic Bengal handlooms from four home-based weavers in Phulia and sells the products through her Facebook page, which has garnered over 8,000 Likes in just two months. She has recently added chanderi saris to her range and is collaborating with kalamkari, warli, phulkari, and madhubani artists, who add finishing touches to the fabric. Prices vary from Rs 800 to Rs 5,000, depending on the weaves.
Chandran is expecting brisk business in the upcoming Durga Puja season with orders already pouring in from her customers across the globe. “Most customers are reluctant to carry out online money transfers that require them to part with account details. There is also a high degree of uncertainty in such transfers,” she says, adding, “Many request cash-on-delivery, but for small businesses like mine, that is a slow and time-consuming process.” This prompted her to start using Sellfie’s online payment facility that allows debit/credit card payment options and provides buyer protection guarantee that ensures that the payment is released to sellers only when the buyer has received their product.
“This has given clients the confidence to trust Panache and transact online with us besides, giving us the credibility that big e-commerce platforms enjoy,” she mentions.
She is also quick to point out that the Sellfie team was proactive in answering her queries, which helped a great deal to put her initial apprehensions to rest.
The Indian handloom and crafts sector is witnessing a slew of efforts by revivalists, who are passionate about making it profitable for weavers to remain in their traditional livelihoods. Entrepreneurs like Chandran are trying to encourage indigenous weavers by creating a market for their products and making it easier for urban consumers to appreciate and access disappearing art forms. “The challenges in the demand-driven handloom sector are many but I am determined to bring back pure cotton fabrics and traditional patterns and motifs that appeal to contemporary urban sensibilities.”
She is optimistic about the future of her venture and is looking forward to travelling the length and breadth of the country supporting more weavers and adding new designs to her repertoire.