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Rehwa: Maheshwari Handloom Weavers

By streamlining production, making trade attractive for the weavers and engaging with the market and associated forces, Rehwa Society in the Nimar region of Madhya Pradesh, which weaves Maheshwari cloth, has grown into a phenomenon of sorts.


Maheshwari Handloom Weavers

By streamlining production, making trade attractive for the weavers and engaging with the market and associated forces, Rehwa Society in the Nimar region of Madhya Pradesh, which weaves Maheshwari cloth, has grown into a phenomenon of sorts.


aheshwar is a small historic town situated around 100 kilometers south of Indore, in the prosperous Nimar region of south-eastern Madhya Pradesh. For the past few years, however, Maheshwar is best known for revival of traditional handloom cloth, led by the Rehwa Society.

The history of handloom weaving in Maheshwar dates back to the 19th century. Queen Ahilya bai Holkar is said to have brought weavers from Surat. She is also credited with helping the weavers evolve a distinct, sometimes rather austere, style of weaving, which came to be known as Maheshwari. Post independence, Maheshwar suffered together with other handloom weaving clusters across the country. This was largely a result of government’s wellintentioned but extremely short-sighted policies (such as the janta dhoti and sarees scheme), which, in the long run, deskilled weavers and sidestepped market challenges. There was an exodus of sorts, particularly by the youth, leaving many a “cluster” shadows of their past vibrancy. Apart from such welfare-oriented policies, poor infrastructure, lack of support services like credit and risk mitigation and poor linkages with markets, also played their part in the decline of the handloom sector.

Maheshwar weaving cluster was in the throes of a similar crisis. By the mid-1970s there were only 50 odd functional looms in all of Maheshwar. It was around this time when the royal couple, Richard Shivajirao and Sally Holkar, set up the Rehwa Society with the objective of reviving the traditional livelihood option as well as the dying art craft form.


What started as a modest training and production centre with 12 women and six

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

looms in 1978, has grown into a phenomenon. Maheshwari cloth is a well known, popular product, particularly among the elite segment of the market. The society today boasts of 120 functional looms with an equal number of weavers. It also employs a staff of 75 across its handloom production and social welfare activities. They have a constantly evolving product range. The annual production of the society is around 50,000 mts leading to a turnover in the range of Rs 1.3-Rs 1.4 crore. Their products command a premium in the market due to their quality and also due to the legacy and tradition of Maheshwar.

Apart from the society, Maheshwar town followed the direction showed by Rehwa to grow into a full-fledged handloom cluster supporting 1,500 looms and 3,000 weavers. According to some estimates, the combined annual turnover of these looms is around six crores. Master weavers,suppliers of yarn, dyes and other material, dyers, transporters, and bankers, are some of the other major categories of employment enterprises that the cluster now supports.

All this has been made possible due to sustained efforts on multiple fronts of the weaving trade. These efforts can be classified into three broad domains: streamlining production, making the trade attractive for the weavers, and most importantly, engaging with markets and associated forces. However, it needs to be mentioned here that the approach of Rehwa grew organically with a gut feel defining the next step. Like most pioneering institutions, strategies at Rehwa evolved over time in an iterative manner. In development parlance, one would refer to this loosely as the contingency approach, wherein there are several points of intervention in the entire value chain but spread across time, based on priority so as to optimally utilise the given, limited resources. Streamlining production process: The entire production system was in shambles and the weaver motivation was so low that it was difficult to work with them as “producers”. Therefore, the society chose to organise the production process by having in-house looms, with piece-rate weavers working for them. The investment for purchasing all inputs is made by the society and it is responsible for selling the output. This is very much like any other manufacturing industry or, in handloom parlance, like a master weaver. This has taken the risk away from the weavers and is possibly the primary reason for the return of many a weaver back to their traditional livelihood. Since 1987, the weavers are also being provided benefits such as the provident fund.

