“For thirty years her reign of peace,
The land in blessing did increase;
And she was blessed by every tongue,
By stern and gentle, old and young.
Yea, even the children at their mothers feet
Are taught such homely rhyming to repeat
“In latter days from Brahma came,
To rule our land, a noble Dame,
Kind was her heart, and bright her fame,
And Ahlya was her honoured name.”
-Joanna Baille, 1849
Maheshwar, a town seemingly like any other, is situated on the banks of the river Narmada. The river itself, is considered sacred according to traditional folklore, with pilgrims flocking from lands afar to take a dip in the holy river. What’s unusual about the Narmada, is that it flows westwards, in a direction opposite to most other rivers in the country, which flow towards the east. And therein lies the magic of Maheshwar, teeming with stories of unconventional paths and extraordinary grit.
Ahilya Bai Holkar was the wife of Khanderao Holkar and the daughter-in-law of Malhar Rao Holkar, the lord of the Malwa territory. In 1754, when she was only 29, her husband, Khanderao, was killed in battle. As was the custom then, she proceeded to jump into her husband’s funeral pyre, only to be stopped by her father-in-law, who claimed that the land needed her. Great strength usually culminates at the onset of great distress, as is the story of Ahilya’s life. And from that moment on, there was no turning back. She was now Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar, who proceeded to rule Malwa from her capital town, Maheshwar, leading it into prosperity. The town of Maheshwar flourished under her reign, as she flouted all rules that held her back on account of her being a woman. She led her army into battle and liaised with every one- man, woman and child included, to rule the town as an able queen. She was also responsible for setting up the famous textile industry of Maheshwar, which soon turned into the primary occupation of the town giving birth to the exquisite Maheshwari weave.
Her successful reign lasted for 30 years until her death, and the prosperity she brought to the town lasted for long after until the 1950’s, when the decline of weaving began. The weaving of the unique Maheshwari fabric was a time-consuming, arduous process, which began to be overlooked by people in favour of the cheaper mill-made fabric. Consequently, the wiping out of the primary occupation resulted in extreme mounting poverty. Looms were burnt to build fire, and the swivelling smoke carried with it the last evidence of the craft’s existence. Many years passed, another generation came into being. The once prosperous Maheshwar now struggled to barely make ends meet.
Maheshwar may have been a town with a female ruler, thriving in her forbidden glory, but this was no reflection of the plight of women generations after hers. Women continued to be the regressive sex, with no independent voice or say in matters concerning even themselves. Until 1978, when Sally Holkar, an American by birth and a relative of the late Maharani by marriage came to India, co-founded the Rehwa Society and later, founded the Women Weave. Sally actively sought out women who needed the crutch of an occupation and began training them in the forgotten art of weaving, reminding of the craft of their forefathers. Widowed women, women from abusive homes, physically challenged women, they all found home, and consequently their voice at Women Weave. The organization taught them to weave, a skill which originally belonged to the men, which also was a welcome relief from the menial rojgaar work or cheap labour the women had to resort to, to barely make ends meet. The women now were proud possessors of a technical skill. As is the case with most households, including modern ones, the bread-winner has the maximum say in matters of the household. The money their occupation brought them was more than just a means of sustenance. It brought them pride, dignity and the satisfaction of being productive, of being part of a bigger whole.
Women’s Weave today, through various initiatives, not only provides women with craft skills and organizational assistance, but also with a marketplace and opportunities that transform their skills into a profitable means of income. Women’s Weave expands as the women, like women usually do, exhibit the potential and dedication to keep growing every day. The women now have bank accounts to make themselves truly self-sustaining and protect them from the threat of having their hard-earned money taken away.
The gentle gush of the Narmada, is now punctuated with the reverberations of handlooms. Maheshwar is home once more to people their fore-fathers would be proud of- dignified and treasure-keepers of their craft. Only this time, the women weave. They weave against all odds, paving a path through resistance into independence, much like their Queen. The women of a new-age royalty. Ruling their own lands and lives, the noble dames.