This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on February 22, 2017.
When I first visited Nuapatna, a small town about 70km from Bhubaneswar in Odisha, I was surprised by the skills of the weavers in the handloom cluster and the beauty of their creations.
Despite producing intricately woven sarees, household incomes were no more than Rs2,000-Rs3,000 a month. This is one of the reasons pushing the younger generation away from traditional skills and towards unskilled labour in factories and construction sites.
As is the case in most of the 545 handloom clusters in the country, almost every member of a family is involved in the process of weaving in Nuapatna.
Women pull out tassar yarn from the cocoons of tassar silkworms after the worms are killed by heat. Children help their parents in applying starch to finished sarees before they are packed to be sold. The men do the weaving.
In Nuapatna, especially, children start acquiring weaving skills at a very early age. Elders in the cluster say that it takes 10 years to master the art and skill of weaving a double ikat saree. Despite learning and practising the skill for almost a decade, children often grow up and leave the cluster in search of better paying jobs that are less time consuming.
When I spoke to some families in the cluster, I learnt that several youths, between the ages of 20 and 30 years, have migrated to cities like Pune (in Maharashtra) and Surat (in Gujarat) in search of work in factories.
Quitting the profession after learning the skill for 10 long years is not only a waste of time and energy but also a waste of talent. Besides, the youths leave their families weaker in terms of resources of hand and skills.
And it’s especially sad for a cluster like Nuapatna that is home to several national award-winning weavers.
For us, the task was cut out. We not only wanted to digitally enable the weavers but also turn their dreams into reality. Nuapatna (in Cuttack district) and Barpali (in Bargarh district) as handloom clusters had all the ingredients to inspire us to replicate our learnings from Chanderi—our oldest adopted cluster—where we had started a similar project called Chanderiyaan in 2009.
We have been able to triple household incomes in the last six years through digital interventions in the processes of designing, archiving, marketing and sales. The project even provides wireless broadband connectivity to about 100 households.
Training men, women and children in using computers wasn’t difficult. In fact that was the easiest part of our initiatives. But following up that training with customized technology was what temporarily applied the brakes on our efforts. We thought we would be able to copy-paste the technology and experiences from Chanderi.
After we hit roadblocks a couple of times, we realized that the same processes could not be replicated in Nuapatna. The art and style of weaving was so different from that of Chanderi that we had to find a new software to suit the needs of the weavers in Odisha.
Weavers using bandhni or tie-and-dye techniques for ikat don’t necessarily require graph paper for designs. Most of them, due to their years of experience, just recall a design from memory and replicate it on the tie-and-dye frame and subsequently the loom. This is also the reason why there isn’t too much of experimentation in design, especially in Barpali and also the reason why introducing digital tools and information technology into their processes was a challenge.
But we had a dedicated team that did not rest till we found an apt technology to introduce in the weaving clusters.
Thankfully, Microsoft came forward and supported us to integrate digital tools in creating Digikala—the project title for transforming the two ikat handloom clusters into digital handloom clusters.
Last year, we digitally trained close to 2,000 individuals at both Barpali and Nuapatna. At both locations, 25 participants each from weaving families are being trained to use advanced design software.
If you get a chance to travel to Odisha, I would like you to visit Nuapatna or Barpali. You will see that the clusters enjoy the same high-speed wireless broadband as your metro cities and now have a digital repository of thousands of traditional designs. In a couple of months, you will also be able to place your orders online via an exclusive e-commerce website for ikat sarees that have been visualized and designed by the digital weavers of Nuapatna and Barpali.