Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Indian Textile – A Hand-woven Story


Genuine craftsmen are always poor, time immemorial
You will hardly find me striding through back lanes and narrow alleys in the cities that I visit. It’s a conscious aspect of my risk management and strategy. Yet, in Varanasi, I was drawn into their shadows like an insect to the underside of a stone; narrow lanes or gallis are as much a part of the city’s character as the famous ghats that lead down to the Ganges. Not to explore them means forsaking a chance to understood more about the planet’s longest continually inhabited city and its best known industry, handloom weaving.

Even without heading deep into the labyrinth of gallis, it’s possible to view and buy products crafted by Varanasi weavers. In common with cities throughout the country, handicraft shops and sari stores are never difficult to locate. Hand-painted signs direct tourists up from the ghats, touts offer anyone gripping a camera an invitation to what they claim to be their family shops and silk emporiums in the streets around Godaulia and the chowk.

Varanasi Handlooms
Although I recoiled at the traders’ high asking prices, I couldn’t help but be impressed at the quality of many of the heavy silk brocades. I ran my fingers over the smoothness of the fabrics, appreciated the multi-toned sheen. It became clear to me why the delicate patterns of Banarasi saris are so sought after ahead of weddings. Royal patronage was a factor in establishing Varanasi’s reputation for high quality silks. Maharajas from across India, who built palatial residences down by the ghats, were patrons of the city’s weavers. They used the silks not only in their apparel but also for the canopies that gracefully and fashionably provided shade to royalty during the Mughal rule.

Exquisite craftsmanship
Apart from the presence of electric lighting and punched cards hanging above the looms, a layman would notice very few differences between the wooden handlooms that operate in Varanasi today and those of bygone centuries. Weavers sit with their legs hanging over cool pits and use a shuttle, known as the nar, traditionally made from the buffalo horn. Anecdotal evidence suggests that weavers are descendants of the families who moved to the city from Gujarat in the 1300s, though some historians believe the majority of the artisans relocated from Delhi about a hundred years later. Even before that – way back in the seventh century – Bana Bhatta, the poet who composed Harshacharita mentions that brocades was being woven in the city.

Hard labor for craftsmen
Today, many of Varanasi’s handloom weavers believe that no generation has faced anything that quite matches the challenge of the present age. Changes in the global economy mean cheap competition from abroad. They feel that in a price oriented mass market, hand produced wares are overlooked in favor of machine produced goods. They are complaints that middlemen, known gaddidars, buy the finished goods at low prices and quickly sell them for a sizable profit. There are even reports that some weavers, frustrated with their low pay, have moved away from weaving saris and now produce filter meshes for use in the automotive industry.

Fortunately, though, a number of families are still able to weave themselves a living. High quality, hand produced fabrics are now much sought after by elite fashion houses.

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