India is known for its varied forms of arts and traditional crafts that are an integral part of the country’s identity. Almost every small village and town of India is famous for its exclusive art forms and contributes to the rich artistic tapestry of the country. Handloom is one of the most exquisite textile traditions of India, and hand-spun and woven fabrics have been an essential part of Indian identity for centuries.
Varanasi, previously known as Benaras, has been the epicentre of handloom silks for centuries. Benarasi silk fabrics have been mentioned in our scriptures and ancient Hindu and Buddhist books as well. In fact, every traditional wedding trousseau was considered incomplete without a Benarasi saree. The magic of the weaver as he spins and transforms the tana and bana (warp and weft) in order to create spectacular pieces of art, have long been yearned for, by many generations of brides, who have either been handed down traditional Benarasi sarees, or bought new ones.
Hand-woven sarees involve great artistic creativity by the artisans, coupled with their skills and backed by years of experience passed on from generations of weavers. The quality and type of silk fabric indicate the weavers’ status and craftsmanship. More intensive craftsmanship and labour is required when the weave is intricate and there are motifs to create. Centuries ago, Indian royalty was believed to have worn plain and simple handwoven fabrics. But ever since the Mughals entered our country, they introduced the concept of labour-intensive motif work. Floral motifs, peacocks, paisleys, and chintz trace their roots to ancient and medieval times during the Mughal reign in India. This has changed the way fabrics have been viewed.
Photo Courtesy: TabaKashi
At the heart of all these beautiful creations is the Weaver or Karigar who work on these Benarasi sarees. They have to buy their own raw material from various suppliers. In recent times, raw materials such as silk thread have become far more expensive. While purchasing these raw materials, the karigars need to make the payments instantly without any credit system. But the karigars sell their sarees on a credit system, where they often get paid after the saree has been sold. The entire cycle of weaver selling to manufacturer who then sells it to a wholesaler or retailer, till finally the end-consumer purchases it; requires a lot of time. This delays the whole payment process for the weavers.
Warp and Weft: A still from the film.
In spite of the flourishing trade, the weavers have always been, and even till date, are living a life of poverty. The weavers of such heirlooms have found it harder to survive. The few that still exist today work painstakingly on weaving intricate zaris and motifs on the saree, which is indeed a real treat. Various reasons have led to the decrease in the community of weavers and artisans. With hand-woven techniques as well, the more labour intensive the design, more will be the cost of the final output. However, the margins that the weavers get are very minimal. Add to that the threat from the power looms which offer a cheaper and faster way to produce the same goods which a weaver takes weeks to create, as well as the sophisticated finish by the machines. Exploitation of the weavers, heavy debts and lack of support are slowly causing the weaver community to vanish. Lack of Government schemes and grants to support these weavers have also been another cause of concern. Owing to the pandemic, sadly, many of the small-time weavers had to completely shut shop and move out of the family business in order to make their ends meet. All these reasons have unfortunately caused weavers and artisans to not get their fair amount of pay, thus resulting in the new generations of weavers moving away from the family business and choosing career options that are far more sustainable.
The solution to all this, is making people aware about the weavers and their art. Awareness about the elaborate processes of weaving and the effort in creating masterpieces, is the need of the hour. While the efforts in creating such masterpieces are so intensive, customers don’t see the value of paying so much money for these creations. At such times, it becomes more lucrative to explore international markets through export as international markets are far more sensitive and understand the value of these weavers.
While everyone wants to wear a pure Benarasi saree, they are not willing to pay huge amounts for it. This has been going on for ages and ages. TaBa Kashi has been working with generations of weavers who have been creating wonders. If people start understanding the art work and the labour-intensive efforts, then the sale of these sarees will increase and this will eventually help the weavers and artisans. We can make that difference in the lives of these weavers by sensitizing ourselves to their challenges and not negotiating while buying pure Benarasi sarees. TaBa Kashi also vows to wow the weavers with small steps in encouraging and promoting their creations, not just in Indian but also in overseas markets.