When Uma Prajapati arrived in Nawada, a weavers’ village 10km from Varanasi, she knew the ancient art of “weaving silken, diaphanous dreams that could pass through a finger ring” was dying and weavers were facing a crisis. But she had no idea how severe.
There was no hope in their eyes, she recalls. Women implored Prajapati for help. When she asked what she could do, they said, “Anything. Teach us anything. We will learn whatever you say. If we can earn Rs10 a day, we will be happy.”
“After 60 years of independence, we have women whose dream is to earn Rs10 a day,” Prajapati says. “They wanted to learn something completely different because they did not believe in familiar things anymore.”
The 37-year-old decided she could not walk away, that perhaps her training and experience as a fashion designer could help resurrect—and modify—the dream.
Prajapati recalls her first memories of Varanasi. Her native Bodhgaya in Bihar was just a few hours away. She remembers a silk sari she bought from here—a beautiful green one with a pink zari border—and how it felt against her skin.
Citing that feeling, Prajapati says she feels she owes it to the weavers to help. She and her staff have set up an office outside Varanasi to help the weavers return to the looms; Prajapati has also tried to convince other designers to incorporate native Indian fabrics into their collections. Saris might be going out of style, but the beautiful silks that are produced can live on through other articles.
A graduate of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift), Prajapati says she believes in socially responsible fashion. Her design studio Upasana, in the Auroville ashram in Tamil Nadu, invests almost 40% of revenues into education and social ventures to empower women and the poor.
Prajapati’s team estimates that three lakh looms once operated here. When she arrived three months ago, less than 80,000 remained. Since every loom employed a half-dozen people, the death of Varanasi’s core industry meant the loss of livelihood for some 10 lakh people.
“It is hard to understand the suddenness of it in big numbers,” said Shafique Afzal, son of a silk trader who remembers carrying stacks of unsold saris back home. “But in 1992, we had 150 looms in our house. Within four years, there were 40. Today, we have nothing left in our house…we let it all fall apart.”
Widely known is that cheaper Chinese silk has flooded the Indian market, putting a lot of weavers out of business. Lesser known is the dysfunction within the weaving system. Middlemen or the gadidars, who sold the saris in this chain, exploited both weavers and buyers; the weavers, in turn, compromised quality, which then eroded their credibility. These shifts came against the backdrop of a more dramatic one, Indian women stopped wearing saris.
“We need to create a market for things other than a sari that can be made out of Benarasi silk,” Prajapati says. Among her ideas: salwar kameezes, dresses, shawls, stoles—anything to save and represent the fabric of a country.
Prajapati and her Upasana Design Studios have adopted two villages on the outskirts of Varanasi and restarted 30 looms. For the next few years, the team will provide work and set up a microfinance model along the lines of Nobel Prize winner Mohammed Younis’s Grameen Bank. Their goal is to create a brand called “Varanasi Weavers,” taking the weavers to Paris for a fashion show in October, exposing them to the market, trends and designers—and then leaving them to manage their own lives and work.
“This is an experiment in two villages. When we have figured out what works, we will roll the carpet in on the rest,” Prajapati says.
“During my time at school, I discovered what it means to fight alone,” Prajapati says.
Her small, petite frame exudes great determination. Thirteen years ago, the idea of becoming a fashion designer seemed a long shot for this girl from Bihar: “I was a villager. I was the only person on the entire campus who could not string a single sentence in English. I could not understand what they were teaching in the classes. I once threw a chair in class in frustration.” They were easily the three worst years of her life, Prajapati admits.
Toying with a lock of hair, she said, “I did not even connect with fashion. A professor later told me that the institute took me in as a guinea pig. If I succeeded, they would bring in more like me.”
During those years, she just wanted to quit.
“And every time I felt that way, I would look at myself and make a promise, One day I will teach at this place. I will teach here.”
Ten years later, she is a visiting faculty. People familiar with her work at Nift say Prajapati represents a social conscience in an industry obsessed with frivolity.
In the adopted villages of Nawada and Sawai Mohan, like in countless villages around Varanasi, most handlooms have closed. The 15 remaining looms—there were once 800—make nylon, not silk, said 14-year-old Jai Kumar, who left school when the Benarasi-silk industry crashed. “We have seen better days,” he says.
Inside homes, the wooden supports of dismantled looms lie in cobwebbed clay pits, where the weavers once sat. Among the small one-room clay huts, larger brick and cement houses stand incomplete, a lack of income preventing completion.
