Jane Lynch is a Lecturer and Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Anthropology. She is currently working on a book project entitled The Good of Cloth, which examines tensions and contradictions in the social and institutional organization of the artisanal textile industry in India through fieldwork across sites including textile markets and warehouses, bureaucratic offices, corporate shareholder meetings, design studios, and weaving towns. In this interview, she discusses her research and book.
My dissertation research was a multi-sited project that examined efforts to reorganize and reimagine the ways in which artisanal goods are made—but also valued, marketed, and protected—in the context of India. In this research, I spent a lot of time with weavers in a town called Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh. The majority of the people who live in Chanderi are involved in the handloom textile industry in some capacity: as weavers, as dyers, as yarn sellers, as traders. Chanderi has a long history of connection to various princely states, most significantly Gwalior, but also Indore and Baroda. That history of patronage and trade comes together with recent institutional interventions in Chanderi, which have been initiated not only by the state and central governments but also private companies like Fabindia. In my research, I examined Fabindia’s initiative to create a “community-owned company” in Chanderi as part of a broader effort to change the way in which value is shared with artisans. I was interested in how Fabindia was imagining Chanderi as a space to think about “inclusive capitalism” for artisans, but also how those artisans were imagining Fabindia’s project in relation to their own goals and ideals. The question for me is how these interventions and initiatives reveal ethical frameworks and moral claims. In other words, how do they illuminate the ways in which social, economic, and ethical life are fundamentally entwined?
I’m really interested in how questions of ethics and morality emerge in the context of economic life on an ordinary level. To pursue these questions from the perspective of anthropology and through ethnography is to call attention to the ways in “the economy” is not a discrete domain that is separate from social and cultural life. Think about the things that we buy. Why wear handloom cloth? Why buy artisanal goods? What are the moral associations we have with corporate brands? What does it mean to go to the khadi gram udyog versus Fabindia? These are the kinds of things I think about from the perspective of social and cultural theory—to see institutions and people not as abstract economic actors but instead to richly contextualize and socially situate how people go about making decisions, what their motivations are, how they make sense of the world.
For example, in the book project I’m working on now, the first chapter is about family businesses. This includes Fabindia—in which nearly half of the equity shares are owned within three generations of one family—but weavers’ households in Chanderi are also family enterprises. In both cases, part of what motivates people to do the work they do is thinking, “How will I pay for my kid’s school fees? How am I going to put food on the table? How am I going to take care of my sister? What happens if I need to pay for a wedding?” These are concerns about the reproduction of both family and wealth that are an integral part of economic life and are not reducible to quantitative terms. In other words, it’s not just what appears on a spreadsheet but the stories on the margins—this is what I’m trying to tease out in this project.
One thing I did after I finished my dissertation was develop a collaborative project with a weaver in Chanderi who I had gotten to know well. I enlarged several photographs that I’d taken over the course of my research, and my collaborator and I organized and developed text to go with them. We used these materials to create a pop-up exhibition on a city wall by one of the main gates into the main market. This was at the time of Diwali, so there was a lot of foot traffic. Everybody was coming to the market, and a lot of people stopped to talk to us. The exhibition was a way to visually share but also encourage feedback on my research.
One of the things that was most compelling to me and my collaborator was a set of photographs documenting scraps of cloth. Most people in Chanderi can’t afford to buy and wear the cloth that they weave, and for the most part it has always been woven for other people. But it often happens that there will be a bit of cloth left over at the end of weaving, or that a saree or dupatta or other fabric will be rejected in a process of quality control. So, there’s this excess or scrap cloth, and people will give it as a gift, they will make a child’s kurta, they will use it as a curtain in their home. I had many photographs of how people were doing this, revealing the value of their work by using, wearing, and reimagining this cast-off cloth. In other words, there’s something within it that is still valuable. I wanted to think about the creative work and moral claim that is embedded within that reuse.
That was one of the things we shared in this collaboration. This project was a useful opportunity to work together and engage in a kind of dialogic editing. I would say, “Here’s what I see in this.” And my collaborator, Muzaffar Ansari, would listen but also point out what he saw differently and explain how. And then we would work on either pulling out the things we were seeing together or sharing both of our perspectives and learning from each other. The whole process was a really fruitful one for me and, I think, for him too. We’ve continued to stay in touch about these ideas, and I’ve been thinking about how I can bring this work more centrally into my book and create spaces for that kind of collaboration and dialogic editing not only in my current project but in my future research as well.
Byline: Jane Lynch and Daevan Mangalmurti