Chapter 2 Indian Handicrafts and their Decline – Indian Economy


Indian Handicrafts and their Decline

The Chief Mart of the World

When Greece and Italy, those cradles of European civilization, nursed only tenants of wilderness; when Western Europe, that birth place of modern industrialism, was inhabited by ‘uncivilized savages’, and when Egypt and Rome, those centres of culture and classics were in their ‘decline and fall’, India was still enjoying a worldwide celebrity for the wealth of her rulers and the high artistic skill of her craftsmen. The skill and dexterity of the Indian worker was something proverbial and envied by his counterparts all over the world. The Indian products reached every corner of the globe and were the esteemed possessions of mighty empires. The proudest beauties of the Imperial Courts of Caesars so glittered with the gold and silver brocades of Delhi that Plini began to complain of Roman wealth being drained away by the enterprising Indians. And Egypt too, knew and prized the fabrics of two thousand years ago. Persia, Syria and Arabia imported and made their societies affluent with substantial quantities of Indian cotton and silk goods. The gossamer muslins of Dacca, the beautiful woollen shawls of Kashmir, the fine linens, calicoes and the brocades of Delhi were famous, ages ago, throughout the civilized world.

In manufacture, Indians attained a marvellous perfection, a high state of excellence, and a worldwide reputation even in 2000 BCE India exported her fabrics of inimitable fineness, tapestry glittering with gems, rich brocades, embroidered velvets and carpets, wonderful for the exquisite harmony of colour combinations. Her enamel of the most brilliant hue, inland wares that required high magnifying power to reveal their minuteness, furniture most elaborately carved, brilliant carvings in ivory, ebony and sandalwood, magnificent dyed chintzes, diamonds, uniquely set pearls and precious stones, excellent porcelain, highly wrought steel, swords of curious forms and excellent temper and perfect naval architectures were all definite proofs of her perfection in art and for ages the admiration of enlightened mankind. Many a foreign traveller had paid glowing tributes to her flourishing arts and industries. Marco Polo records the reputation of India as the chief mart of Asia. Bernier, who visited the court of Aurangzeb remarked, ‘The rich exuberance of the country... has given rise to proverb in common use among the Portuguese, English and the Dutch that the kingdom has a hundred gates open for entrance, but not one for departure.’ And M. Blangui, a Frenchman, after visiting the Indian section of the Great Exhibition of 1851, was reported to have said, ‘Les indiens sont les francais de l’orient pour le genie industriel.’

The Variety of Industries

These handicrafts were mostly carried on in the chief towns of India for the benefit and under the patronage of the ruling princes and the aristocracy. The urban industries produced fine and luxury goods which did not command a wider market as they were not within the reach of the common man, yet these were the most important as well as best organized of industries. Obviously they were the first to feel the brunt of foreign competition on account of their position. Among these, the chief industry was textile and cotton was easily the first and was spread all over the subcontinent.

R. C. Dutt observes, ‘weaving was the national industry of the people and spinning was the pursuit of millions of women.’ Whereas the village weaver turned out the coarse cotton cloth for everyday use, the urban weaver produced the best and finest variety such as the Dacca muslin which acquired a name and fame unparalleled in the history of commerce. The Greeks knew and treasured this muslin and christeued it Gangetika as it originated in the surrounding neighbourhood of the Ganges. A Manchester manufacture termed it in his frustrated despair ‘the shadow of a commodity.’ Mukerjee mentions that a piece of the finest muslin, 20 yards long and one yard wide, could be made to pass through a finger ring and required six months to manufacture. The yarn with which the muslin was woven was so fine that Dr Taylor remarks that the skein of yarn which an Indian weaver measured in his presence proved to be 250 miles in length to the pound of cotton. Such niceties of life could be patronized only by the rich and luxurious courts and with their disappearance, the industry had died out. In 1880, muslin was still produced in Dacca, Krishnagar, Chundree, Arni, Benares, etc., but had deteriorated and was rapidly dying out.

Fine cotton fabrics were manufactured all over India. Lucknow was famous for its bright chintzes, Ahmedabad for its dhoties and dopattas and Nagpur for its silk-bordered cotton. Madura and some other towns of the Madras Presidency were justly famous for their excellent cotton. There were also the Calicoes, beautiful handkerchiefs and shawls of different types produced at various parts of the country which were in great demand and produced at various markets. Although cotton manufactures were the most widespread, India was not lacking in the production of silk and woollen cloth. The most famous centres in the productions of silk were Murshidabad, Malda and other Bengal towns. Fine gold brocade work was done in Benares and Ahmedabad, and double weaving of colours was infused in the fabrics in Poona, Zeola and other places. In woollens, the best known of the artistic productions were the Kashmir shawls, not only confined to Kashmir, but also produced in several towns of the Punjab. There was a great deal of demand for these shawls from the Indian princes. Even after their fall, the industry continued to be prosperous thanks to the popularity it gained in Europe, particularly in France. By the middle of the 19th century, the French had complete control over this industry by advancing money to the native weavers and by buying the finished products. They also prevented the evil of adulteration and the use of inferior chemical dyes. But the Franco–Prussian war stopped the demand and after the war, there was no revival of demand, for by then fashions had changed. The cheap imitations produced at Paisley in England gave the final blow. In the sixties of the 18th century, the industry was flourishing, in the seventies it was deteriorating and in the eighties it became a mere tradition.

