Varanasi a Weaver’s Tale
Varanasi a Weaver’s Tale
Banaras is the Beginning of Everything, both Life and Death. The mighty Ganga, ever-present, becomes a metaphor for the space between these two dots. One comes here and is ensnared, into the way of a Banarasi – ever-ready to chat, the river is mother, and chai is always included.
As ancient as its civilization is its weaving tradition, overtime Banaras has developed as a one stop destination for the best weaving and embroidery in the country. Its mastery over silk is legendary in design circles. Weaving is the second largest employer in Banaras, next probably only to religion. God is everywhere here, in the chants of Har Har Mahadev at public gatherings or the decadent pageantry of aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat. So you might have the quintessential sadhu dispensing wisdom on the ghats but nobody knows Banaras like its ancient settlers – the weavers, who have been doing this for generations and put the city on the world map.
For generations the weavers have passed on their craft from father to son, hand-weaving silk on room-sized foot-powered looms. The weavers are equipped with the technical know-how of weaving exquisite fabrics for generations. This has also helped them to have an edge over the rest in terms of design variations and innovation.
Thousands of looms in Varanasi have become silent in the last decade. Cheap and poor quality imitations have flooded the market and left weavers and traders in despair. India’s largest handweaving guild is threatened at this point. These exquisite and unique crafts from India, once promoted globally, will make Banaras a world heritage site, since Varanasi attracts a lot of tourists from all over the globe. – Raghuvendra Rathore
Like all the things that are passed on as heirloom, from one generation to the next, their legacy is their skill. Self-reliant, made by hand and always slightly suspicious of technology. There was a massive resistance to the inclusion of powerloom and mechanisation, but the town is big enough for the two. Powerlooms have increased the supply capacity while handlooms exist hand-in-hand to cater to the couture market.
Even as silk remains the mainstay of Banaras, it is now diversifying into other areas. Maqbool Hasan, National Awardee, Handicrafts and owner of Resham India holds forth, “Earlier we used to make saris only; wool work had never been done. We started it by working on shawls. Now wool is being blended with silk, cotton and even pashmina – all natural fibres.” And we know it’s worth its dime because in a scenario where every year the National Award in shawls category is given to Kashmir, but this shawl that now adorns the office walls of Hasan Sahib, aptly titled ‘Kashmir Se Kashi Tak’, brought it home for Banaras.
Sandeep Wahi, Owner at Mangalam Exports has an even more interesting take on this, “Varanasi is the original hub of fabric and while different textile clusters have different strengths; Bhagalpur may do matka, zari, muga, tasar; Bangalore does dupion; cotton is from the South and Maharashtra. In Banaras, we can do all of that, even though silk is our specialty.”
I feel ‘Banarasi Weaves’ is an art form by them-self, exclusive and second to none. Awareness, adaptation and application of international trends and participation in as many exhibitions, trade shows and forums as possible, is required for the world to get exposed to it and experience the rich Banarasi Weaves. – Ashish Pandey
Instrumental in setting up the new dyeing unit in Banaras, his focus is more on fabric than saris, the dyeing plant has been a welcome news for the people working across the board in the fabric industry in Banaras.
“Even the sari people are happy because now they can dye linen and cotton easily and without pollution,” said Sandeep.
This initiative not only helps the weavers but the industry and the city itself. Varanasi already has pollution problems aplenty with the river coming under strain due to the waste from leather tanneries post Kanpur. Add to that the sludge of dyeing and the Ganga goes beyond rescue. So, when a trader led initiative that manages to marry traditional craft with modern dyeing and printing techniques, gives the city and its river a new lease of life.
The unit provides OEKO-TEX standards, the best in organic dyeing and also global standards in dyeing processes. The affluent is clean, the colour is taken out and the water is recycled, so even natural resources are not being heavily consumed. While this is the only plant in the city right now, three more are expected by the beginning of next year.
It seems the day is not far that the handloom Banarasi sari will be a rare commodity. Anything hand done has become expensive because of labour cost. A weaver’s son would rather work in a restaurant than spend backbreaking days weaving an exquisite sari which pays him little because most of it goes to the middleman. We are still to value the craft. We will pay for a designer’s name but will haggle with the craftsman, to pay the pittance he asks because you cannot say… this is a designer sari! – Arati Monappa
Hemang Agrawal, Textile and Fashion Designer, MD at the Suerkha Group, works with silk that merges contemporary design with tradition. He constantly supplies to continental Europe and Japan. Four collections in the previous Paris Fashion Week also carried a lot of work from his company.
Hemang mentions that Banaras’ USP is its handloom and its edge over China lies in its capacity to be able to service small orders as well as large. It is not limited to international orders consigned in kilometres. Banaras has always been more of a couture market.
Banaras is also venturing into another new territory, cotton and linen printed saris. Traditional screen printing and block printing will be done but technology will be used to process the textile with specialized machinery. Available at the same dyeing plant, Siemens has designed the process-flow of the unit and Forbes Marshall has provided the walls creating a precision in the steam and temperature. For hand printing, the paste is going to be supplied from Italy.
