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  • Interview with Sharda Gautam

    Sharda Gautam
    Sharda Gautam
    Anchor - Antaran Initiative, Zonal Manager
    Tata Trusts
    Tata Trusts

    Antaran 2.0 will take other lesser-known clusters & crafts into fold
    Starting with four states known for their rich cultural weaves viz Assam, Nagaland, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, Antaran, an initiative by Tata Trusts, urges everyone to purchase handwoven products at wholesale prices directly from the artisans it works with. Sharda Gautam, Anchor - Antaran Initiative, Zonal Manager, Tata Trusts, spoke to Fibre2Fashion about the need which served as a catalyst in the growth of Antaran, its efforts on reviving and reinterpretation of handlooms, and plans ahead.

    A peep into Antaran - How did this initiative come about? Please share your journey, and, if possible, any interesting anecdote that could have triggered or served as a catalyst in the growth of this initiative?

    Tata Trust has a 129-year history of philanthropy and development. Antaran was conceptualised as one such intervention that will act as a one-stop destination for buyers, designers, researchers, and lovers of traditional crafts, with a focus on rejuvenating the handloom sector.?

    A pilot was designed to work in 6 weave clusters across four states Assam (Kamrup and Nalbari), Nagaland (Dimapur), Odisha (Gopalpur and Maniabandha) and Andhra Pradesh (Venkatagiri) to demonstrate a way forward and prove the viability of crafts as a means of livelihood.?

    The handloom industry is at a critical juncture with young weavers drifting away from the sector at an alarming rate, threatening the preservation of special skills. The answer to saving handloom lies in a fundamental shift in perspective: Recognising that there is a human being behind every piece of handloom textile and that it is a product, not a commodity.?

    This need led to the creation of a systematic intervention for revival and reinterpretation of handlooms, making them marketable in the contemporary context -?
    • Handloom textiles have very strong commercial viability in shorter runs and as unique bespoke products
    • Handlooms clusters can be made a go-to source for fashion businesses by properly training young weavers in fashion and business?
    • Textiles made from naturally dyed hand-spun fibre will make cheaper imitations by machine a history
    • The world is moving towards slow and sustainable fashion and India has the potential to meet this demand, as 90 per cent of the world's handloom is produced domestically?
    • Business practices have changed significantly in the last three decades. Weavers and their current market interfaces are not equipped to connect and leverage the real share of 'couture' products. An education on design and business, therefore, is required
    • Weavers earn most when they are enabled to speak to markets directly. All efforts towards upskilling and reskilling are directed towards empowering weavers in the direction of entrepreneurship and self-employment

    There are a variety of clusters where artisans have been formed into self-help groups and the likes, but their plight continues to remain the same - how different is your effort in alleviating this?

    At Antaran, we aim to empower and enable the communities while systematically inculcating education that transforms their livelihood. The overarching objective is to create Artisan-led microenterprises that will help them sustain and create a lucrative profession for the younger generation.?

    Our studies have shown that though there have been organised initiatives before, the situation had not improved as systemic issues were not being addressed. Our belief, therefore, is that strengthening individuals to be entrepreneurs and arming them to take responsibilities will be more effective. This is done through:

    1. Exposure to e-commerce?
    There is a huge shift towards digital platforms for customers today. Artisans were exposed to digital marketing, which paved the path for Antaran Artisan Connect, putting them in direct touch with their customers. The artisan entrepreneurs nurtured under the initiative are also exploring other avenues by showcasing products on platforms such as Gocoop, Etsy and Pernia's-pop up shop.??

    2. Digital and social media intervention
    In 2020, due to the pandemic, virtual markets emerged as the sole solution. The main challenge was to manage the transition of the sale-purchase experience from tactile to virtual. Artisan entrepreneurs were trained to interact with customers through phone, video calls, WhatsApp for business, photograph and post products on Instagram and Facebook and use appropriate hashtags.

    Through this, artisans explored the preferences of customers and contemporary markets, while customers learned the intricacies of the art, becoming true patrons of the craft.?