Then there were the metal industries turning out brass, copper and bell-metal wares and were found practically in all towns. Benares was famous for such industries as also Nasik and Poona in the Bombay Presidency, Hyderabad, Vizagapatam and Tanjore in the South. Manufacture of arms and shields was specialized in Cutch, Sind and the Punjab towns such as Sialkot, Kotli and Lahore. The towns of Rajputana excelled in all kinds of artistic works including enamelled jewellery, stone- carving, etc. Gold and silver threads were produced both in Northern and Southern towns. The shipbuilding industry was in sufficiently prosperous condition as to excite the jealousy of English shipping interests, having enjoyed the differential advantage in an abundant supply of timber, an important consideration before the days of iron-built ships.

Organization of Industries

Unlike the village artisans who carried on their traditional occupations using primitive methods and circumscribed within the four corners of their rural centres, the urban handicrafts were well organized and also centralized. There were trade guilds based upon a caste pursuing heritable occupations presided over by a hereditary Nagar Seth, which ensured the quality of the articles and the welfare of the members. There was a good deal of division of labour and some degree of localization of industry as in the case of sandalwood in Mysore, but due to the absence of easy means of communication and the distance from the markets, these tendencies could not develop much. Specialization could not be pushed to any great advantageous degree as it was limited by the non-availability of tools and smaller volume of demand for the wares. Whereas the Industrial Revolution changed the phase of economic progress of the Western countries, India had remained unchanged. The Indian artisans continued to work as their forefathers had worked sans capital, sans machinery, sans well-groomed organization. The craftsman generally worked to order, the material being usually provided by his consumers. The domestic system of industry taught him the hereditary, but socially assigned duty as his birthright. There were a few workshops also attached to the royal households which catered to the artistic tastes of princes. But without proper organized machinery to look after the marketing system, a good deal of the benefit of the craftsman was intercepted by the middleman—employer who usually advanced the necessary finance for starting an industry or for any such process.

The Causes of the Decline and Fall of the Indian Handicrafts

These well-administered urban industries carried the seeds of their own destruction in as much as they were the first ones to court the evil onslaught of the alien rule due to their prominent position. Intoxicated by the lucrative nature of Indian commerce, the Westerners vied with one another to capture it. Ultimately, the fittest of the group, namely, Britons, survived the ordeal of the struggle for the power which took place on our high seas and the low plains, to the detriment of our industries. The foreign regime, instead of making an attempt to render these indigenous industries more efficient on modern lines through reorganization, began to exterminate them. The decline of the handicrafts, though in some cases began as early as the end of the 18th century, became very marked about the middle of the 19th century and the causes for such disintegration were many and varied as spelt hereunder:

