At a shop in Kunj Gali, the oldest wholesale market of Varanasi where more than 2,000 gaddidars (traders) sell brocades and silks from congested lanes, 22-year-old Anshu Mehrotra, a third-generation gaddidar at Sangatha Saris, wants me to play a game. “Tell me which ones are fake and which are real," he challenges, unfolding silken and tissue saris. Lovely colours woven in bedazzling patterns with vintage motifs that would draw envious exclamations. These look like the Banarasi saris we have grown up to love as the most recognizable symbol of our culture of decorative excess in dressing. Turns out, they are all fake. Inadvertently, Mehrotra sets the stage for our quest to explore faux Banarasis—the unfortunate post script to Varanasi’s world-famous weaving résumé.

Rising steadily alongside the familiar tragedies of weavers in post-independence India, of machines snatching age-old artisanal skills and livelihoods, fake Banarasis are now strategically created besides the fewer originals and sold as real. Sections of the industry invest in “keeping the Banarasi alive" without worrying about authenticity.

Imitative versions of real Banarasi saris replicating the traditional design vocabulary (paisleys, intertwining floral and foliage motifs, strings of upright leaves or jhallar, indigenous scripts called namavali) are made on a variety of nouveau materials, including the notorious Chinese silk. Ever since India lifted quantitative restrictions on silk imports in 2001, Varanasi has been the dumping ground for cheap silk yarn from China.

A shop in the Varanasi main market hawking fakes as originals

“The motifs and patterns in imitation saris are all original but the fabrics and materials are all fake—from art silk to polyester—this mix-up confuses even the smartest consumer," says Bharat Shah, CEO of Delhi’s Ekaya store, which only stocks handloom Banarasi saris (cottons start from 4,000, silks and Tussars are priced at 7,500-31,000). Committed to the sustenance of the original for design exclusivity, not altruism, Shah is prepared to invest money and make the Banarasi sari (“original but with innovations") aspirational and luxurious in cities.

Separating the wheat from the chaff, going through more than a few hundred pieces at the SND headquarters, a mammoth wholesale unit in Varanasi that stocks saris and fabrics from all over India, Shah says that in the absence of any promotional campaign showing the Banarasi sari as an authentic brand, even top fashion houses manage to sell fakes. “Traders knowingly come here to buy imitations, then sell them as real in their city stores by hiking the price tremendously," says Shah. He adds that there is a market for the authentic stuff among the elite and fashion-conscious circles, but most consumers barely know the difference.

Ekaya’s Bharat Shah at his wholesale unit

“We differentiate the imitation from the real for retailers but when it is their turn to sell, they do not do the same. Unless you are a textile expert, it is easy to get tricked into buying a well-finished, beautifully patterned but totally fake, power-loom sari thinking it is an original," says Mehrotra, showing us heaps of originals mixed with fakes.

A middle-man hawking brocades near the Kashi Vishwanath temple leads us to young Mehrotra. Each sale gets the middleman 5% of the sari price. Mehrotra makes lofty statements but is non-committal when asked what he does as a rich businessman for poor weavers. “Nothing can change in Banaras," he shrugs, right after an impassioned speech on fake versus real.

A young trader, Anshu Mehrotra, challenges us to spot fakes
A young trader, Anshu Mehrotra, challenges us to spot fakes

Between the two extremes—the plastic-looking Chinese Banarasi sari available for 500 in city markets outside Varanasi and the exemplary revival work, for instance, by designers like David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore, whose entire Autumn/Winter 2013 collection has been created from especially handwoven Banarasi textiles by Ekaya in contemporary patterns—there are a dozen generations of the “Banarasi weave".

Some argue that the increasing reproduction of the Banarasi sari sustains its visual recognition, thus boosting consumption. After all it is a survival mechanism, what with escalating costs of pure silk and real zari. Besides, the weavers need to earn, they would starve if they were dependent just on handlooms, the demand for which has diminished. Textile expert Rahul Jain disagrees. “There is a difference between tradition and mere manufacture," he says.

Jain argues that “tradition represents a highly sophisticated art, of both conceiving and making, both full of meaning...whereas much of what you see today is really an industry, that supplies far larger volumes than ever in history; so the two should not be mixed up. Thus, the current woven textiles of Banaras are produced mostly from a modern powerloom and handloom industry...they may represent a successful adaptation to the needs of the time but don’t have the same meaning as ‘tradition’ had".

A model in an ensemble from the Banarasi-based Autumn/Winter 2013 collection by Abraham & Thakore
A model in an ensemble from the Banarasi-based Autumn/Winter 2013 collection by Abraham & Thakore

A study done a few years back by Krishna Dwivedi and Souvik Bhattacharya, associate fellows at The Energy and Resources Institute or Teri, found that a multitude of certification marks made identification of the original Banarasi difficult. There is the Silk Mark and the Handloom Mark but the mandatory use of the Banarasi Sari Mark (after GI) is generally absent.