    3. Antaran Knowledge Centre
    The Antaran Knowledge Centre is an open video library for artisan entrepreneurs to learn about concepts related to business, design, communications, social media and marketing. Here, the artisans have access to a repository of information to help them maximise potential from all the opportunities they receive while equipping them with skills for the future.

    What is the business model of Antaran? How does it retail its products?

    Antaran is not a consumer brand or business by itself, but an initiative of Tata Trusts. It focuses on nurturing artisans and facilitates the community with the right set of knowledge and enterprise building skills, enabling them to develop their craft as a business. Comprehensive education curriculum based on design, communication, business and marketing is imparted to artisans. Antaran nurtures artisan entrepreneurs to create their own brands and develop entrepreneurial skills. The initiative has provided a platform nationally and internationally for its artisans to showcase their craft through participation at Fashion Weeks, international trade shows such as Maison et Paris and exhibitions across major metro cities in India.

    The demand from the market and pressure on the industry is on circularity today. What steps have you taken towards this?

    While the world is now actively and consciously paying heed to the concept of a - circular sustainable economy, little do we realise that crafts and the artisan communities are one of its oldest stakeholders. When we look back, crafts were born out of natural materials pertaining to their respective geographies which eventually evolved having deeper cultural and socio-economic meanings attached to them.?

    As an institution working towards strengthening craft ecosystems, Antaran is taking conscious steps for sustainability and circularity by building on the core strength of handloom textiles such as -
    • Promoting and encouraging use of natural fibres, hand-spun yarn and non-toxic eco-friendly or natural dyes, while reviving and reinterpreting the traditional weave designs in these selected clusters for wider markets
    • Focusing on retaining and mobilising young talent in the artisan communities, by imparting design and business education which would enable them to build sustainable micro enterprises for improved income
    • Grooming artisans as individual entrepreneurs and helping them connect directly to markets and eliminating middlemen, thus making their craft remunerative, and ensuring distributive justice across the value chain.

    Please provide highlights about your recent collections.

    Each craft presented on the Antaran platform has a unique character and represents a rare cultural and traditional context of their respective regions. Extraordinary weaves inspired by cultural influences and materials only add to the flavour of the rich heritage our country represents.
    • Eri and Muga silk weaves from Assam have been traditional crafts that have held forth in the region for centuries. Elegant muga silk saris, eri silk stoles, eri blended with cotton and extra weft motifs are being produced. A few artisans are continuing to maintain natural dyes as a part of their textile creation which only adds to the authenticity of the fabric--a true representation of the natural beauty of Assam. A new collection of handcrafted Gamosas-the ceremonial, traditional cloth of Assam has also been kickstarted by the weavers in the Nalbari region associated with the initiative.
    • Loin loom weaving of Nagaland in the past year has reached new heights in its design intervention. Women weavers who were only creating shawls, stoles and bags mostly with artificial fibres like acrylic, have created a whole range of fine and urban looking designs of 100 per cent cotton- home/soft furnishings in fresh and never seen before colours. Some laptop bags are also currently at the sampling stage.
    • Saris, stoles and fabrics in fine single weft ikat from Maniabandha Odisha are also being produced. While some weavers are focusing on harnessing what works best for them with respect to a particular heritage design, young weaver entrepreneurs are venturing into new colours, custom made fabrics for their clientele. Weft ikat designs are hard to be copied on power looms, which gives them the opportunity to grow their craft without the fear of cheap competition and experiment in a host of designs and hues.
    • Tussar and gheecha saris, stoles and fabrics from Gopalpur, Odisha is the perfect example of a spectrum of range one single natural fibre can offer. With Antaran intervention, artisan entrepreneurs have not only found their distinct style but also ventured into product diversification. Many collections in recent times have been inspired by various ceremonies they observe owing to their cultural influence-such as Durga pooja collection saris, stoles and fabrics, heritage saris inspired by Ghoda Nabami, contemporary stoles inspired by the Asta Prahari ceremony observed by the people of Gopalpur to name a few.
    • ?Silk and cotton silk zari saris of Venkatagiri are a live example of history. Safeguarded by royal patronage, the zari saris of Venkatagiri require meticulous construction, building on which the cluster has been able to maintain a distinct quality than other zari techniques of the south. The unique utilisation of the Jamdani style in cotton and cotton silks have proliferated among the artisan entrepreneurs. Thus, redefining the craft into something fresh.

