Interview with Dr. Hemalatha Jain of Punarjeevana

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Reviving traditional saris especially from the North Karnataka Belt, Dr. Hemalatha Jain is not just a PhD holder but also a textile expert.

Dr. Hemalatha Jain a designer, professor and textile revivalist has worked with weavers through her trust Punarjeevana (meaning rebirth in Kannada). She tells us more in this exclusive conversation.

Tell us something about your early years and what got you interested in textile conservation?

I always had an interest in handmade products and craft as I loved the uniqueness of the handmade products. Studying textiles in my Bachelors and Masters’ degree increased my inclination towards craft. Further I started working as a designer with the Maharashtra Handloom Board and Karnataka Handloom Development Corporation (KHDC) and got an opportunity to work closely with artisans and understanding the minute details of their work culture and difficulties. I was well aware about their financial constraints and could not help. I was feeling helpless and wanted to do real work them to create good opportunities but was not sure how. In the meanwhile I went to USA to work with a professor on natural dyes as I wanted to make some money that I could use to do something with artisans. Once I reached USA, I realised that I should be focusing on the craft sector and work on the core issue. I worked with the professor on natural dyes developed with different colour fastness and also worked with some of the artisans doing quilts to understand their marketing process and how they project themselves. After the completion of project, I also had the opportunity to work on PhD but I had made up my mind to do PhD on crafts of Karnataka which will add sustenance to craft and artisans. I came back to India landed in Bangalore and started working with KHDC and travelling across villages in Karnataka for a year and worked with many artisans. During this time I came across many crafts which people mentioned but did not have any sample or picture to show. That is when I realised there is a serious issue. To give consistent work KHDC had converted many good artisans to make plain materials and all their creativity was killed under bureaucracy and corruption. When I meet Sangaya who was a freedom fighter and also a 90 year old weaver who spoke on Patteda Anchu with a beautiful tale, my heart broke when he said he did not have a sample to show me as they had stopped making long ago. That is where the journey of reviving and conserving the traditional craft began.

Please recollect your initial days in the field of textile conservation and the work you did?

In the process of unraveling the historical details and samples of Patteda Anchu I stumbled upon samples of Gomi Teni, Lakundi, Hubli and many more. But my heart and mind was stuck on Patteda Anchu so kept doing an ethnographic study in ten villages and meet people who would have some knowledge of the fabrics. Sangaya mentioned about the Yellama temple and spoke about the devadasi who may have some clue about the fabric so I went there and spoke to people around. From the temple priest I got some more information and it took me another six months to meet the person who was former devadasi. She had a sample which was 150 years old which she had got from her grandmother. That is how I got the traditional colour palette, checks and details of the saree.

How did you zero in on Gomi Teni, Hubli and the Lakundi saris?

I had got samples of Gomi Teni, Hubli and Lakundi saree when I was conducting research on Patteda Anchu. When Patteda Anchu, launched, it had a good response and our artisans team grew from one to 12 and more artisans wanted to join us but the only hitch was Patteda Anchu replicas were flooded in the market so we could not increase the production due to financial constraints this being a self-funded project. Then I started the Gomi Teni production slowly and steadily and the response was good and the market reciprocated well. And as more and more artisans wanted to join in, I launched the lost weaves like Hubli and Lakundi saree. 

How challenging has it been to revive each of these fabrics?

The challenges were many as I was perceived as an outsider whom the artisans found difficult to trust initially. But I established a Trust and Self Help Group to help the artisans in their craft and their work.  Also sourcing the raw material was an issue as I did not have enough money to source large amount of cotton and faced many hitches in procuring it. Slowly and steadily I setup ways and means of self-sustenance and also built contacts with National Handloom Development Corporation to give us raw material. Locals found me as threat to their power loom products so procuring was challenge on credit so I did two jobs to fund the whole exercise. Design and colour intervention was another challenge as the locals were not open to the idea to black colours. They found that it was against their culture and inauspicious and they had to be convinced to change the colour.

How have you got weavers back to the loom?

Getting them to work full time on loom was a huge challenge because it was not fetching enough money. I promised to take care of all the expenses for two weavers on a day to day basis which is when they decided to work full time giving up their other jobs. Both of them had enough money as we were getting more orders and soon they enrolled their relatives to work and that is how we started to increase the number of artisans. I also formed the Punarjeevana Trust where all were involved in decision making and also the finances were taken care of jointly by all. 

Describe the distinctive characteristics of the Hubli sari?

During historical research data collection for Patteda Anchu I had got a sample which was with a chain of flower running parallel in border. I was not sure about the name and enquired about it. The weaver’s 85 year old father Hussain Saab said this is Hubli saree which he used to weave when he was a 16 year old. Those days Hubli saree was extensively woven in Gajendragad in Bagalkot and Gadag. The sample received during the investigation was passed through scientific test to know the age of the fabric and it was found to be around 103 years old. The Hubli saree was majorly worn by the married countrywomen and the flower in the border resembles beauty and elegance. Our cluster started with the revival project slowly and steadily it was converted into a sustenance model to survive the craft and artisans. We started with 2 weavers today we have 45 people working.

How often do you visit the weavers?

Almost every weekend, I visit the village and I look into every detail of procurement to marketing and involve various people at every point to make them self-sustaining. We have also started evening school for the artisans to study and learn to read, write and speak Hindi and English and also taking computer literacy seriously among the artisans. 

Who or what inspires you?

The people whom I have meet during my journey in the last 15 years have inspired me in many ways whether it is weavers and old women from village talking of folklore. Tradition and culture has to be sustained and that is vision of Punarjeevana and this keeps me going and motivates and inspires me to go ahead.

What are your future plans?

I want to train the younger generation to keep the craft alive. We are working to go completely sustainable by including bamboo and hemp for manufacturing revival. We need to give the revival a new face so that the craft and artisans survive and do not have to fight battle with power loom to survive.

This story first appeared in Apparel Magazine’s Sep 2019 issue here:

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