So as Banaras supersedes its status from being a silk destination to now a dyeing and printing hub, there is one more feather in its cap, Perfuming! “South Indian zari saris that are meant for pujas (religious ceremonies); usually ivory in colour with red patta, will now be infused with the smell of sandalwood, which will last up to five to six washes. Not only has the product been tested but a sample has also been developed,” says Wahi.
Banaras is home to the precious age-old tradition of handloom weaving. It holds an unmatched position in the world of Indian textiles. The widely acclaimed ‘Banarasi sari’ is not only India’s USP but the country’s ticket to worldwide recognition and dominance in the world of fashion and textiles. It is indeed India’s heritage and a mirror to its rich and diverse weaving tradition – something that should be preserved till posterity. – Hemant & Nandita
Another niche that has built a stronghold in Banaras is the Tibetan brocade fabric. Mobassir, a third generation weaver and now person in-charge at Banaras Export House, has found a large expat client-base for it in Tibet and Europe. It finds loyal customers in monks, priests and buyers of decorative wall hangings. Kimkhaab brocade and Tibetan brocade are their specialty but even they are looking to branch out to do some cotton jacquard – the soon to be trending fabric, he tells us in whispers. And is this a credible source? His tips come all the way from Premiere Vision, so we are willing to believe him.
Even as Banaras has proven to be this versatile textile hub, the birthplace of silk that also does world-class linen, cotton, brocade, Tibetan brocade, kimkhaab and is now a world-class destination for dyeing and printing, but still many things plague the industry that hold it back from being a true world-class destination. Political will is clearly inclined in the favour of the weavers and they must leverage it to put Banaras further on the world fashion map than it already is.
Each weaver has his own patent style of weaving but sometimes their creativity gets limited to what designers want them to create. Weavers take pride in weaving saris, spun from special silk yarn, with intricate designs, motifs and scenes from the rich culture of India but modern tastes have changed their pattern of working, they now prefer to create something that charms today’s generation so that their legacy is not forgotten with changing times. – Pallavi Mohan
Banaras has sufficient skills in creation but is lacking in marketing. The traders are now taking further initiatives to ensure that the ‘Made in Banaras’ reputation is resurrected to its previous glory. The Indian market is maturing, now there is R&D and sampling and people ask for colour cards.
Home furnishing has become a new avenue for the exporters. Vaibhav Kapoor from Amrit Silk Stores has delved into working with luxe, highend fabric that translates to sheets, cushions and upholstery and is not limited to saris. As marketing and branding become buzzwords, he suggests an affiliation with the Taj Group of Hotels. If the Front Office wears the Banaras weave, it’ll generate interest among all the people coming to India. It’s a diagnostic that catches eyeballs innocuously.
Haseen Ahmed from Diamond Silk has also diversified his business into home furnishings. His work is often exhibited at the Heimtextil Fair in Frankfurt and he is also a major supplier to Fabindia, GoodEarth, Future Group. “If it goes to fabindia it becomes their product, we don’t have our own branding”, so branding is also a direction Ahmed is looking at. Hemang advises the Government to amplify the promotion of products that Banaras makes via international or domestic fares, media collaborations with designers, advertisements, shows and ‘real’ brand ambassadors.
It is the birth place of many a weave, a weaving laboratory, so to speak, wherein a host of luxe weaves originate – the exotic jamdhani, the brocades, the tanchois, the silk tissues…
They (the weavers) need Government’s support to be introduced to foreign markets through international exhibitions and trade fairs where hand-woven fabrics are given importance. They cannot manufacture, market and do their own PR.
They do not wish to be the keepers of an ancient legacy alone, they wish to be the keepers of a living, breathing, evolving and thriving tradition. – Deepika Govind
Mobassir suggests starting a credit line for the weavers, similar to the lines of what is happening in Surat. Government support through a credit line will minimize the risk of small time weavers. Maqbool Hasan is also of the idea of giving a social, economic and educational standing to the weaver, to make him a professional and award him certification of expertise from universities since this is highly skilled work and he can call himself a handloom engineer who can work anywhere in the world.
Wahi seems to have stopped waiting for the Government and has taken initiatives on his own. He intends to adopt some 10-12 weavers initially. “Make a video about how the fabric is made, how much handwork goes into it, what is the weaver’s life like because at the end of the day you are not selling textile, you are selling the dream and hard work of a person,” suggests Wahi as one of the ways to promote the weavers of Banaras.
There is a general optimistic feeling on the shores of the Ganga, with the industry collaborating and coming together in support of the weavers and ministerial-level meetings being held in Banaras on the same issue. Hopefully with the legends of the Banaras – weavers – withstanding and this new injection of initiatives, the next time you go to Kashi, it’ll be for far more than to just atone for your sins.