  1. The urban handicrafts produced mostly luxury and semi-luxury goods which were of little use to the peasant or to the ordinary town-dweller; nor could they afford them. Only wealthy aristocrats, the Rajahs and Nawabs demanded the best products that skill could produce or money buy while the common man was comfortable with the cheaper, coarse and durable variety of products. With the establishment of the British rule in India, native rulers began to disappear and their courtiers and officials were thrown into the background. The disintegrations of Indian Regal Courts meant the cessation of the main source of demand for the fine goods which were displayed during State Ceremonial occasions. In spite of all these, the demand for the luxury goods, although diminishing steadily, did not disappear completely, as the old nobles could not change their manner of living quickly, but the succeeding generations which were unaware of the pomp and splendour of the old durbars lacked the desire as well as the means to support the old handicrafts. These industries survived for some time in the feudatory States, but the extension of British power with its subsequent unfavourable influences hastened their downfall.
  2. The advent of alien rule, the unfavourable influences it brought in its wake had all reflected their adverse effects on the handicrafts industry. Even though the British officials, the European tourists and the newly educated professional class of Indians arrested to some extent its decadence and disappearance, the nature of their demand led to a quick deterioration in the quality of goods. They demanded these products, not so much because they possessed any great utility value for them, but merely for their worth as curiosities and souvenirs and as such they wanted these goods cheap. The outcome was that workmanship suffered and inferior materials were used. The adulteration of materials, shoddy and slovenly workmanship which lowered the quality and value of the articles, were also due to the decline of the guilds and other supervisory bodies which had control over the techniques of production, but which now decayed with the progress of British rule in India. In the absence of such a supervisory body, the native weaver began to copy the European patterns without understanding them, as a result of which the products lacked the life and vigour they once displayed. Besides, ‘Pax Brittanica,’ the peace and order established by the British administration ensured security of person and property. This forbade the manufacture and damascening of arms, shields and other weapons, thereby killing the flourishing industry in North-West India, Cutch, Sind and the Punjab.
  3. The new class of educated Indians, who formed the professional class, might have encouraged the old arts, but they considered that following European fashions was the hallmark of the enlightenment. They scorned everything Indian and blindly copied the Western ways to please the officers. This new class had neither the discriminating taste to appreciate nor the means to patronize the products of the artistic industries, nor had they the backbone to use them. They went in for cheap, machine-made goods, both foreign and Indian.
  4. The commercial instincts of the East India Company led it at first to encourage Indian industries by financing them and otherwise, as its export trade was largely drawn from them. As this policy went counter to the vested interests in England, it was vehemently opposed in the British Parliament which expected India to sell her raw materials and buy their finished products. In pursuance of such a scheme, the officers were empowered to compel the artisans to work in the Company’s factories and while the English goods were admitted into India free of duty, the Indian handicraft products were subjected to prohibitive import duties ranging from 30 to 80 per cent, and even total prohibition in some cases. As H. H. Wilson points out:

    Had not such heavy duties and prohibitory decrees existed, the mills of Paisley and Manchester would have been stopped in the outset and would have scarcely set in motion, even by the power of steam. They were created at the sacrifice of Indian manufacturers ... The British manufacturer used the arm of political injustice to keep down a competitor with whom he could not have contended on equal terms.

  5. The ‘Made-in-Britain’ Government of India not only did not lend a helping hand to the struggling handicrafts, but betrayed them by advancing direct assistance to the English manufacturer in exploiting the Indian market. India became an appendage of Britain both in the political and economic spheres. The Indian raw materials were bought by British agents, shipped in British bottoms, worked out into finished products with their skill and capital and re-exported in their own vessels here and elsewhere by the British merchants to be sold through British-manned organizations. This was facilitated by the development of steam power and mechanical transport and the easy communication system provided by the Indian government to ease such transactions. This contributed towards the rapid decadence of the native manufacturing trade.
  6. The last, but not the least, came the contributory cause of competition of machine-made goods. The constructions of roads and railways and the opening of the Suez Canal helped the development of trade and commerce. Foreign imports, especially textiles, were easily distributed to the various towns in the interior. The quality of these imported cloths was definitely inferior to the native goods, but they were cheap and within the reach of the poor man. Even though the village weaver was not much affected by the competition, the urban weaver producing the finer varieties was hit hard. To the foreign imports were soon added the Indian machine-made goods. And that was the last straw on the camel’s back.

Attempts have been made later to revive these artistic crafts with the help of schools of arts and exhibitions, but the tastes and fashions have changed so much and the European type of luxury goods are so cheap that there is little scope for the products of the handicrafts. The ultimate result of this decay was that, while some artisans found employment in the new factory industries, others fell back upon the land for their livelihood, or increased the ranks of landless agricultural labourers.

The Persistence of the Indian Handicrafts

It was once believed that small-scale industries would die out in the face of large-scale production, but closer observation has proved that it need not be so. In fact, there is no necessary antagonism between the two. The limitations of the large-scale industry are the opportunities of the small, and the latter has its distinct and profitable part to play in the vast and elaborate structure of modern economic organization. In small-scale manufactures, supervision is close, waste of material and man power is reduced to the minimum and the capital required is not great. Moreover, it can cater to the whims and fancies of the customer and adapt itself more easily to changing conditions. In India also this has been the case. Some old industries have died out no doubt, but others have survived and new ones have grown up, benefiting by new developments in tastes and fashions and extension of markets that catered to the expanding middle-class consumers.

The cotton handloom industry is the largest cottage industry in India and it exists side by side with the mill industry. In 1938, it contributed nearly one-third of the cloth produced in India and it supported about 10 million people. The handloom industry benefited by the war as competition was eliminated and prices increased, though the difficulties of getting yarn and dyes prevented rapid growth. The industry has prospered, but its competitive power and its future prospects were uncertain.

