Handlooms and handicrafts are in the DNA of Lekhraj Maheshwari, who was born at Gadra Road in Barmer (Rajasthan) on May 11, 1948. He passed his higher secondary examination with distinction in English. However, the poor economic condition of his family did not allow him to study further. He joined his father, Mathuradas Maheshwari, who was engaged in the business of manufacturing traditional handlooms. Very soon, he realised that a sizeable number of artisans from remote areas of Barmer needed a suitable platform to showcase their talent.
Maheshwari also brought to the fore the hidden talent, especially of women belonging to remote areas in and around Jodhpur. He brought them awareness to such an extent that 1.5 lakh artisans—weavers, painters, dyers, and woodworkers—mostly women in the border areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan, were provided regular jobs through sale of handloom and handicraft items. The establishment of “urban haats” in various cities of Rajasthan was the result of his efforts.
Maheshwari travelled extensively to overseas countries with a view to promoting handlooms and handicrafts of desert areas globally. He motivated foreigners to visit tourist spots of Rajasthan including Barmer, in order to popularise local crafts. He has been wearing the hat of ‘handlooms and handicrafts’ for the past five decades. This is about Lekhraj Maheshwari, former chairman of Export Promotion Council of Handicrafts (EPCH), a subsidiary of union textile ministry. He is famous for his decades-long devotion to handlooms and handicrafts since he joined this field with his father in 1967 in Barmer (Rajasthan) when he was 19-years-old and just married. He went on to win dozens of prestigious state-level and national awards besides holding important positions in this vast sector. He indeed made strenuous efforts to cope with challenges faced by traders.
Since he joined the handloom and handicrafts sector in 1967 along with wife, Prakash Devi, he has left an indelible mark. It will need several pages to mention the awards he has won and the posts he has held, apart from humanitarian activities. What may be noteworthy is that during his stewardship, EPCH touched new heights.
In 2002, India organised its first ‘India festival caracas’ in Venezuela in which Maheshwari, along with 30 artisans, had participated. It had achieved big success under Maheshwari’s leadership. Given his devotion and sincere efforts in promoting handicraft exports, he discharged the functions of trade delegation leader during India festivals in Australia and New Zealand (2005), United Kingdom (2006), Brazil (2008), Greece (2009-11-13), Turkey (2011), Hong Kong, Japan, China (2013), and USA (2014).
In 2013-15, members of EPCH elected him unopposed as EPCH president. He has been functioning as CEO member of EPCH till today. In 2002, he became vice-chairman of EPCH when Indian Furniture Housing and Accessories Show was organized for the first time and he was made its chairman.
Credit goes to him for getting his home district of Barmer honoured with “Town of Export Excellence” (in exim policy) by the government of India. This has brought many benefits to workers as well as exporters.
In 1971, about one lakh families (mostly Meghwal) had come to India of which 50,000 families had come to Rajasthan and the 50,000 families to Kutch-Bhuj. They had brought with them materials used in embroidery. They had no sources of making both ends meet. Maheshwari took their products to Delhi and sold them. From 1972 to 1980, he strived to send their products to Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Delhi. Between 1978 and 1980, he made every effort to popularise handloom products in big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Goa, Chandigarh, Amritsar and Ahmedabad through the medium of exhibitions.
This strategy provided for 1,50,000 people. After the demand of handicrafts products started rising in foreign countries like England, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, the trade of thousands of Maheshwari families living in Barmer, Jodhpur and Jaipur picked up.
In 2006, he managed to get 9,000 yards of land for MBY Jaipur (School) for a token amount of Re 1, for which he was honoured at a special function. In 2008-11, he did commendable work as a member of Jaipur Maheshwari Samaj.
Apart from being founder member of EPCH, he has been associated with All India Handicrafts Board, National Council of Older Persons, Foundation of Rajasthan Home Textiles and Handicrafts Exporters, Rajasthan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, All India Vaish Federation, Federation of Rajasthan Trade and Industry, among other organizations. He has won various awards, including Udyog Ratna Award and Vaishya Gaurav Samman.
Social and religious activities
Maheshwari and his family have been fully involved in numerous social, humanitarian and religious activities. His father, Mathuradasji had laid the foundation of Gayatri Shakti Peeth. In 1982, his grandmother had done commendable work in bringing Maheshwari families closer to Shakti Peeth by working continuously for three months in “Ashwamegh Yagna” in Shaktikung, Haridwar. Maheshwari’s sons, Raj Kumar, Girish Kumar, Rohit and grandsons Prashat, Rishab and Dhairya are also engaged in social activities with great enthusiasm. His daughter, Kalpana, who is married, also contributes her bit to social service.
Barmer, in western Rajasthan, is known as a miniature Rajasthan with all its colours, affection and traditions. Till a few years back, Barmer was directionless in terms of economic and social growth.
Land being infertile, people in Barmer were living the hard way. Recalling his initial years of struggle, Maheshwari says: ”It was difficult to convince them to bring consistency in design. It took time and effort to educate the artisans that it was not handicrafts but the design ideas that sell in the market. Seventy per cent of total handicraft products from Barmer are exported to various countries, including US and EU. Remaining 30 per cent are being sold in the domestic market.”
This is indeed a matter of pride and joy for Barmer’s ‘Handicrafts Hero’.