Seven months back when Covid-19 hit, weavers of Odisha had no inkling of what was ahead. Soon, markets closed down and cash flow to lakhs of weavers and artisans was abruptly snapped. Sarees piled up in weaver households and as yarn did not reach the weavers, the looms lay idle.
While the government provided free ration to some extent, the majority of the artisans who earn on a daily basis working for bigger weavers or traders found it extremely difficult to sustain their families. As the fear of the unknown loomed large, Pankaja Sethi, Bhubaneswar-based textile designer and social anthropologist stepped up to ensure that the artisans pulled through this crisis.
“The pandemic and lockdown impacted the livelihoods of many home-based weavers and artisans. Because of the lockdown, the transit of weavers, artisans and dyers was disrupted which directly affected the chain of materials, thereby production of textiles and crafts. Fear of unemployment and production crises had flamed panic among weavers and artisans who play a crucial role in building the Indian economy”, says Pankaja who started a crowd-funding initiative to provide ration and monetary help to weavers and artisans of the State.
After the lockdown was imposed, Pankaja launched an online weavers support project in March with an aim to provide livelihood support to around 300 weavers. Through Kala aur Katha, her design and research-based studio in Bhubaneswar, she launched a Ketto fundraiser campaign urging people and organisations to support one weaver of Odisha for one month to compensate their recurring losses during the lockdown and honour their contribution towards heirloom tradition. Pankaja also started a social media initiative where she told, every day, the story of a weaver struggling to make ends meet.
“We must realise weavers' livelihood depends on the number of pieces they weave per month. But this crisis was beyond their control. The situation also brought to fore that there is no financial security for weavers who have retained the age-old tradition till date. And most of these craftspeople are from backward castes and Adivasis. So we also decided to raise the voice of weavers through social media platforms - Facebook and Instagram - to highlight the condition of weavers, their identity, craft and story. This created a lot of impact on social media”, says the designer.
In a few months, she managed to raise Rs 5 lakh ration support from organisations and another Rs 5 lakh from individuals. “We started with the target of 300 weavers but managed to support 2,000 weavers and craftspeople in Puri, Jajpur, Cuttack, Jagatsinghpur, Khurda, Koraput, Malkangiri, Mayurbhanj, Boudh, Angul, Jharsuguda, Bargarh and Dhenkanal districts who are at the forefront of India’s small and medium scale economy,” she says.
A major contributor to the initiative was Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj. Kala Aur Katha supported 200 artisans financially and distributed ration support to 1,800 families.
Besides lending a helping hand to the artisans in overcoming the crisis, the designer provided livelihood opportunities to women and girls in weaver households of Nuapatna by training them in stitching masks. Today, women of the village are supplying Ikat masks throughout the State.
With markets opening up after Unlock 5, things are looking up for the weavers and artisans. However, complete resumption of the market for weaves and handicrafts will take a long time, says the designer. Post the Covid-19 pandemic, she plans to set up a dyeing unit at Jagatsinghpur for its weavers, provide natural dyeing training and conduct online training for women artisans.