The causes for the persistence of handicrafts in general and the handloom industry in particular may be summarized as follows: Hereditary artisans in the absence of other and more advantageous employment continue to ply their old trade, and the domestic system of production secures not merely a certain amount of freedom but also additional family earnings. Custom and tradition favour a variety of patterns, and the handloom industry can supply an endless selection of these patterns, whereas it would be uneconomic for the mills to produce limited quantities of each design. The tastes of the people, therefore, guarantee a market for these products. Further, the handloom industry has a definite place in the production of finer quality goods meant for the richer classes and coarser varieties for the poorer.

Still, the competition of mill goods is real, especially when the demand goes down and hence, a wise allocation of the market between the two is essential for their future well-being. The Government has, in recent years, spent Rs 25 lakhs on the handloom industry as regards appliances used and the finishing, dyeing and printing processes. To eliminate the middlemen, co-operative societies have been organized. Under the inspiration of Gandhiji, not only weaving but even hand spinning has been stimulated and governments have on hand various schemes for supporting and developing this important industry.

The Present Organization of the Handicrafts

All forms of organization are found in the existing handicrafts. In the Cotton Industry, there are independent weavers buying yarn and disposing of the finished articles on their own account. Others dispose of the goods through some middlemen. Some buy yarn on credit and sell the goods to the dealer at a fixed price. This generally happens when the raw materials are costly and the demand seasonal (as in silk- and gold-bordered goods), or when the market is distant (as in the case of finer textiles produced in Coimbatore for the Mahratta country). When the weaver becomes indebted, he pledges or sells his loom becomes a mere piece rate worker. The growing importance of the capitalist perceptible in the handloom industry but this has not led to any general adoption of the factory or the workshop system. The economies of this system are not so great. Moreover, the worker prefers to work at home with the help of his family. The capitalist also finds this domestic or commission system to his advantage. He is saved from the cost and trouble of supervision and is free from the factory regulations. Above all, the risks of production are thrown upon the weavers. If the demand falls off, he can stop orders, so that, except in the case of finer cottons using silk or gold and silver thread, the workshop system has not developed. The weaver works in his house and the capitalist is mostly a giver-out of orders. This commission system is the most common. In the southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, co-operative societies in cotton textiles have sprung up and with the patronage of state governments, marketing societies like co-optex in Tamil Nadu is doing commendable business.

In the silk industry, there is no independent weaver, for the raw materials are costly and markets distant and uncertain. The position of this once flourishing industry is now far from enviable. The reeling is so bad that the weaver prefers silk reeled in China or Japan and the Indian raw silk is sent abroad for trade. Among the chief cities engaged in this industry, Murshidabad, Tanjore, Benares, Surat, Amritsar and Madura may be mentioned. In recent years, the swadeshi spirit has encouraged the trade. The government had also come to its aid. In 1934, a heavy protective duty was imposed on the silk imports, grants were made to produce disease-free seeds and eradicate silk worm diseases and Rs 5 lakhs was given over a period of 5 years to assist the industry.

Silk being generally unsuited for mass production, hand weaving ought to be a better position. During the war period, the industry produced parachute silk and prices doubled with the cessation of imports from China and Japan, but at the same time, the industry suffered, for supplies of raw materials from Japan were cut off. If developed on proper lines, sericulture could be a suitable subsidiary occupation in the rural parts. It cannot be of vast proportion like cotton, for silk is a luxury product. Still, India can become self-supporting in this trade, and in recent times governments actively support sericulture.

The woollen and blanket industry has a considerable foreign market and centres mostly around Amritsar and Mizapore. The other centres are Multan, Bikaner, Ellore and Agra. The weaving of woollen blankets is widely known. The wool used is not of the best quality but is easily available from the local sheep. And the home market is large. During the war, the large army orders stimulated the industry. With some improvements, it can secure greater returns.

The brass and copper ware Industry is mainly an urban industry reflecting the impact of outside forces. We find three different forms of organization: the independent artisan, the master worker with some assistants and the workshop. Since the different process could be split up, machinery is used and the small capitalist has found the workshop economic. The independent artisan, unable to compete with the finished articles of the workshop, is becoming less and less important.

The gold and silver thread industry has become even more specialized because the material has to pass through a number of hands. The independent artisan could have no place in this trade. The competition of German machine-made goods forced the Indian dealers to introduce machines. The Bombay government granted scholarships to students to learn improved methods. In Bombay and Gujarat, the industry is prosperous. In other places, such as Delhi and Calcutta, machines were not adopted and so it has decayed.

The labour conditions and wages in domestic industry are far from satisfactory but in the workshop system even the little independence enjoyed by the worker has been lost. But he is now better paid and his material conditions have improved.

Discussion Questions

2.1. Describe how Indian handicrafts conquered the hearts of consumers all over world before the arrival of the British.

2.2. Why did the British rulers discourage the natural growth of handicrafts of India?

2.3. What were the factors that led to the downfall of Indian handicrafts and with what impacts?