Mubarakhpur: The handloom industry in Varanasi is at an all-time low. And at the bottom of the heap are the weavers.
Once craftsmen to reckon with, these weavers are now a dying breed. Inflation, vested interests and Chinese knock-offs have brought them to their knees.
Abdul Alif inherited his profession from his father, whom he has assisted ever since he gained motor skills. He turns off the two looms in his workshop to talk, and his son hovers around us eager to resume work. Alif had insisted that his son should train as a weaver as well. A decision he now regrets.
About two decades ago, Alif’s home would resonate with the rhythmic sound of the looms at work—thick, lush silk yarn being woven into saris with elaborate embroidery and gold zari. Alif worked with his father those days. His son, then too young to handle a loom, would observe how they swiftly transformed yarn into saris.
Alif is now 65 and his son Ahmed 30. They have perfected nearly every method of hand weaving—from picking where the thread is propelled across the warped yarn to crafting a simple, tight weave, to shedding, where the warped threads are clearly separated and the weft thread is passed across. All that skill is of little use now; they have moved on to powerlooms.
Fading glory: Abdul Alif (right) and his son Ahmed at work on their looms. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
The inevitable shift has only proved to be a bane for this family and the community of weavers. Alif runs two looms and is exasperated with the intermittent electricity shutdowns. Availability of power is at best erratic. For weavers, whose wages hang by a thread, the problem of electricity shutdowns has left them tied up in knots.
Initially, Alif thought the investment was worth it since time was a constraining factor and buyers were not specially seeking out handloom-woven saris.
“There is almost no demand for handloom saris anymore and moreover the prices have increased drastically,” he said. “It is impossible for us to afford the raw materials and the turnaround time in powerloom is much less than handloom.”
In 2008, the price of raw silk from China was at a more affordable Rs 1,200 per kg. But over the years, due to a lapse in production, access to yarn got squeezed and prices went through the roof, touching nearly Rs 3,000 per kg in early 2011.
In 2010, 20,410 tonnes of raw silk was produced in the country whereas 29,300 tonnes were consumed, shows data from the ministry of textiles. The deficit of 8,890 tonnes was bridged by silk imported from China.
Alif never considered another profession for himself or his son even when the markets were plummeting. He holds on to the pride of being an artisan, but is concerned about where his trade his heading. “No one wants their children to be weavers anymore. This colony thrived on weaving at one time and now the sounds of a loom have become rare.”
Mubarakhpur, the village he lives in, is a colony of weavers that is steadily dying. Weavers such as Alif are hard to find. Though he hopes the industry will pick up again, he is sceptical. “When I was young, people would come specially to purchase handloom silk saris. These days, they prefer purchasing its cheaper counterpart—Chinese silk.”
Varanasi’s weavers have produced dazzling silk sarees for generations. But many are seeing their profession unravel and don’t want their kids to follow in their footsteps
Weaving nylon thread with plastic zari for wages of Rs 250-300 a sari is not what Alif had imagined he would ever do. “No one wants to spend Rs 50,000- 60,000 on a sari; they would rather buy a much cheaper sari that looks like a Banarasi,” he said. “At the end of the day, our wages and our lives are affected.”
The department of revenue in August 2010 authorized National Handloom Development Corp. Ltd to import 2,500 tonnes of raw silk, duty free, to mitigate the problem faced by small weavers and to provide quality raw silk at stabilized prices. But this has not been done so far and seems to be the main reason for the exorbitant rise in the price of raw silk, said G.K. Kedia, convener of the yarn development committee, Banarasi Vastra Udyog Sangh, an independent committee of traders and manufacturers in Varanasi working to revive the handloom industry.
“The policies of the government are based on false presumptions and fallacies. Domestic raw silk is no substitute for Chinese yarn because denier (thickness) of Indian yarn is not uniform due to bad quality of cocoons and obsolete reeling machines, so using Chinese raw silk is a must,” said Kedia.
As difficult as it is for Alif to come to terms with this dwindling state of affairs, he says it was wrong on his part to give his son no option but to be a weaver.
“Had I realized early on that this would be the fate of my children I would have educated them further and encouraged them to take up better jobs. We spent our savings on purchasing powerlooms, and with the erratic electricity, the outcome is not as fast as we had thought,” he said.
Alif blames the government for making the import of Chinese yarn easier. In February, the government lowered the import duty on raw silk to 5% from 30% to benefit weavers, but the community hasn’t benefited much as prices have shot up.
Alif recalls the pleasure of working with Indian silk and says nylon and Chinese silk are inferior in quality. His work has, therefore, become just a means of getting by. “When the heavy silk threads hung from the looms, we would be excited to make saris and would improvise on designs. These days, we make saris only as a source of income.”
On Monday: The Calligrapher
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