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The rise and fall of Benarasi silk trade
Geetanjal Krishna in Benares | April 21, 2007
We're drifting on the Ganga in a little boat listening to Pullu, our boatman, wax eloquent about Benarasi silk. "Connoisseurs can always tell when a woman is wearing a Benarasi silk sari," says he, mouth so perilously full of betel juice that I'm afraid to even look at him, "for the silk has a lustre and a wonderfully audible rustle like none other. And mind you," he says, finally spitting out a satisfyingly large quantity of the red goop straight into the holy river, "all this can't be explained by mere physicalities like thicker yarn and higher starch content.
Pullu and his brother are the fifth generation of weavers in their family: "And it's a matter of great shame to us that we're the only men in the family who have been forced to take up other jobs," says he.
But the two brothers are not alone: Benares is full of former weavers who ply rickshaws, row boats, run tea stalls - doing whatever they can to fend off starvation and bankruptcy. Today, as many as 50,000 weavers, NGOs and industry observers estimate (in the absence of any good government figures), are unemployed, or have taken up other work.
It's a sad state of affairs, and all the different players involved - weavers, traders, buyers and NGOs, have a different take on it. So I decide to spend a day each with all of them, to understand where this centuries-old craft is headed.
Day one is for weavers. Cut to Bara Bazaar, home to hundreds of largely Muslim weavers. Nizamuddin shakes his head sadly when we ask him how the weaving industry is doing.
"I've come to dread going to Satti (the wholesale sari market) to sell my saris," says he, "buyers today want cheaper stuff for which I don't earn as much as I used to. Six years ago, I wove pure silk saris earning over Rs 1,000 per piece; today, I weave saris in mixed silk for which I get paid not even half that!"
We sit in his dark loom shed and he shows us that of the three looms, only one is operational. He tells us since weavers like him, who sell what they weave in the Satti, have taken a beating on their earnings, many are now trying to cut raw material costs to improve their profits.
"Earlier, we wove with silk thread on silken wefts. But silk is now as much as Rs 2,000 a kilo. So many of us use kela silk (a natural fibre obtained from plants, which is only Rs 250 a kilo) or polyester in the weft (bana, in local parlance) of the fabric. This not only brings down the cost and the quality of the sari, it also cuts weaving time as kela silk yarn is thicker than real silk, and takes less time to weave."
How often does he get to weave saris of pure silk with pure gold zari, I ask. "Almost never," says he sadly. "Instead, many weavers here have shifted to weaving imitation silk on power looms - it's not the real thing but at least it sells!" He takes us to his neighbour Zainulludin, whose old bespectacled father is one of the best-known design masters of the area.
Today, Zainulluddin and his brothers own 10 power looms and manufacture bales of artificial silk cloth for home furnishings, and viscose stoles. These are inexpensive - he sells the stoles for Rs 30-60, and the art silk for Rs 70 a metre. He sells about 5,000 meters of art silk in a month (the machine churns out 20 metres of cloth a day, and requires only perfunctory supervision). "The good thing is that stoles and yardage sell better than traditional silk saris do," he says.
There aren't many statistics available, but the little there are, bear Zainulluddin out. A recent report on the Benares weavers by All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA) cites the variety-wise export of natural silk products from the Certification Centre in Benares over the years.
Although the figures are only for export earnings (see chart), while saris have a large domestic market, they're still interesting, for they show that exports of saris have declined from 4,25,177 sq metres in 1998-99 to 6,273 sq metres in 2005-06; those of stoles have grown from 38,161 sq metres in 1998-99 to 19,0915 sq metres last year.
While Zainulluddin and his family are thriving on powerlooms, the fact is cheap substitutes of the sort they manufacture are pretty much to blame for the decline in demand for the Benarasi sari. The market is being driven by dirt cheap (and to be honest, terrible) copies of traditional Benarasis from the mills of Surat, and local silk weavers are unable to compete without compromising on quality. China poses a similar threat to the Benarasi silk industry.
Some time ago, when the government levied an anti-dumping duty on Chinese silk yarn, China responded by flooding the Indian market with silk fabric (which has a lower import duty). K M Gupta (or Guptaji, as we call him), an old industry hand, shows us bales of Chinese silk flooding the market. "These are embroidered or printed," he says, "and they cost not half of what a traditional silk sari costs to make."
Does anyone at all make the original silk sari that the city of lights is famous for, any more? I'm beginning to wonder. Then we visit a weaver cooperative in Ramnagar, which apparently has some of the best quality products in the market and yet is doing well.
