Most city dwellers only know Bhang as an edible that is prepared from the leaves of cannabis sativa plant. And that it is traditionally distributed during the Hindu festival of Maha Shivaratri. Indeed, Bhang is savoured with relish by revellers while sipping thandai during the much anticipated Holi.
However, people by and large are ignorant of the fact that there’s more to the hemp plant than being an appetiser that gives a person a high. In ancient times, sadhus would distribute it as prasad.
At the moment, bhang or hemp is not being used on a large scale. However, a revolution of sorts is taking place in some pockets of Himachal Pradesh, where women, accustomed to follow age-old practice of knitting, use hemp in making garments
Even our ancestors were aware about the benefits of hemp fabric, a type of textile that was made using fibers from Cannabis sativa plant. This plant has been recognised as a source of durable textile fibre in hilly terrain of India for centuries but colonialism’s anti-Bharat policy gave it a slow death.
Resuscitate Bharatiya Fabric
Now, there is an urgent need to give this fabric a whole new meaning. Like bamboo, which is now used in multiple ways like furniture and even outfits, the hemp plant needs to be used to make garments for domestic and international markets. It has the potential to provide livelihood opportunities to weavers working at grassroots level. And tap India’s lost handspun and handwoven fabric which became a victim to lack of interest by the British imperialists, who aspired to fulfil their agenda of promoting machine made garments produced in Manchester.
At the moment, bhang or hemp is not being used on a large scale. However, a revolution of sorts is taking place in some pockets of Himachal Pradesh, where women, accustomed to follow age-old practice of knitting, use hemp in making garments. Now, it is all about tapping the potential of these weavers, who right now earn only a pittance.
Hemp has had a special bond with Bharat since ancient times. The earliest mention of Hemp can be found in the Vedas – dating back to 3,400 BC – with the wonder plant being used for food, as fibre for textiles and for its medicinal benefits. In Atharva Veda, one of the four sacred texts of Hinduism, cannabis is named one of the five most sacred plants on Earth. The text also refers to it as a ‘source of happiness’ and a ‘liberator’.
In Himachal Pradesh, hemp grows ubiquitously and has been a part of the local culture for centuries. The plant grows in parts of this Himalayan State comprising its capital Shimla, Mandi, Kullu and Chamba. Little wonder, inhabitants of this land-locked kingdom have been using hemp to make exquisite carpets, baskets, ropes and slippers since time immemorial. With the Narendra Modi Government at the Centre giving a fillip to ‘Make In Bharat’, it is high time to give creativity of these karigars a new meaning. With more and more Indians going in for an indigenous lifestyle, revitalising bhang is an imminent need.
Growing naturally in the wild with a short gestation period, minimal resources and in the harshest of conditions, this plant was a default resource for communities. Now, a small beginning has been made by a few designers who are working with karigars belonging to villages. They work with the fibres of this plant and have retained the craft of working with hemp fibre.
However, cultivation of this plant is not that rampant in Himachal. Only very few people cultivate it. It was a languishing craft. Phulla and hemp slippers were done in Kullu village.
To prevent this indigenous craft from becoming extinct, some young designers, with out-of-the-box ideas, have been working with these local karigars, mostly women. It is a win-win situation for both as designers are able to procure handcrafted and handwoven fabric, while the karigars get better remuneration. Moreover, these fabrics act as seasonless clothing. Hemp fabric is blended with other materials to produce an array of jackets, trousers and knitting hemp cardigans.
According to Nitin Bal Chauhan, a Delhi-based designer who hails from Himachal Pradesh, people in his State essentially use it to make footwear called ‘Phullah’. Few years ago, says this versatile designer, the powers that be had burnt the fields in lieu of increasing trafficking of Hashish. “It endangered the occupation of those who were making and selling pullah and crude floor mats. We had at that point experimented with different materials to replace hemp. At that time, we conducted several workshops with self-help groups in remote regions of Parvati Valley. The results were amazing and we till date sell these new age versions of Kullah,” says Nitin.
A beginning has now been made by a teacher of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Dipendra Baoni, who was ironically raised in West Bengal but has made the Himalayan State his karambhoomi. “I was raised at Darjeeling by my father. I studied at St. Paul school there and later went to NID, Ahmedabad, for higher studies. Since I was deep into travelling, I visited Himachal Pradesh off and on and was fascinated to see how local women use their creativity in creating colourful garments.”
While Dipendra is making handspun clothes from hemp as it is a fabric that soothes the frayed nerves of the wearer, his weavers are getting better wages than they were getting earlier. This kind of work provides livelihood opportunities to the weaving community, he says.
Discouraged By British
This kind of indigenous work was encouraged by Bharatiya rulers. However, when the East India Company came, the British rulers started interfering with local businesses. They put a stop to indigenous work to make vastra (clothes) as they wanted garments manufactured in machines of Great Britain to be sold at astronomical rates in markets of India.
Describing the machine-made outfits as anathema for our karigars, the designer says Bharatiya cloth makers were accustomed to be treated with respect while working under the patronage of rulers.
To be in sync with modern times, Dipendra creates a judicious blend between machine and hand.
Now, some designers, known for their innovative ideas, are eager to work closely with craftspersons as they want ‘Make in India’ products to resonate with Aatmanirbharta. They want karigars to join the national mainstream and are using their expertise in creating fabric that is indigenous. Moreover, Indians for centuries have been wearing garments made out of these fabrics rather than machine-made imported fabric like the Chinese silk.
Making handspun and handwoven clothes was also espoused by the Father of the Nation. “I was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi as he showed us how to spin the yarn,” says Dipendra.
The fabric has a lot of positive properties. Avers Rina, a designer from Haryana. However, designers generally refrain from using it due to its lack of availability. “Of course, we are not able to do much with it. Due to the non-accessibility of the yarn, it becomes difficult for designers to work with it,” she says.
However, hemp cannot be ignored as it has a lot of advantages. “It is 100 per cent natural fabric and needs less water. It is also anti-bacterial. Absorption of air is better, so it is a breathing fabric. Hemp is stronger than cotton and linen.”
Pointing out that the cultivation of bhang is expensive, Samant Chauhan, a designer from Bihar who operates from his studio at Shahpur Jat, says, “Hemp is the cousin of lenin. In olden days, it was used as a bandage when people got injured.”
Tragically, the immense potential of Bhang has not been realised. Even A-list designers are wary of using them due to multiple factors like non-availability and being unaffordable. This is the reason why they are refraining from using this fibre.
Rohit Bal, country’s top-notch designer, concurs that designers keep away from using this indigenous fibre.
Vikram Medhi, veteran designer from Assam, who organised ‘Celebrating North East’, a three-day extravaganza in Delhi recently, says the participating designers did not use hemp clothing.
Narendra Kumar Ahmed, who is as much known for his intellect as for his sartorial sense, says hemp clothing is beyond the budget of buyers or fashionistas. This being the case, designers cannot be expected to take such a humongous risk as to create a range of clothes that don’t sell in the market.