    What are your long-term goals? How do you plan to expand your current set-up?

    The Antaran Initiative is committed to facilitating methodologies that are effective and customised to suit the pace of growth for home grown small businesses. Antaran aims to enable artisans in understanding how positioning their craft correctly and reaching out to the right customer is crucial. The team envisions to create an upskilled group of artisan entrepreneurs who redefine craft as not just a means of livelihood but to develop brand value, which leads the way for growth of skills as a mode to empower communities and preserve their rich cultural heritage. With the learnings of phase 1 of Antaran, we are hoping and working towards a larger goal and hope that Antaran 2.0 will take other lesser-known clusters and crafts into its fold.

    As the pandemic ebbs and flows, what hardships do the artisans of the country continue to face? What challenges are they facing in day-to-day sourcing and order delivery?

    The crisis caused by Covid-19 has resulted in a disruption of businesses across the globe and India's economy is not immune to its effects. Players across the spectrum have felt the resultant downturn. The handloom sector has been severely affected too, with their traditional and contemporary markets being completely closed. Covid has caused abrupt interruption to artisanal livelihoods
    • The sector has experienced sudden stalling of orders as retailers themselves are closed due to lockdowns
    • Cash flow has stopped, with buyers unable to make payments and no or very less sales happening now
    • Buyers are not in a position to place new orders - in the craft sector, orders are planned much in advance as the usual lead time required to complete a production cycle is 2 to 3 months.
    • Retail events through which artisans get cash sales are also paused
    • The summer season when cotton handlooms sell most has been entirely lost twice. This not only will create a liquidity crunch, but also severely impact the ability to invest in yarns for creating products for festive seasons (August to November) and winter, spring (October and to February) which are the other 2 major selling seasons for handloom textiles.?
    • The winter and spring seasons were also lost in the past 15 months.
    • Indian handlooms have been picking up in the slow fashion market internationally, but with this uncertainty, no overseas orders will be forthcoming.
    • Customer priorities may change with tightened budgets
    • Small artisans and producer groups do not have the financial cushioning to hold through such a crisis nor would they get credit supplies from raw material suppliers.
    • Being part of an informal economy, artisans are also not able to access credit from banks and financial institutions.
    At cluster level, availability of dyes has also been affected resulting in lack of required colours. In the case of Ikat in Maniabandha Odisha, which heavily relies on tying and then dying the yarns to create vivid patterns, the lack of fresh yarns and dyes have brought the production to a stall. On the other hand, in Gopalpur, Odisha, an important raw material of Korea silk used in warp for the Tussar products which comes from China, is not available. Some local vendors with available stocks are selling at higher prices due to high demand of the raw material and others with excess stock of raw materials that got stuck, are under threat of being damaged by rodents and moths.

    In case of order deliveries, with different regulations being exercised at large, the delivery is taking more time than expected. International shipping has taken a huge hit as the cost of courier tremendously hampers the purchase decision of customers. At the local level, the artisans are using services of Indian postal service to safely send the products to buyers and customers while informing them about the expected delay.?

    Which are your major domestic and international markets? Which products are in high demand in the export market?

    Artisans nurtured under the Antaran initiative are actively working with buyers from the UK, US, Paris, Japan, and Canada. The amount of business with them was poised to grow when the pandemic hit, but the team at Antaran and artisans are reaching out again as overseas markets open. Products such as cushion covers, table runners, stoles from Assam and Nagaland are most loved internationally, followed by cotton and silk stoles from Odisha and Assam. Our design team is constantly studying and working with artisans to develop products that will be conducive for international markets. Two of the artisans nurtured under programme have been selected for Selvedge World Fair 2021. (PC)
    Published on: 02/07/2021

    DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.

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