The typical Nawada home has a single cot placed under a ragged plastic sheet held together by two inclined bamboo poles, 5-10 children living with parents in a room with a loom, a single string cot, and a stove made of clay and stone.
Malati, whose family has three earning members among 14 people, says, “Where do we get the money to buy milk? Since the looms stopped, the men cycle to the satti in Benaras to work as day labourers.”
The satti is a human market where thousands of people from villages come every morning to find work.
Shyam Sunder Jaiswal, a zari trader whose family has been in the business for the last six generations in Varanasi, said, “The prices are fixed at about Rs70-80 a day, so there is little haggling.”
Although no official records are available, locals say that since the crash of the silk industry, the number of men hungry for work in these human markets has tripled. The fitter you look, the better the chances of getting work.
Malati said that although three men leave the house every morning to look for work, usually only one lands a job. On a good day, two might get work. “We eat well those days. Maybe a whole meal of roti and subzi. And if we are very lucky, two meals.”
Luck is rare: her family eats two meals a day only two or three times a month. “Most other days though, we feed the children once and go to sleep hungry. Sometimes, even the babies have to go hungry.”
Prajapati recounts these stories to her old friends from Nift, including designer Manish Arora. She tells them about the weavers, gifts them swatch books with different silk samples, and asks them to use the fabrics in their creations. “They didn’t know about it. When they find out, they are all very supportive,” she said.
While the support from outside is easy to get, it is a different story on the inside.
The tiny village consists of smaller neighbourhoods divided by strong caste and religious identities.
Jaiswal characterizes caste as an important element of day-to-day interactions that villagers cannot rise above, not even when it is a question of survival. “There is so much insecurity in the system, so much distrust of each other, so much distrust of outsiders,” he says. On a recent day, Prajapati patiently listened to villagers complain that she had given work and money only to some of them.
When Upasana Design Studios first told the weavers that it would restart 30 looms in their homes, only three came to actually accept work. “The others were not sure who I was, or what I was trying do, or if this would work or not,” Prajapati says.
Now that three looms have actually begun working in the village, neighbours want to be a part of it too. Restarting a loom means cleaning, tuning, and buying material—silk, zari—with costs up to Rs1,000.
Prajapati decided to give the weavers money directly to buy their supplies, despite many attempts to dissuade her. “They will not buy anything from it. They will simply eat up the money,” came warnings.
Prajapati ignored the advice. “If they eat, let them. They deserve to eat. After their stomachs are full, they will understand the trust we put in them and feel like a part of the plan,” she retorted. “Until they are hungry, it is impossible to do that.” In other words, if you trust them, they’ll trust you.
Prajapati said she’s counted on such hunches most of her life. Her move to Auroville—a city devoted to unity and harmony—was triggered by a powerful connection she felt during a visit in 1996. Fifteen days later, she returned to Delhi to pack up her things and move to Auroville. As is common for businesses in Auroville, Upasana Design Studio “belongs to the community of Auroville.” Profits are donated to the poor or the ashram.
Prajapati’s current efforts are reminiscent of her work with victims of the 2004 tsunami in villages along South India’s coastline. Back then, she said she felt she was talking to ghosts as she sought out women who had spent their whole lives catching, cutting and selling fish. For every question, they had one answer, “Teriyade,” I don’t know.
As donations poured in, Prajapati decided she would “do something that would help them rebuild a frame of reference.” Thus, a doll named Tsunamika was born.
The dolls carried tags that said, “From the woman who lives by the ocean” and “the women who are empowering themselves.” Eight hundred fisherwomen made one million dolls in three years, simple dolls made with the scraps of Prajapati’s design studio.
Tsunamika cannot be bought, only gifted. In return, the studio accepts donations.
The Tsunamika project led President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to present Prajapati an award in a ceremony at Nift, the alma mater she once cursed. Today, the doll project has become fully self-sustaining with a revolving fund of its own.
That is what she hopes will happen with the new venture, Varanasi Weavers.
“I want to help them set up a system that will cater to a niche market that wears classic line kurtas, scarves and dupattas, like me,” she says. “They will have to weave authentic silk that is power-loom proof. Only then can this art survive. Otherwise, it is already too late.”
But Shyam Sunder Jaiswal, who provided the studio with the office building, says he’s already seeing a resurgence of the weavers’ former selves, a transformation even.
If all goes well, these villagers could be at a fashion show in Paris next year. Uma Prajapati crosses her fingers, in hope.
(Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to email@example.com)