Kanchipuram:A sense of pride in his family’s craft is putting 37-year-old Babu, a fourth-generation weaver, out of business.
Babu, who doesn’t use a surname, has woven and sold hundreds of vivid Kanchipuram silk saris with zari—the silk thread twisted with a thin silver wire and then gilded with gold— out of his store on Mettu Street, a10-foot -wide lane in this town where weaving the sari has been a way of life for some 150 years.
But a surge in silver and gold prices, which have doubled in the past five years, and the resulting spike in prices for zari, is playing havoc with the silk sari business here. Gold and silver prices last year reached levels not seen since 1983.
Ten years ago, Babu had 270 looms and made about 3,000 saris a year. Today he is down to 35 looms and sells about 700 of the saris, among the most popular in the country—especially in the South.
“It’s unlikely that my children will follow me in the family tradition,” Babu says of his two children aged 12 and nine.
The problem is that the spike in metal prices has made zari, much of it coming from Surat, that much costlier, up about 75% to Rs18 per gram. This has prompted many weavers to switch to copper thread coated with gold colour; sometimes they pass it off as the real thing.
This thread, often dubbed as “untested” zari by retailers, is available for as little as Re1 per gram. Zari is sold in a measure called ‘marc’, with one marc being equal to 242 gm. Theoretically, one marc of pure zari should contain 55% to 57% of silver and 0.6% of gold.
The Kanchipuram sari has a geographical identity and cannot be called that if woven outside this town, some 60 km from Chennai. An authentic sari can sell upwards of Rs4,000, depending on the zari work.
An informal survey of six private manufacturers shows that between a third and two-thirds of the total 40,000 handlooms have shifted to making saris using the cheaper copper zari.
“Small retailers are passing on duplicate zari as Kanchi silk,” says N. Balasubramanian, secretary of the Kanchipuram Silk and Lace Cloth Producers’ Association. Other retailers, in Chennai and elsewhere, differentiate the two by branding copper zari saris under the “not tested” category.
Mahendran, a manufacturer who has sold all his 90 looms, now outsources from weavers and deals mostly with copper zari saris. Retailers are mostly asking for the cheaper saris, a trend harmful to the industry and one that cause the brand to lose its value, he admits.
A shopper, who would only give her first name as Rukmani, says she recently bought saris for her daughter’s wedding but ended up mixing and matching the two varieties of saris, with half her purchases being the copper zari ones.
“We (only) bought the original one for the important people,” she says. The copper zari saris cost her a quarter of what she spent on the genuine ones.
Meanwhile, Babu says he won’t switch to copper zari. He now sells, on the side, real estate. But even then, only properties that are not on Mettu Street. On his street, property prices have dropped by half in eight years, even as real estate prices have soared all across country.