The resurgence of Banarasi weaves in mainstream fashion lends the concern about fakes urgency. It’s a challenge for designers, who must do more than just make one of India’s oldest weaves a “trend". Abraham & Thakore’s collection Shaadi Redux did not use traditional motifs. Instead, with design intervention, patterns of vertical and horizontal checks on pure silk were woven to look like a slick chatai (mat). “For some garments, Lurex was woven instead of zari to challenge the notion that Indian glitter is only zari-created," says Abraham. The collection had slim pants and short tunics and a variety of non-ethnic silhouettes, busting the old notion about the form as traditional. Last month, Abraham & Thakore launched their first Banarasi line of saris, to be stocked only at Ekaya’s Delhi store.

Many other mainstream designers are exploring the Banarasi. Sabyasachi’s inclusion of brocades in his couture, juxtaposed with Khadi and gara embroidery, has been extraordinary. One of his most beautiful collections, Peeli Kothi, was named after an old street of Varanasi. An upcoming collection by Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango saris too is Banaras-inspired. It will have garments in Banarasi weaves, not just saris," he says. That’s not all. In July, designer duo Ashima Leena’s (AL) bridal collection, which marked the debut of Leena’s daughter Rhea Singh, and was shown in Delhi, also focused on Banarasi brocades. “The master-weavers were initially hesitant to revert to the time-consuming patterns; we had to convince them that it was the revival of the more complicated patterns that interested us and we aimed to bring back the large intricate motifs (which occupy a larger loom space) in collaboration with them," says Singh. She says that even the best, off-the-shelf productions of Banarasi silks and brocades in cities have been severely compromised. “They do not match the archived references," she says.

Eight-year-old Nazneen segregating threads

Five brothers and their families live together here. A goat tied to the window bleats cheerfully while modestly dressed children of all sizes crowd around our photographer. It is not yet noon but it is partially dark—there is no electricity. Ahmed’s 16-year-old son Mogeez, a reluctant weaver forced into the trade by unemployment, must rely on the daylight seeping in from the window to weave.

“We cannot make a living with handlooms. Ninety-five per cent customers now want cheap and easy-to-discard clothing. Original, handwoven silk with traditional designs is expensive and takes longer," he says, blaming fashion’s fickleness, the changing priorities of the Indian consumer and the callous attitude of the state. Ahmed says his family can only afford to eat once a day. One weaver earns about 3,500 per month, usually for two saris, as one sari takes about 15 days to make (a weaving shift is of 8 hours) with assistance from the women in the family. “The government has given free electricity to power-loom weavers instead of us working on handlooms even as we vote unconditionally every time," says Ahmed. Children are forced to work after school hours. Like eight-year-old Nazneen, who cuts the threads from power-loom saris (such freelance work is doled out per piece) and earns 40 for one sari that may take 10-12 hours of work spilling over two days.

Weaver Jameel Ahmed at home

“Without being able to quote exact figures, only 10% weavers work on handlooms the rest are employed in power looms," says Jain. He adds that out of these 10%, only a small enclave produces the traditional Banarasi sari retaining some material aspects, if little meaning, of the traditional art.

One of the oldest cities of the world, Varanasi has historically been a melting pot of global design vocabularies. Abraham points out that panels found in the palace of Versailles in France have been traced back to Varanasi.

It was in the medieval period that, skilled Muslim weavers from West Asian countries came to India with the Mughals and settled here. That’s when the weaving of brocades with intricate designs in gold and silver threads—known as kinkhaab—became the design hallmark of Varanasi. The fusion of Hindu and Muslim designs made the city an exceptional silk-weaving centre. A mishmash of weaving techniques is visible even today. We were shown Upada Banarasis (Upada is a weave from Andhra Pradesh), Patola Banarasis (Patolas are from Gujarat) and Paithani Banarasis interpreting the Maharashtrian weave.

A model in a Banarasi brocade ensemble from Gaurav Gupta’s 2013 couture show Lightfall. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images
A model in a Banarasi brocade ensemble from Gaurav Gupta’s 2013 couture show Lightfall. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

It is an ironical prosperity. “Even in the last 10 years, Varanasi is a bigger textile centre than ever before, perhaps a logical corollary to the gradual democratization of a traditionally exclusive product, and the lowering of production values and standards over a broader production base. We must celebrate it as a contemporary industry that allows a lot of people to participate and survive in a certain economic environment, while affording a lot more people the pleasure of indulging in the Banarasi. But we must separate it from our appreciation and understanding of the historical art of Banaras silk," says Jain.

It is a double bind alright. There is more Banaras in our wardrobes today than in the last 15 years but it may just be a derivative of the real. Like a slice of sagging history given a plastic facelift. A firmer application of GI norms and consumer willingness to spend more money for the original may turn the story around. Fashion designers, if they don’t slip into commercial compromises, may help with this crucial turnaround. Then we can raise a toast.

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