By Sonica Kapur

Having lived in big cities for most of my life, I often feel the urge to just get up and leave. I crave to get away from the traffic, congestion and the hectic pace of life, and go to some place in the back of beyond, where no one can reach my cell phone and where I can slow down and breathe easy. Fortunately for me, working in the craft preservation sector provides opportunities to travel to areas where artisan clusters dwell- which  often happen to be in the middle of nowhere {or so it would seem to an urbanite}.

One such trip was to Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh. You’re probably thinking what I was when I decided to go to Maheshwar – Sure, I’ve heard of it. That’s where Maheshwari saris come from …right? But who’s ever been there?

As I found out, this city has more to offer than I anticipated, and my trip turned out to be all that I needed and more.

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I went to Maheshwar to visit and volunteer at Women Weave, a non-profit organization started by the awe-inspiring Sally Holkar. A Stanford Graduate and an institution in herself, Sally has been actively involved in helping empower the women of Maheshwar since 1978. Women Weave is her most recent endeavor in this direction. The NGO trains and employs women to be weavers, and also offers them benefits like healthcare, day care for their kids and micro loans. While this in itself is magnificent work, what’s really unique about this organization is its focus on women. The handloom industry in India is traditionally male dominated. Most master weavers are men, and even though women do a lot of the pre-loom work and sometimes more, they are rarely recognized as weavers. I’ve had the opportunity to visit handloom cooperatives all over India, and can safely say this is one of the few organizations which almost exclusively invests in training women and giving cognizance to them as weavers, thus making the work Women Weave is doing  do all the more path breaking.

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Within this, the Women Weave’s Handloom School started by Sally focuses on educating the young generation of weavers in not only weaving, but also design, business, computers, English and other skills, thus enabling them to keep handloom alive. In an age where most of us go to malls to shop and buy branded clothes designed in the West and made in China, handloom seems to be quickly losing its relevance. Weavers often call handloom a sunset industry and push for their children to become drivers or vegetable vendors for lack of demand in the handloom sector. In fact, huge sections of the handloom community are BPL {below the poverty line}. This sector is intertwined in our country’s heritage, and offers income and employment prospects to too many people for us to let go of it so easily.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit a handloom village {there is plenty opportunity in Maheshwar}, you will find that the whole family partakes in making that gorgeous Maheshwari sari and weaving is central to their way of life. In a country where rural poverty is rampant and farmer suicides common place, handloom weaving is one of the few avenues of rural employment that has potential to provide a living wage to these communities.  However, given the decline this industry’s seen, weavers are driven out of their homes by dire poverty and entire families are forced to come to the city to look for odd jobs in construction, domestic work and worst of all begging to make ends meet. A revival of the handloom movement would greatly contribute to reversing  this dangerous trend.

What’s also interesting is how eco-friendly handloom is. While giant coal power plants fuel mills that mass manufacture cheap polyesters and rayons that are used to create this season’s “it” blouse, by contrast handloom weaving uses virtually no electricity. Women Weave recycles all its waste yarn, so there is almost zero carbon foot print. In addition to this, Women Weave offers fabrics that use natural dyes and organic cotton.

While all these are great socio-economic and environmental reasons to support handloom, the biggest question still lingering in my mind as a consumer would be- why would I buy handloom when it looks like it belongs in the 1950’s or best suited on activist/artist types? As a working professional, city dweller and global traveler, I have no desire to dress in this clichéd manner, and really, how many handloom cotton kurtas can a girl wear?

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In my opinion, what makes Women Weave’s work truly genius is how they’ve created wearable, contemporary designs using handloom fabrics. Sure, the artisans at Women Weave make the most sumptuous Maheshwari saris in a modern avatar befitting the ramps at Fashion Week or the next glam Punjabi wedding, but I’d say their USP is their gorgeous cotton and silk stoles and versatile textiles in avant garde designs- you’d think someone bought them at a luxury boutique in Europe or the US {in fact, Women Weave products sell to countries all over the globe}! To add to that, I hardly ever have to iron my cotton handlooms that breathe and drape so well; they’re perfect for Indian heat.

For me though, and most importantly, I love how handloom makes me feel when I wear it. Call me old fashioned, but there’s a regal feeling in wearing something bespoke, and knowing that someone’s heart and soul has gone into creating a garment for you. Each time I wear one of these textiles, I can’t help but feel a little like royalty who had something couture made for her. It’s almost like I have a connection with the person who specially wove this textile for me {each Women Weave textile has the name and thumb print of the weaver who made the product}. I can’t compare this sensation with the done and dusted, mundane routine of picking up yet another shirt from a mall, which ten other people are likely to wear.

The highlight of my trip though was teaching pattern making, design and basic computers to the most intelligent bunch of young people I have ever met! The young and eager weavers at Handloom School could be the next Sabyasachi or Wendell Rodricks if given a little encouragement, support and opportunity. The organization welcomes volunteers to teach these kids anything from English and computer literacy to marketing and PR. They are also on the lookout for funding, donations to support their programs and opportunities for visibility. Oh, and fun fact: both Sabyasachi and Wendell actively support handloom textiles and regularly use them in their collections!

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Exploring Maheshwar

During my visit to Women Weave, I also took out time to look around a little, and Madhya Pradesh took me by surprise!

I sneaked a quick trip to the gorgeous plateau of Mandu. The breathtaking architecture of Hindola Mahal and Roop Mati’s Mahal bring back the romance of yesteryear, especially if visited in the monsoons as the clouds descend on the plateau. Here, I found a quiet spot under a tree near one of the ruins, and spent an afternoon with a book sitting in the lap of history.

Fussy urbanite that I am, I had to find myself a decent place to stay on a budget. I stayed at Hotel Narmada retreat {run by the MP government} which is right on the banks of the gorgeous Narmada river, and offers one a range of accommodations- from basic rooms to nicer water front tents. Though if this is your special weekend getaway and you want to pamper yourself a little, you could always stay at the historic Ahilya Fort.

Regardless of where you stay, do make it a point to walk along the banks of the Narmada at sunset. The river was also dotted with numerous boats of all shapes and sizes that one could hire for any amount of time to go up the waters. As I walked along the inky waters in time for the evening aarti at the many temples along the river bank, I felt enveloped by a quiet and reassuring sense of peace, like I’d found myself again. I went back to the ghaat at sunrise only to see people bathing, and while I didn’t get into the water, I truly felt the purifying quality of these ancient nurturing waters.

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I came back from Maheshwar renewed in body, mind and soul, with a sense of fulfillment that only supporting a cause bigger than oneself can provide. My week there went by in a blink and here are my top reasons to go at a glance.

Notes in my Little Black Book |

Volunteer for and  support Women weave, they want your help to get the word out about them- Contact:

Shop for gorgeous Maheshwari and Bagh saris, stoles and fabrics at WW and all around Maheshwar {you will not believe your eyes when you see the low prices!}

Visit the breathtaking historic architecture

Attend an evening aarti on the banks of the river Narmada

Easiest way to get there: All the low cost airlines have direct flights to Indore and it’s a 2 hr drive from there to Mahesh war. The beautiful drive among the black rock mountains is unlike anything I’ve seen before and is another great reason to go!

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