Maheshwar is a small town whose weavers continue to create magic on hand looms reviving a tradition that dates back several thousand years.
On a recent trip to Mandu, a casual conversation with a media colleague led me to discover its proximity to Maheshwar and I immediately decided to head to the city known for its famed Maheshwari saris.
My first stop was at Ahilya Fort that overlooks the Narmada Ghat and as I started walking down the stairs to head towards the water, I heard the clickety clack of the hand looms from the women of the Rehwa Society that has been spear heading the handloom revival here. Handloom weaving in Maheshwar has a history that dates to over 1500 years. The tradition was given a new lease of life by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar who ruled Maheshwar between 1765 to 1795 who ensured that weavers prospered. It helped that the weavers had the patronage of wealthy local families who promoted the fine textiles. Post-independence, the royal patronage vanished and the weavers diminished in numbers as they could not find new markets. To revitalize the weaving traditions of Maheshwar, the heirs of the royal Holkar family established Rehwa Society in 1979 as a not-for-profit organization with a grant from the Central Welfare Board. Most of the weavers who work here today come from difficult socio-economic backgrounds and are largely single income earners. Apart from a housing colony for the weavers called ‘Ajilya Vihar’, the Rehwa society has founded the ‘Ahilya School’ in 1989 for the community and most of the weavers children study here. The Rehwa society has been working with weavers to ensure that they empower the women weavers by giving them employment and income to better their lives and sustain the hand weaving tradition of Maheshwar.
At the center there are several women busy at work and I speak to Kiran Kewal a 35-year-old weaver who has been weaving for seven years who says, “I really like working on hand looms as this is what I have known from the beginning. In between there was a work offer from a power loom that I have declined as that will kill the craft of Maheshwar.” She weaves about two saris per week and says the pallu is more complex and can take longer if it has complex designs. At Rehwa Society she is part of a 150-member strong weaver community that work together every day from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. The weavers have a day off on Tuesday and are paid per piece – complex saris can help them earn upto Rs 900 per piece while simpler saris will give them upto Rs 600. per piece. Krishna Kewat, 33 who has been working here for about four years adds, “I like to work here and says she can make one duppatta for a week. I have trained for six months to learn the art of weaving and it helps me supplement my family’s income too.” Apart from working as a weaver, Krishna also has a tea stall that she manages from 6:00 am to 9:00 am every day on the Narmada ghat and then reports to work after that. One of the oldest weavers here Chandra Ben who is 70 years old has been weaving for 40 years and shows no sign of slowing down. “I do not like to be idle at home and love my work. In fact, I like to come and weave saris more than being home. My family in fact asks me to take rest at home but I have got used to working and cannot imagine life otherwise.” Having worked on the weaves for decades now she says that today there is a lot of demand for dupattas and stoles as well apart from saris. Madhu Chauhan, 34 who has been weaving for seven years says, “I manage my work at home and come to work as well. To do this I get up early in the morning and I am conscious as I must come to work as it helps me support the family income as well. We focus on hand looms only as power looms are useless. The workmanship in hand looms is like no other and we are able to correct any errors immediately, so the sari is always perfect.” The dedication of these women to preserve their craft is exemplary to say in the least and this must be a place to stop buy on your next visit.
This story first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Airports magazine here: