Banarasi silk

After asking a few people in Ganga nagar colony for the silk handloom weavers, we were directed to this house hidden within the labyrinth, where it was surrounded by  fabric manufacturers using power loom.
It was like a scene from a 1960’s Bollywood movie.
We entered this semi-finished two storey house, where in the dim light of a fluorescent tube light and a bulb was my glorious finish line snuck away in a corner-a handloom. Unfortunately one of the few remaining.

The entrance

Mohammed was busy working on a bright red and blue Banarasi silk saree.

At crossroads between the old and the new. 

Mohammed was very hospitable and ever so keen to show us how a handloom worked. He also patiently explained the process and workmanship involved in each step of weaving the saree sitting in the weaving pit.

Sliding the weaving shuttle

Using his foot pedal to move the handle and interlock the threads, which created a continuous rhythm

Skillfully loading the silk thread in to the shuttle

These threads are up to 26 meters long which are rolled in to the roller. The width of the saree will be 45 inches.

The punch cards.

The first step is to create these Punch cards. It comprises of sketching the designs on a graph paper, along with the color concepts,before selecting the final design. According to Mohammed, a single Banarasi saree requires hundreds of perforated cards to achieve the final design.

The  perforated cards are then paddled in a systematic manner to ensure that the main weaving picks up the right colors and pattern.

The jewel box

 I was awestruck already. He gave us a smile and remarked “you haven’t seen the real design yet. Take your phones out”. Ready?

Now I understood

Mohammed moved the brown cloth to reveal the beautiful zari.

He works on the design face down and has to decide on the thread color sequences. These designs are a critical part as its customized every time as per the requirement of the customer. No wonder that one saree could take 15 days to a month to complete. The amount of craftsmanship that goes in to it is mind blowing.

Behind Mohammed’s artisan handloom pit stood the noisy power loom, which is contributing greatly to the decline of handloom industry.

The Power loom

It is evident looking at the mechanical parts and the size of the loom, the output from these machines must be much faster to match the expectations of impatient customers. Anwar explained that the basic principle of this machine is similar to the handloom but 10 to 20 times faster and effortless.

The aging beauty

I am not sure if I should be excited or extremely upset to say that I had a chance to visit and interact with one of the last working handloom artists of Varanasi.
We have to recognize that this process of saree making is an art form. The price should be paid for the craftsmanship as well as his effort, as his entire family’s livelihood depends on this – not just for the material used. Until we don’t understand these basic points this industry will be  another victim of automation and fast paced industrialization.

So far the tradition has been passed on to younger generations and I sincerely hope it continues…

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6 Comments on “Banarasi silk”

  1. Beautiful article. It is true, if we want the art to survive, we must pay sufficiently high for the artists to earn a dignified and good living. Knowing Indians, this is unlikely, as long as Banarsi weaving is only for saris. We need to make new products, Smaller, cheaper, those that can be household items, and then the craft and craftspeople may have a chance.

  2. Lovely photos Hareesh, I loved your clicks and the one liners. Am sharing what I feel about this and something similar for other things too. I am not sure whether Mohammed is looking at his own work as an art as we do, it is just a livelihood process for him, isn’t it? They knew how to do it and made a living out of it. It may have served them well at one point in time and now maybe as time changing, with lot of middleman around, yes, what needs to be going to him is not reaching him rather he doesn’t deserve what is he earning out of this? These are few questions I personally grapple with as in whether am I concerned about Mohammed’s livelihood or this sari work? If its Mohammed then am I willing to go for an extra mile to understand what other ways he could engage or work and earn his living. If its this sari work, same mile am I willing to teach people/students to keep it alive…which one…I trying to figure out myself?

    1. Thanks, Karpu for the feedback & sharing your thoughts.
      I am trying to understand what has caused the sudden decline in their income and standard of living. To me one point which appears to be so obvious is
      Lack of appreciation for the workmanship & skills involved in creating a sari
      As you mentioned the whole community thrived once with the same profession, the time has definitely changed. First each and every weaver like Mohammed should realize what they are doing is more than livelihood. One of the ways this could be achieved is by providing education to the whole community, this will not only improve the self-confidence also minimize the exploitation by the middle men.
      And instead of spending 15 days in one product, he could produce smaller wall hangings and other products which takes less time to produce & yields similar value. Product innovation is another main need of the hour.
      By teaching the younger generation this art form who are not from the same background as Mohammed will definitely help in creating awareness and develop an immense respect for these artists.

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