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  • The Crafts and Capitalism: Handloom Weaving Industry in Colonial India by Tirthankar Roy
  • Annapurna Mamidipudi (bio) and Vivek S. Oak (bio)
The Crafts and Capitalism: Handloom Weaving Industry in Colonial India By Tirthankar Roy. New York: Routledge, 2020. Pp. 200.

Global economic history has long studied and established that cotton as commodity has been one of the major engines of world capitalism at least since the sixteenth century. Along with scholars like Giorgio Riello, Prasannan Parthasarathi, and Sven Beckert, who highlighted big politics and the transmission of key-technologies, Tirthankar Roy has for the past three decades foregrounded the role of artisanal cotton handloom weavers in Colonial India. He posits a technological trajectory of craft industrialization from hand weaving to powered looms for the handmade textile industry that expanded through innovation and entrepreneurship.

Roy's new book The Crafts and Capitalism is therefore of interest to scholars wanting to understand craft producers' and women consumers' diverse regional responses to industrialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In particular, it reverses the commonly held history of technology thesis, of the growing insignificance of human-powered craft work vis-à-vis mechanical production. Roy argues that it was the handloom weavers' ability to adapt to new efficient European technologies that advanced their growth. Rather than the patriarchal, nationalistic discourse that valorizes Gandhian ideas of hand spinning, Roy suggests that the role of women customers was crucial for creating growth in hand weaving markets. They liberated themselves from hidebound tradition by demanding designs suited to the rapidly urbanizing context of modernizing India.

Roy then looks at the emergence of power loom weaving in the textile towns of South and West India post-independence, ending with the power loom segment breaking from its history and roots in handloom weaving. As capital-rich actors came to dominate power loom weaving, the technological trajectories of handloom and power loom weaving diverged, though both continue to this day. This book ensures that crafts' key role in the [End Page 259] modernization and industrialization of Indian textiles—and in the establishment of power loom weaving—is not lost.

The Crafts and Capitalism is the most recent iteration of Roy's provocative thesis: that many handloom weavers were not oppressed by, but in fact benefited from, the industrial revolution and imperial trade policy. He provides a two-fold explanation. While some entrepreneurial weavers progressed from handloom to power loom weaving, others adopted progressive capitalist imperatives of growth in handloom weaving, using technological innovations from the West. Secondly, as evidence, Roy uses quantitative data to show the increasing handloom cloth production in the first half of the twentieth century, and cites the expanding progressive section of the handloom industry well into the second half of that century. This makes Roy's argument that crafts had been successfully mobilized in a capitalistic mode convincing, but raises other questions. What happened to weaving communities deemed "inefficient" or "obsolete"? How can we grasp the trajectories of progress of handloom weavers who did not become capitalistic? In that context, this book is a rich resource for tracing the replacement of local craft knowledge and material diversity with capitalist obligations of growth and productivity. This is especially relevant because the iconic weaving locations that Roy highlights are sites of labor exploitation and ecological devastation today. Skilled weaving households have been replaced by precarious, migrant, working men as producers in these towns. We could ask then whether using capitalist frameworks obscures other inequities—such as the distribution of wealth generated through economic growth, as Thomas Piketty argues, and the exclusion of specific communities from the handloom weaving profession and the destabilization of rural women producers' livelihoods, as Karuna Dietrich Wielenga shows.

In that sense, the book does not engage with the lived experience of producers: cotton farmers, spinners, and handloom weavers, phenomena outside the frame of capitalist development. As an example, Roy's sources show that the weight of handspun yarn produced went from 170 million pounds in 1795 to zero in 1920; while mill-spun yarn went from zero to 660 million pounds in the same period. Roy argues that the fall in hand-spinning "was more than offset" by the large-scale development...


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