Being a melting pot of cultures that have beautifully evolved to coexist over the past few millennia, India harbours a beautiful marriage of tradition and modernity. One of the most glorious examples of these traditions passed down from generation to generation can be seen in the largest cottage industry of the country- handloom.
The handloom industry of India has a long-standing reputation of exquisite and incomparable craftsmanship. Each part of the country presents its unique set of textiles, designs and manufacturing techniques that have been painstakingly worked on to achieve perfection over the years. The specialty in the weave of the textiles in each region is developed based on location, climate and cultural influences. The weaves are often colourful and fabrics are frequently worked over with incredibly intricate embroidery.
Scope of the handloom sector
Despite what many believe to be a dying industry, the handloom and handicraft industry is one that has been flourishing and shows immense promise in the years to come. In fact, according to a report by Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the exports of the Indian handloom products were valued at US $ 353.9 million in 2017-18 making India the second largest exporter of such products in the world. In the five years leading up to 2018, India exported over US $ 1.8 billion worth of handloom products. Over 125 countries globally purchase handloom products from India.
The Government has not been far behind in promoting this sector with zeal. Several schemes and policies have been introduced to support growth and various initiatives taken by the Government are directed towards areas such as cluster development, availability of credit, promotion of exports, provisions of social welfare schemes for weavers, supportive environmental compliances, availability of raw materials, infrastructure development, brand building, marketing and R&D.
The handloom sector’s absolute uniqueness and power of customisation that no powerloom can produce is what sets this industry apart. The most positive aspect of this sector is its global business potential, social and climatic impact, quality and attention to detail.
Bringing the sector out of obscurity
As per the Third Handloom Census, Government of India, nearly 27.83 lakh handloom households are engaged in weaving and allied activities, out of which 87 per cent are in rural areas and the remaining 13 per cent are in urban areas. A vast majority of the handlooms are located in the North Eastern Region (NER) of India, which accounts for nearly 65.2 per cent of the total handlooms that are operational in the country.
Although there have been various attempts to harness the power of this industry and make a more efficient and organised effort towards providing these artisans a steady source of income, only a few have the intention to help the art more than turning a profit.
Bhashabharat is one such bootstrapped start-up that is turning the tables on how this industry is viewed in India. Started by Shashank and Bhavana in 2017, the venture is quickly gaining traction in the whopping US $ 12 billion saree market in the country. “The simple inspiration behind starting Bhashabharat was to bring the various crafts from different parts of the country under a common platform. We are passionate about nurturing and nourishing these art forms from each Indian state, and also training the artisans to keep up with contemporary designs and demands in order to prevent their work from dying out,” says Shashank Pandey, one of the Co-founders, who hails from the silk capital of India, Bhagalpur. Similarly, Bhavana Misra, the second pillar of the founder duo, hails from Lucknow, the land of chikankari, and it was her pure love for these crafts that prompted her to come on board to help this venture become a success.
Belonging to the family of textile business, Shashank figured out the plight of weavers from his interactions with them. The industry is plagued with numerous middlemen who shrewdly cut raw deals that leave the artisans to fend for themselves on meagre wages. This has pushed many households to consider giving up their art and look for more lucrative income alternatives in urban towns.
“Bhagalpur is known for its silk and textiles. Having been born and brought up in the city, I knew the kind of work and craftsmanship available not only in my city but across Bihar. And yet, these hardly had the power of reaching a vast number of people,” reiterates Shashank.
Bridging the gap with e-commerce
The Indian e-commerce industry is the fastest growing and most exciting channel for commercial transactions. The market is expected to grow to US $ 200 billion by 2026 from US $ 48.5 billion as of 2018, according to U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration. This growth has been catapulted by increasing internet and smartphone penetration.
That being said, it would have been unfair to keep the handloom industry from benefiting through the sheer force that is e-commerce. Even the biggest names in tech have taken notice. Microsoft India has launched a new e-commerce platform re-weave.in for handloom weavers under its Project ReWeave, as part of its philanthropic initiatives. This e-commerce platform will help connect artisans to buyers directly, enabling them to expand to newer customers and markets.
A more homegrown solution to provide artisans with a proper channel to gain rightful exposure, Bharatbhasha proudly averages a sale of around 100 sarees per month. “We offer a wide range of sarees in premium fabrics including Linen, Banarsi Silk, Kalamkari besides various hand painted as well as block printed sarees. The success of this category in such a short span is prompting us to venture into a more diverse range including scarves and dresses in the near future,” says Shashank.
The sarees are priced in the range of Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,000. However, Banarsi sarees start from Rs 10,000. And, the ticket size comes to around Rs. 3,000.
At present, Bhashabharat claims to be garnering an annual revenue of Rs. 10 lakh. The start-up keep only 20 per cent of the revenue, and give the rest to the weavers. For some products which demand better marketing expenditure, the company can choose to keep up to 40 per cent of the revenue, but no more than that is kept so that the weavers get their due.
Bhashabharat was started from Bhagalpur owing to the various difficulties a new business has to face in a big town with tremendous competition.
“While Delhi-NCR is a larger city, setting up an initial business for someone from a small town is difficult. There is a lack of financing and capital, and everything becomes more expensive. So, when we got the idea of Bhashabharat, we felt it is best to start it from a region, which is the main source of the product,” Shashank says.
The funder duo met on Facebook where their common passion for the venture, propelled by the fact that Bhavana hails from a design background, started their journey. Post receiving an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Bhavana’s husband AP Misra, the venture started realising its dream of becoming a sought-after portal for handloom sarees. Once the website was up and running, the duo attended various exhibitions and off-road shows in order to understand the market better.
As for their business model, they have stuck to the basics of e-commerce along with rack space with Government wings wherein they’re able to sell through offline Government spaces, primarily defence as well as through exhibitions for High Net Individuals (HNI). Their warehousing facilities are centralised and the logistics include tie-ups with Delhivery and DTDC.
In order to survive in the brutal market, Bhashabharat sources directly from artisans across India. However, they invest in designing to provide a contemporary approach to traditional handlooms. The largest consumer base that the company sees comes from the southern part of India. Their strategies to differentiate themselves and stand out among competitors includes providing updated designs every so often with the supreme quality of fabric. The portal only holds sales during the festive season instead of discounts all year round and providing the option of cash on delivery attracts customers to buy more.
Bhashabharat plans to expand its operations to include artisans from every part of India along with diversifying their product categories so that weavers from every state get the kind of exposure and remuneration that they deserve.