Silk Weaving in Benares

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It is said that when Buddha attained Nirvana (eternal rest), his body was wrapped in a Benares fabric, which shot rays of dazzling blue, red and yellow.

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[edit] Design Vocabulary of Benarsi Silk

The design vocabulary of Benaresi textiles is quite large -- the motifs commonly used are geometric, trellis designs as well as delicate florals. Many motifs have been inspired by nature, and Benarsi brocades have been known for their butis (small single flower), butas (a large flower) and jaal (shrub).

[edit] Did You Know?

  • Connoisseurs can tell Benarsi silk from Chinese silk just by the sound it makes. The thicker threads and higher starch content in Benares silk makes it rustle audibly unlike Chinese silk, which makes no sound at all.
  • To cut costs in trying times, today Benarsi weavers rarely weave silk on silk (ie, with silk thread on silken wefts). Instead, they 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 lesser time to weave.

[edit] History of Benarsi Silk Weaving

Silk weaver in Benares
Silk weaver in Benares

The weaving of fine, gossamer-like silk has been a tradition in Benares since 500 B.C. During the Mughal period (from the early 16th through the mid-18th century), Islamic religion forbade the depiction of animals and people, thus fostering the elaborate floral brocades that made Benaras famous. This is when motifs such as the creeping vine and the mango design, the inspiration for European paisley, developed.

Then during British colonial rule, Benaras weavers started making Chinese-style tanchoi embroidery for the Parsi community, a minority group, who used their clothing to distinguish themselves from the Hindu majority. During the 1890s, weavers who had visited England used wallpaper sample books to create new designs. These days, the Muslim weavers also make the maroon cloth used by Tibetan robes and the rich brocades that frame Thangka paintings.

[edit] Threats to the Silk Weavers in Benares

A sari auction in Benares
A sari auction in Benares

The state of the silk weavers in Benares, according to several news reports, is quite pathetic. Consider these facts released by the Craft Revival Trust, which has been working to highlight the plight of these weavers --

  • Only half of the one lakh strong weavers community has work. The rest are unemployed.
  • The average family income of those employed is now down to approximately Rs.2,500/pm.
  • Others involved in secondary/associated occupations like the dyers and warpers are in a similar, if not worse, plight.
  • Reports of weavers committing suicide (see BBC News Night – Paul Mason report)
  • Reports of weavers selling their blood to make ends meet. (NDTV report by Shikha Trivedi)

Here are some of the threats they currently face --

  • Large scale import/ dumping of Chinese copies of Benarasi Saris and fabric lengths at rock bottom prices.
  • Large scale copying and sales of Benarasi look-alike saris and fabric lengths in polyester yarn made by mills in Surat, Gujarat.
  • Shrinking market for high quality Benaras brocades as zardozi embroidered saris are being promoted by designers, and are currently in vogue.

The irony of it is that while on the one hand China is dumping copies of Benarasi weaves - India is importing much needed, silk yarn from them. The weavers are largely dependent on this yarn for their weaving needs and cannot survive without this import.

[edit] Possible Measures to Aid Benarsi Silk Weavers

  • Geographical Indicators (GI): There is urgent need for the GI to be obtained by the weavers in Varanasi in cooperation with the National Copyright Office and WIPO. This certification based on a set of criteria can be a strong dissuasive factor to outside imitators and internal importers. It has already been obtained by Mysore silk, Chanderi and Pochampally.
  • An industry label issued to genuine products may help buyers distinguish between fakes and authentic products. All India Artisans and Craftsperson Association (AIACA) has instituted a Craftmark to identify and authenticate a product and process. This could be of use to the weavers.

[edit] References

  • The Plight of Benarsi Weavers
  • Craft Revival Trust
  • Personal visit to Benares, and interviews with several weavers

[edit] See Also