Many South Asian artisans involved in weaving, dyeing and embellishing textiles are custodians of traditions that date back centuries.
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The community-based production of handcrafted textiles across the Indian subcontinent has fostered generations-long engagement with techniques and materials that are rooted in the ancient caste system, a hierarchical social order that accords communities with specific jatis or castes based on their traditional occupations. This system enforced strict demarcations, confining people to their designated social groups, professions and status.
While the intergenerational nature of community-based textile production has encouraged distinct relationships between makers and their practices and has kept age-old traditions alive, its ties to the caste system have also resulted in the severe economic and social marginalisation of certain textile communities that have been deemed “lower caste.” Discrimination on the basis of caste was legally abolished in India in 1950, and newer generations of some textile communities have begun to move away from their inherited occupations in pursuit of better opportunities. Despite the legal measures taken to safeguard the rights of marginalised groups, the caste system continues to be prevalent in the subcontinent, impacting the economic and social lives of several communities. Regardless, textile artisans also remain preservers of ancient traditions and practices, with many taking pride in the inimitability, complexity and uniqueness of their work.
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