"We have continuous orders from India's best designers," says Vijay Kumar, who runs the co-op, "and weave with only the best materials." Don't they face threats from low cost imitations, I ask. He simply smiles: "My father always said that truly discerning people can always tell the difference between diamond and glass!"
On day two, I speak to traders. "What can we do? We have to supply what buyers want," said Ramji Lal, who sits in the wholesale market in the Chowk area. And buyers, says he, don't want traditional Benarasi saris any more: "Everyone's wearing more contemporary saris - even designers are promoting zardozi embroidered crepe silk saris over high quality Benaras brocades!" He directs us to the Satti for a better idea of how the system works, so off we head to Thatheri Bazaar, one of the city's biggest wholesale markets.
They say that the narrow, labyrinthine lanes of Benares hide many secrets from outsiders. Sitting in a tiny room in one of them, I realise it's probably quite true. Sari buying is serious business, carried out in silence punctuated with staccato sentences, most of which are in code.
Every second person we bump into (quite literally) has one or more long rectangular boxes containing newly woven saris. I take a ringside seat as weavers file in one by one (the place is too small to accommodate any more) and open their boxes to unfold sari after sari.
The trader shows each piece to the Bihari buyer, here to buy goods for the upcoming wedding season. Today, he's just not in a mood to buy. "Old design�blue's no colour for a bridal sari�I saw this one three weeks ago�no, no, not this red, I want maroon�" he mutters, rejecting most of what's being shown. The weaver leaves, another one comes in. He has some maroon saris, which the buyer immediately agrees to keep.
An old gent standing near us comments, "It used to be very different five-six years ago, when the market was booming. There used to be at least 100 buyers at a time, snatching and bickering over the saris as soon as the weavers opened their boxes - often even tearing the saris in the process!"
He's Vijraman Das, one of the bigger sari traders in the city. "Over the years, since the demand for Benarasi saris has gone down, the weaver invariably settles for a lower price for his sari than he would have in the past," he says, "the Satti's skewed in favour of the buyer!" On an average working day between April and June (a busy period for weddings in these parts), he says he sees between 30-35 buyers. But the number of weavers hopeful of selling their wares on that same day, says he, could be as high as 4,500.
If this situation isn't exploitative enough, look at the traders' preferred mode of payment. Bigger traders pay weavers upfront for their goods. But smaller traders don't. "They often give the weaver post-dated cheques. Which in itself is tough on the weaver, but what's worse is that some of the more unscrupulous traders don't honour the cheque if the weaver's sari hasn't been sold in one week," says Guptaji. But what if a weaver needs the cash right away? "There are agents who charge 2 per cent commission to give the weaver cash in lieu of his post-dated cheque," Guptaji explains.
Of late, NGOs and industry observers have tried to pressurise the government to amend its policies to benefit the weavers of Benares. "There are already such good schemes in place to aid weavers," says Ritu Sethi, managing trustee, Crafts Revival Trust, "all they need is proper implementation."
For example, says she, there's a law curbing the use of powerlooms and mills to manufacture saris, which was put in place primarily to aid the handloom sector. "But it's just not been implemented," says Sethi.
Gulshan Nanda, chairperson Cottage Industries, says on the Craft Revival Trust website: "The most immediate problem is our dependence on Chinese yarn as our own sericulture industry is not yet able to meet the demand for yarn... The situation today is such that we do not want their finished goods but cannot survive without their yarn."
The government needs to regulate the balance of import duties to prevent so much Chinese fabric from coming into India. The AIACA study recommends branding Benarasi saris to market them more effectively.
It also urges the government and NGOs to create and promote structures that allow weavers to directly engage with the market. And this is something that emerged most strongly in the three days I spent with the Benarasi silk weaving community - much of the exploitation that weavers undergo will be mitigated if they have the option of selling their products directly, bypassing the Satti route.
On our last evening in Benares, we find ourselves in a large sari shop in the crowded Chowk area, where the salesmen unravel sari upon shiny sari for us. Instead of traditional designs, people around us seem more interested in modern, embroidered saris.
The ones with zari work are brightly yellow. "Whatever happened to the lustrous kimkhabs of Benares?" I ask sadly, "the fabulous brocades and tanchois that princes wore? The salesman looks blank. Then his face brightens. "I'll show you some you'll definitely like!" says he. And he brings out crepes with the bright geometrical designs one would never associate with Benares.
We leave the shop disappointed. I realise with a pang that the Benarasi sari bust has sounded a death knell to not only the livelihoods of thousands of weavers, its also caused the beautiful gossamer silks for which the area has been known for the past few centuries, to virtually disappear from the local markets. What a shame.