The piece-rate varies with the complexity of the design to be executed. There is a system of incentives where weavers are rewarded for producing quality products within specified timeframes, for example producing a warp without any errors. Strict qualities check protocol is followed that comprises supervision and checking by the unit supervisor and then by the production manager.

The primary raw material, the fine count cotton yarn and the silk, is not available locally, which calls for a high order of inventory and working capital management. Rehwa has handled this by maintaining a very close watch on the production scheduling, which is carried out by a stores manager. Dyeing is another critical area that makes or breaks the product but is as difficult to deal with. Not because dyes are not available but because skilled dye masters are extremely rare to find, within the financial constraints of the organisation. Rehwa has tried to deal with this by incubating dyers at their facility at Maheshwar. Welfare projects for weavers and their families: One of the key initiatives adopted by Rehwa right from day one, was the provision of various social welfare measures for the weavers and their families. Born out of a genuine concern to uplift their standard of living, this has played a vital role in building a positive relationship between the management of the society and the weavers. A school for weavers’ children and an accessible medical facility are among the important programmes taken up.

The housing project, an initiative that was essentially welfare-oriented, contributed immensely in increasing the scale of production. A model house was built on land taken on lease from the government. The community approved the houses and 42 such units have been constructed and handed over to the weavers. The cost of the houses has been recovered from the weavers in weekly instalments. The society provided an additional loom to weavers free of cost with every house. This helped in increasing the number of looms working with Rehwa, together with providing an additional source of income to weavers and their families. Marketing initiatives: Over the years Rehwa Society has evolved a clear marketing strategy after closely considering their inherent strengths as well as their limitations. They believe that their quality protocols as well as their cost structure make their product expensive, and the market segment that appreciates the attributes of their product and is willing to pay comprises primarily of the upper classes. Also, their higher prices make it impossible for Rehwa’s products to compete with cheaper versions of similar products at the same retailer. Considering the above, solitary and group exhibitions have emerged as the primary mode of sales for Rehwa Society. These strategies are discussed in detail in the next section.

Apart from these strategic initiatives, the absolute commitment of the Holkar couple towards the objectives of the society was a vital factor that held together and drove the activities. They were also instrumental in bringing together designers and others through collaborations that strengthened the society.

Engaging with the Market

Rehwa Society’s success has in a sense been one of the driving forces of the handloom’s survival in the market, at least in this part of the country. They have clearly demonstrated that it is possible for the seemingly “uncompetitive” traditional forms of craft and livelihoods to successfully engage with the market forces. While the society has sometimes adapted to the market, often they have contributed to redefining the structure of the market itself.

Rehwa’s marketing strategies have evolved around two key attributes, high quality and high style. Creating a worth for these attributes in the minds of the consumers has been a result of sustained efforts and innovative strategies. The attempt at revival of a dying traditional art/craft form also whipped up the sentiment of the consumer and the society in general. Pricing: Rehwa’s products have always been priced significantly higher than similar products available in the market. On first glance one is tempted to “blame” this on lack of efficiency and professionalism, rampant in the not for profit sector. However a closer look reveals that this is in fact a strategic decision. Not only is Rehwa able to recover its production, development, marketing, and social welfare costs, it also is able to convey a sense of high quality often associated with high prices. This decision is pivotal and defines other market-related decisions and initiatives. Segment: At the time Rehwa was established, the Maheshwari cloth had lost whatever little local base it may have had earlier. The weavers had little wherewithal to handle competition from the cheaper powerloom products. On the other hand the Holkars had access to the high-end

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006 market through their associations. As a result Rehwa started its operations with this segment in focus and continues to do so till today. They have apparently made few attempts to build the local market, citing slow speed and high cost of production as the primary bottlenecks.

