When Anushka Sharma wore a Banarasi sari for her wedding reception, the nation was mesmerised. But what is the condition of the city’s weavers who create those legendary saris? Will the interest in Anushka’s Banarasi be enough to revive the ailing handloom industry of Varanasi?
The minute the electricity supply is back, the by-lanes of Peeli Kothi in Varanasi start echoing with a whirring, throbbing sound. It is past nine on a cold January Sunday evening, but the looms are still at work. “Once upon a time all you would hear was the ‘khat khat’ of the handloom from every house in Peeli Kothi. Today the sound of the handloom is drowned in the buzz of the powerloom,” rues 72-year-old Maqbool Hasan, a master weaver in Varanasi. Hasan remembers a time when his family owned 500 handlooms. “Now we have only 200 looms. No one wants to weave on a handloom anymore,” says the master weaver, a national-awardee for his innovative weaves.
Actor Anushka Sharma was hardly breaking tradition or creating a new one, when she draped a red Banarasi sari for her wedding reception in Delhi in December. Indian brides have for generations favoured the regal Banarasi for their wedding look. But at a time when lehengas and lighter weaves have taken over the fashion scene, the actor made a strong case for the classic appeal of handloom saris – especially the Banarasi. “It helps when a celebrity makes this kind of statement. It creates demand. Customers have been coming in and asking for the kind of sari worn by Anushka,” says Saeedur Rahman, proprietor of Taj Estate – a retail and wholesale handloom outlet in Varanasi – who claims to have sold the sari to Anushka’s designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee.
Like everything about the Anushka Sharma-Virat Kohli wedding, the recently married actor’s red Banarasi sari too has been subjected to minute scrutiny and become the topic of both conversation and debate. Not the least in Varanasi, where it continues to be the subject of both pride and divided opinion. Rahman, who says he has been supplying saris to Sabyasachi for five-six years now, is all praise for the Kolkata-based designer. “His only requirement is that the saris we weave for him should have a two-inch space along the border for him to embellish it with the kind of embroidery he wants,” he says.
Rahman is hesitant to share the details of the weaver who made the sari, but Zeeshan Kamal, a 32-year-old master weaver believes the sari was the work of Maqbool Hasan. At the entrance to Peeli Kothi, where Hasan lives, however, a bystander laughs when asked for directions to the house of Hasan – the weaver of Anushka’s Banarasi sari. “He had nothing to do with it. That sari was the work of master weaver Haji Anwar Ahmed,” he says and helpfully shows the way to Ahmed’s house, where his son Moazzam Ansari produces a deep pink silk very similar to the red sari worn by Anushka. Hasan says Moazzam was just the weaver who had been commissioned by him to make the sari. While a master weaver provides the design (in consultation with a designer), often the yarn, may own the looms and facilitates the sale of the fabric to wholesalers and retailers, a weaver does the actual weaving. Occupying the absolute bottom rung of the industry, the weavers are the ones who earn the least for the handwoven saris that sell for thousands in the retail market.
Losing Its Sheen
It is important to go back a decade or more and review the changes in the handloom industry in Varanasi, to understand why the association with Anushka’s sari – and the interest it has created – has become important to the weavers here.
“It started in 1985, when silk prices suddenly went up. Many weavers started using viscose, a cheaper yarn which also takes 25 per cent less time to weave. Some people started selling viscose products as silk, which also gave Varanasi a bad name,” remembers Hasan. Before the handloom industry could recover from the blow, powerlooms had made an appearance, and the market was never the same again.
“Powerlooms have been there for a while, but it was around 2004 that the trend really arrived in Varanasi. The handloom market was down, inflation was high and the government started giving subsidies on electricity for those working powerlooms,” says Zeeshan Kamal, as he walks down the narrow streets of Nakki Ghat, lined with rundown buildings that had once housed handlooms. Today, like Peeli Kothi, one mostly hears the sound of powerlooms here. Kamal and his brother, Shehanshah, are among those who have made the shift to powerloom. The two continue to employ weavers for about 30 handlooms that they still own, but the number seems insignificant compared to the number of powerlooms they have – 200. “The investment cost for setting up a powerloom is `1.5 – 2 lakhs, but the monthly earning from a powerloom is twice as much as from a handloom,” he says.
Not only is production cheaper and faster, but the product as a result is also more affordable. “A pure silk handloom Banarasi will not come for anything less than `10,000,” says Rahman. A similar-looking sari made on the powerloom often costs as little as `1,500, he says.
Kamal’s little office – or gaddi, as they call it – is stacked with saris, dress material and scarves, made on handloom and the powerloom. He quickly pulls out two ornate scarves in similar colours, one a synthetic blend made on a powerloom, the other a silk one made on a handloom. While the former is priced at `150, the latter comes for `400.
