Monday, November 30, 2009

A thought to the weavers of dreams

Shantaram’s eyes were weary. But he couldn't’t suppress the proud smile on his face. A masterpiece all the way, he thought to himself giving the six-yard wrap one last look. A brush of colour, a touch of tradition and an entire year of laborious craftsmanship... the meticulous weaves had finally taken shape. And it had been worth all the days of working round the clock for Shantaram’s family. After tying the knots on warp and weft threads, dyeing, colouring, weaving and finishing, the beautiful Benarasi Saree was ready. Thus starts an epic novel on the hand loom weavers of the most sought after Saree in the world - The Benarasi..

Often referred to as Benares, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together".Benaras or Varanasi has the pride of being the one of the most famous Hand loom centers in the entire world. In fact it is among the few centers in the world that has painstakingly preserved the ancient tradition of hand weaving. The silk used for the saris was historically imported from China. Several first-millennium Buddhist texts mention Benaras fabrics, giving the indication that Benaras has been the center of fine textile weaving for at least two millennia. The earliest mention of the brocade and zari textiles of Banaras is found in the 19th century. With the migration of silk weavers from Gujarat during the famine of 1603, it is likely that silk brocade weaving started in Banaras in the seventeenth century and developed in excellence during the 18th and 19th century. During the Mughal period, around 14th century, weaving of brocades with intricate designs using gold and silver threads became the specialty of Benaras.

Benarasi silk saris are traditionally made in four varieties:
Katan (pure silk)
organza (Kora)
Georgette sari
Shatir sari.

Traditional designs of the brocade include jasmine (chameli), thousand emeralds (panna hazar), marigolds (gendabuti), betel nut leaves (paan buti), diagonal stripes (tircha) and the corner motif with a mango flower (konia). Originally the saris were embellished with threads made from real gold and silver for use by the royal family. In modern times, this has been replaced by gold- and silver-colored thread, making the saris affordable for the general population.

Making it affordable for the masses has also led to cheap imitations flooding the market, the power loom capturing the weaver's hand loom, rendering the rich traditional obsolete and endangered.
In a bare village work shed a man sits quietly working on a loom. Look closer and you notice that he is actually sitting in a pit dug into the earthen floor. Hari Ram is middle-aged, non-descript but his fingers weave magic as he works the traditional l pit-loom. A length of pink silk slowly emerges, shimmering with gold threads worked in elaborate mango motifs. He is weaving the traditional Benarasi saree for a bride to wear at her wedding. This silk is the stuff of dreams, of dowries, of rituals and sacred traditions. today thousands of Benaras weavers like Ram have little work and it fetches a pittance. Kumaoli village, where Ram lives, once had 70 looms. Today, there are four left. In dozens of villages around the holy city hand looms lie dismantled, broken, decaying. The women and men who worked the looms have now been forced into manual work to survive.
How did things come to such a pass? A fatal combination of mechanisation, computerisation and globalisation has ruined the hand loom work of Benaras. Traditionally, people here wove only silk. Mulberry silk yarn was sourced from distant Karnataka and processed by weaver families in and around Benaras who used it to weave silk, brocade, tissue, crepe, organza and other fine materials on their hand looms. Traders from the city would come to the weaver families to buy their products. The weaver could command a decent price for his labour.
Then came the power loom. Many rich traders set up power looms and copied the traditional Benarasi designs. A power loom can churn out in one day a saree that may take a weaver 10 days to make on a hand loom. Power loom sarees are light weight and cheaper and most customers cannot tell the difference between power loom and hand loom fabric.

A dying art, an incomplete trousseau! There are organizations in support of this art, a movement that has started to protect and cultivate this rich heritage of India. This is a tribute to the craftsman, to the wonder of an age old tradition, to a movement that is forming to bring back a dying art. Let's not blindly buy imitations when the originals are not only priceless for our wardrobes but also ensuring that a weaver's family gets his due!!

The current scernario has the Human Welfare Association (HWA) demanding a separate ministry for the handloom sector. Arguing for the aggressive promotion of the Handloom Cluster Development and Handloom Mark and Silkmark schemes as well as Geographical Indicator protection for Benaras handlooms. HWA has organised public protest by weavers, burning Chinese silk and demanding a ban on dumping.

HWA also started the Taana Baana cooperative which provides livelihood to over a thousand weaver families, helping them with credit, design development and marketing support, as well as alternative income generating opportunities. It has a small retail outlet in Sarnath and a turnover of Rs. 70 lakh. But, given the scale of distress among the weavers, Taana Baana is at best a demonstration of what needs to be done for the industry as a whole.

Posted by Sujata


  1. Loved the weaves! very informative post.
    Vote for Delhi Photo Diary in the 15th category by clicking this

  2. such beauties!!!! interesting post.