One of the defining features of this segment is that it demands exclusive products and is willing to pay for it. This necessitates a continuous need to innovate in designs and patterns as these tend to get outdated faster. However, the society has risen to the challenge and set up specific systems to monitor trends and preferences, including custom-made software that helps them analyse previous sales and other data. The society also engages frequently with designers across the country, sometimes even designers from abroad, who help them in evolving their products and product ranges as per the latest trends. A specific cadre at the society, the unit supervisors, supports the weavers in quickly adapting new designs and techniques, as well as in monitoring the quality of the production. Two expert weavers specialise in such research and development activities. Products: Rehwa Society’s evolving production line is a classic example of value addition to a traditional form of weaving by continuous innovation, two seemingly contradictory phenomena. The society started with producing fine count cotton and china silk blended sarees, something that the weavers were used to and the market was familiar with. Dress material especially for salwar kurta was soon added, particularly for the urban and the north Indian market. The product range presently includes sarees, dress material, shawls, duppattas, stoles, and scarves. The experiment with wool and silk blend shawls has been quite successful. The shawls found an eager audience in the international market and the entire collection of the previous year was sold out despite its high prices.

Zari, other varieties of silk like Kosa and Tasar, and wool were also included in the repertoire. The society also experimented with different counts of the yarn and also with different types of weaves. The designers of Rehwa also in a sense collaborated with the block-printing cluster at nearby Bagh, to add value to their products including sarees, dress material, and duppatta. Sales strategies: Initially, Rehwa tried to market and sell their products through the traditional channels. However, after considering the margins of the various players in the channel like the wholesalers and the retailers they realised that the price of their products would go beyond the consumer’s “willingness to pay”. They therefore chose direct sales strategies like exhibitions, home-based retailers, and bulk institutional orders.

Exhibitions by far account for the largest share (60-65 per cent) of the total turnover of Rehwa. The designers draw up an annual calendar of exhibitions, which identifies the product-mix for every location. This is based on a scientific analysis of regional preferences, trends, and previous sales experience. Theme based ‘collections’ have been lately included to add value to the exhibitions.

Fifteen to twenty per cent of the turnover comes through retailing, not at regular counters but by individuals, particularly women, selling from their homes. This number has grown lately to six distributors in Delhi, Mumbai, and Indore. The rest of the turnover is made up by bulk orders from buying houses that usually further process the fabric. This is however not accorded priority at Rehwa as it disturbs their production planning done according to the exhibition schedules. Marketing management team: Two designers, based in Delhi and Mumbai, lead the marketing initiatives of the society. Both designers work full time with the society and are responsible for assessing the market situation across their respective defined territories. Based on their analysis, they then create saleable designs and ranges, and guide the production unit at Maheshwar to produce accordingly.

Challenges for Future

Clash of objectives: The society, by mandate, has to provide for the welfare of the weavers. At the same time, it is under tremendous pressure to remain competitive as other players in Maheshwar are beginning to offer products of almost similar quality at much lower prices. This has actually begun to reflect in the expenditure that the society incurs on social welfare activities. Stagnant sales: While Rehwa Society’s achievements are tremendous, their turnover has been stagnating for the past seven or eight years. Dyeing capacity has been identified as the key bottleneck that has to be released in order to increase production. The society is also working to increase the per metre price of the material produced by them, so that the turnover can be increased without increasing the production. Whether the market will accept more expensive products is the question. Alternative markets and segments: As has been mentioned earlier, Rehwa caters to an exclusive segment only. How long will they be able to survive on only this one segment? Is there a need to evolve a cheaper product line that will cater to the local market? How do you serve distant markets such as the international market with a limited facility? These are some of the questions that Rehwa may have to find answers to in the near future.






Reference our advertisement inviting applications for various Faculty positions, Librarian and Dy. Registrars’ posts on contract basis published in the issue dated 27-5-2006.

Candidates fulfilling the required qualifications and other conditions, which remain same, desirous to be considered on deputation basis may also apply through proper channel. Other candidates who might not have applied earlier may also apply. Last date for receipt of applications in the prescribed proforma at the following address is extended upto 21-8-2006. Other details and application form can be downloaded from our website

Registrar, IIPA

I.P. Estate, Ring Road, New Delhi - 110 002.

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

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