Will Banarsi saree survive?

Two years ago I visited Benaras or Varanasi on Deep Diwali day and was mesmerized by the city. Though it was a love at first sight but sure enough I did not find time to visit the weaver’s colony, as it was a weekend trip. Feeling bad, on my return journey, I promised myself that I will return soon.

The return came exactly two years later when last month I visited Varanasi again.

When I inquired about the weavers colony, I was told that all weavers have since moved to power loom so there is no point in wasting time. As I was adamant, our driver took us to one of their colonies on way to Sarnath from Assi Ghat, where we were staying.

The weavers mohalla (colony) was no different than the rest of Varanasi, dirty roads with mounds of garbage piled up, stray animals occupying most of the roads and not letting even the car pass. So our driver suggested that we walk and pointing towards my camera he grinned. He was right as the inner lanes were a bit better except for the Benarasi stamp on the walls, pan stains.


lane leading to the weavers colony

Handloom industry, in Indian economy occupies a very important place, in terms of employment as it is the second to agriculture. Main strengths of this industry were cheap labour, diverse raw material and an ever growing domestic demand. But post industraliastion, this industry suffered its first set back. The next jolt came in the form of imported cloth. The final blow was from the increase in price of the raw material. As advancement in technology happened the power loom gained in prominence as an average buyer can rarely distinguish between a power loom and handloom product. Cheaper power loom products flooded the markets and pushed the handlooms off the brink.

What I found out after talking to various weavers is almost 95 % of the workers, from traditional weavers families have migrated to power looms as it is economically more viable.


an old worker working on the handloom     an old loom

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this is house the weaver’s family, we spoke to lived        electricity meter
Embroidery is now fully automated. A handloom weaver weaves 8-10 cms of cloth as opposed to power loom worker, who can do about 60 cms. Adding to the difficulties is the power situation in Varanasi as it gets only 6 hours of power in a day.

High costs of silk yarn, zari and other traditional items have made handloom products out of the reach of most people. In Varansi the input cost per meter is 500 rupees as opposed to the mixed yarn cost of Rupees 150 in Surat or even cheaper Made in China products, giving a tough competition to handloom products.

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boy working                                                                                                zardozi work

Most orders in this industry are received at short notices with delivery time of two weeks.

Although there is a government subsidy available, but most of the subsidy is pocketed by the officials of the handloom societies in the name of upgradtion of labour skills. Though the reality is that workers probably know twice as much about the industry as any official or the owner.

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the finished power loom products being pushed as hand loom products
When the new Govt was sworn in and the Prime Minister, who has won from Varanasi, had promised a lot. It was promised that the Indian handloom would be differentiated as superior handloom by turning out fashionable products.
But the ground reality has not changed. Modi inaugurated a Trade Facilitation Centre on outskirts of Varanasi in Nov 2014 but till date the land lies vacant and no centre has been built so far. The weavers questions that even if it is built how it help weavers in interiors of Varanasi. Each city in India has a distinct style so how can styles from Bengal or Bengalauru be imposed on Benaras.
No wonder the beautiful Benarasi saree is facing a very urgent survival crisis. It is therefore every Indians’ responsibility to save this dying tradition of Benaras and pride of India by promising not to buy the cheap stuff. The Govt on the other hand, must ensure action on a top priority basis otherwise it will be classic too little too late.

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