  3. how fun to learn of your culture and history. america is such a young country in comparison. like the title weavers of dreams and yes the whole world is focused on faster and cheaper and not quality and artistry-it's sad.

  4. Very informative post, Sujatha. Feel bad that the weavers have no buyers now.

    The designs look so beautiful. We never knew the names of the designs..nice.

  5. You see a similar situation in America. People can buy cheap clothes off the rack that imitate the expensive designs in Paris.

    But Michelle Obama wore an original gown made in India to the President's first State Dinner last week. Maybe that will create a great demand for clothes made in India.

  6. What a shame to read of the weavers' dying art. I've read of the same sort of thing happening in China where mechanization is killing true art for speed and cheaper cost.

  7. What a wonderful tribute you have given to an awesome art. I surely hope that these wonderful weavers are given their due. They are, indeed, 'weavers of dreams'. Thank you for this information, and for the sharing of a culture that needs to survive.

  8. Wonderful post.

    I would love to wear a sari. Perhaps I shall!

    Aloha, Friend!

    Comfort Spiral

  9. @Priyanka khot thanks

    @nituscorner thanks

    @lin floyd certain things cannot be hurried and niether compromised, this is one such art.

    @Sandhya thanks

    @Gigihawai yes the gown did get a lot of press coverage. Hope it helps, A lot of hollywood beauties have also walked the red carpet wearing designs and fabrics from India. The fabrics and weaves of India are gaining popularity abroad, but at home we are shying away from them, which is sad.

    @Kay thats sad indeed, the silks of china are legendary and the beaustiful designs and colours are so intricate hope they are revived soon

    @Clytie thanks

    @Cloudia thanks. I am sure you will wear a saree soon.

  10. It is a pity and the worse seems to be coming.
    I understand,China is going to start supply of such supplies to India.

  11. Let's hope Benarasi saree survives the threat. But maybe if the weaver got enough and the middleman a bit less, the scene might have been different. Many Indian designers are trying to revive our traditional handicrafts. if they succeed to capture appeal once again, maybe we have hope.:)

  12. Another crash course in Saree history and graphics.
    Great to know but unfortunately some of this master pieces gets wrapped only once or twice in entire lifetime!

  13. My mothers wedding saree cost only Rs 92. The zari is still as good as new though the silk has become rather delicate.
    There is nothing as enchanting as a Banarasi sari and I feel a wedding is not a proper wedding if the bride is not wearing an authentic banarasi.
    Very informative post and I hope we all will come together to keep the tradition of weaving alive in Benaras.

  14. Sujata, another exemplary post....we women can make a choice here right? buy to impact the artisan


  15. Loved the post .waiting for the next sari tale.:)

  16. It is sad that we are ready to buy and wear worthless things in the name of designer clothes but ignore these wonderful creations .This post made me open my Deewan ,take out my Benarasis and appreciate them all over again.We need to buy more and wear more of these to promote this threatened art.

  17. A case of traditional art making way for the cheaper and poor quality materials. Nice of you to post about these wonderful creations and letting us not forget about this traditional works

  18. @B K Chowla yes, I hear that as well.

    @The Holy Lama the designers are definitely doing quite a bit in promoting the natural weaves and embroideries and so are chains like fabindia. The middleman can be removed if cooperatives are formed like the one in Lucknow that makes and sells chikankari.

    @SumanDebRay you are getting bored are'nt you? I will also say that the benarasi that was bougt for my wedding day has not been worn for more than 5 times, and with age, I think I will wear it even less, but thats nothing got to do with the masterpiece, its the outrageous colour RED that my mom chose!!

    @Aparna My mom had such lovely coloured benarasis, I still remember the colours, the baby blues and pinks and one was white with orange and gold work over it.

    @Chitra yes, we can, by buying from the weavers directly.

    @Bhavya B thanks

    @Kavita yes, we indeed watch the face of your hubby!!

    @Rajlakshmi thanks

    @Subu ps thanks

  19. Hi,

    Hope you are doing well! This is Anamika Tiwari from At present we are interviewing entrepreneurs and now we are starting another section to feature (interview) bloggers and their blog on

    We find your blog very interesting and would like to feature your interview on our website.

    I was not able to find any contact details of yours so using this comment box. Please let me know your email id or else contact us on, so that we can send you the questionnaire and feature you on Please visit to know more about us.


  20. Lovely pictures and excellent write-up.

  21. KAVITA,
    Thank you so much for your comment and visit, I am very happy you did understand the effect of Agnes keith!s books made on me during my BORNEO trip!
    I have been reading your post on the SARI WEAVING, an art in extinguish, but a real unique art! In all my trips to India I tried to go and see this hand-made work, it fascinated me. The first time I went to India I dressed in a sari to make me feel more the indian way of life. No doubt the sari dress is the most beautiful in the world! When you have time come to see my post on "WOMEN IN SARI".
    I am really happy to come to your blog and know more about your wonderful country, I do love it !