There is also competition from outside, mainly from Surat . Like Nakki Ghat and Peeli Kothi, Varanasi’s Madanpura area was once a hub of handloom weavers. Today, it’s full of small shops selling bright, glitzy, synthetic, inexpensive, mill-produced saris, which a local says, are brought in from Surat. Whatever their source of origin, there is nothing distinctive about these saris – they can be found in any budget shop across the country.
The soaring price of the silk yarn used for weaving, makes it even more difficult for the traditional handloom to hold on to its market share. While powerlooms may use synthetic yarn, handlooms only use natural yarns like silk or cotton.
A Dying Skill?
“The demand for Banarasis was at its peak between 1980 and 1992. What remains now is only 20 per cent of that market” says Rahman. As handloom has become both time and cost intensive, many weavers have migrated – either to the powerloom, or to Surat or simply to other jobs, say those who remain. “Till the 1990s there were about 1.25 lakh handloom weavers in Varanasi. Today only 20,000 remain,” says Maqbool Hasan bitterly.
In a dim, tiny room in Varanasi’s Rewari Talab, 45-year-old Mohammad Sayeed sits working at the handloom that takes up most of the space in the room. The only light is from a small, battery-operated bulb. “We couldn’t pay the electricity bill so our supply got disconnected,” says his wife Ruksana. Sayeed started weaving as a child, learning it from his father, but can’t work for long hours now because his eyes have been affected. “The youngsters don’t want to take up weaving. Only 10 per cent of them are interested in it.”
The reason, feels Hasan, is not just the meagre earnings, but the poor living conditions of the weavers. It’s easy to believe him, as one skirts a pile of garbage in the dark, narrow alley outside 36-year-old Abdul Salaam’s house where he sits weaving inside at nearly 10 o’clock one night.
Azad Ansari, 47, came from Bihar as a child and started working as a weaver. His wife and four children – two sons and two daughters – continue to live in his ancestral village. Of the four looms in the room where he works, only two are in use at present. He and his co-worker live in the same room – with one corner for their beds, tins of food and a little gas stove.
The weavers work long hours – often 15 to 18 hours a day. The weaver’s remuneration is decided based on the estimated price of the sari or fabric that he is weaving. Most weavers say they earn not more than `250-350 a day, but the monthly income can often be as little as `5,000-6,000, because the sari or fabric length may take anything from 15 days to a month or more to weave, depending on the complexity of the design.
Entire families are involved in the work, though they don’t get paid anything extra for it. The women don’t weave, but they make the little balls of thread for the weavers to use. “If they didn’t do it, it would take us longer to finish the weaving.” Hamza’s wife of 17-years Sahana Bibi, is clear that she wouldn’t want her children to do this. “My sons already talk of buying a powerloom, but we don’t have the money,” she says. His brothers have already moved on to the powerloom.
Sahana’s 13-year-old daughter would have liked to study, but had to drop out of school because her parents couldn’t afford the school fees. She now learns tailoring. It’s the same story in many households.
“We keep hearing about all this aid for weavers, but we never get any benefits,” says 29-year-old Naeem. His 65-year-old father shares the work bench with him, assisting with the complex weaving.
A couple of years back, says Hasan, the demand for handlooms had gone up. “After many years we had seen a 10 per cent annual growth.” One reason for it, says Varanasi-based designer Hemang Agrawal, was the natural turn of the fashion cycle. “Fashion weeks had also turned the focus on the Banarasi,” he adds. But then demonetisation happened in 2016, followed by the introduction of the GST in 2017, and business slumped once again.
“For a week it was like there was a curfew here. No one was buying anything,” recalls Aslam. The industry has not completely managed to get back on its feet. “Most of the weavers are not educated. It is difficult for them to understand the taxation policy,” says Rahman.
The twin moves have made the industry sceptical of the intent of a Prime Minister, who before winning the Parliamentary elections from the Varanasi constituency in 2014, had promised to give a boost to the handloom industry there. In November that year, he had reiterated that promise while laying the foundation stone of a trade facilitation centre and crafts museum for weavers on the outskirts of Varanasi.
“It did seem the government was trying to help the industry. Some designers came in, there was talk of them endorsing the Banarasi in their work, but nothing came of it,” says Rahman. Meanwhile, weavers say the trade facilitation centre is too far from the main city for them to benefit from it. Master weavers and handloom traders had even put together a proposal for the government to boost business. Their ideas included designers working with Banarasi fabric and making their collections available in shops here, celebrities endorsing the weave and coffee table books on the handloom tradition of Varanasi being made available at hotels in the city. But none of it has materialised yet, says Rahman.
On the way to Dashashwamedh Ghat touts accost visitors with offers of trips to the handloom units of Varanasi and to shops selling the weave. But even as they speak, the ‘khat-khat’ of handlooms continues to give way to the boom of the powerloom.