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European, British and American backpackers, Japanese or Korean Buddhists, students of religion and others who have simply been attracted by the idea of Varanasi’s sacredness and antiquity often forget that antiquity itself is composed of many threads, influences, cultures, people and thought. The handloom tradition is one such important thread that should be woven into the entire fabric of this city," writes Jaya Jaitly, a crafts activist and politician.

To those closely following India’s handloom story, its confounding ups and downs, its economic challenges and issues of personal and professional identity for weavers, these lines—which appear towards the end of Jaitly’s recently published book, Woven Textiles Of Varanasi—suggest that as a country we are still far from a forward curve in textile reinvention. That she draws a metaphor between the pollution of the Ganga and the pollution of the textile tradition threatened by global imitations (especially Chinese reproductions of Varanasi silk) further compels us to think. Must machine-based modernization, digital diligence and computer-aided textiles on the one hand, and tradition, antiquity, handmade yarn and employment hazards for weavers, on the other, be seen as stark opponents in a tale of sustenance? Must their unavoidable battle only mean the downfall of tradition? Why has talking about handlooms become a staple war cry?

Woven Textiles Of Varanasi: By Jaya Jaitly, Niyogi Books, 128 pages, 995.
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Woven Textiles Of Varanasi: By Jaya Jaitly, Niyogi Books, 128 pages, 995.

The book is filled with photographs. It has images of woven saris, from Jamdani to jacquard and tissue to brocade, including the kinkhab variety where motifs are embedded in a field of zari to replicate jewellery enamelling. There are photographs of lehngas and lehnga panels showing paisleys, peacocks, parrots and other traditionally common motifs, as well as poet-saint Kabir’s poetry, recreated in the Devanagari script, on silks. The book meanders, quite like the Ganga, through multiple realities, history and the influence of Mughal rule. It reframes for us the idea of Varanasi, the oldest living city in the world, through textiles.

Besides oft-heard arguments about the condition of weavers that are inconsonant with the richness of the fabrics that they produce, there are some sparkling insights. For instance, that Varanasi textiles were even mentioned in the writings of Patanjali in the second century BC; they were referred to as the Kasika textile. Or, how the holy cloth called gyaser, used in Buddhist monasteries, was woven in Varanasi for centuries; selected local weavers still weave cloth with Tibetan symbols, borders and patterns for Buddhists around the world.

Books such as this compel us to ask why it has become imperative to find and strengthen new links of reinvention between textile traditions and the modern vocabularies of design and motif. Must modernization only mean the doom of weavers or are there bigger socio-political and technological solutions that haven’t been explored? After all, Varanasi is no longer just an antique Indian city; it is the city from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi wove his electoral win. Can that help crack this complex dichotomy between old and new?

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