In 1968, 21-year-old Ashok Dhawan, on the verge of joining his family’s wholesale business of Banarasi saris in Varanasi, was asked by his father to go sight-seeing. From Agra’s Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri to other places known for Mughal monuments, Dhawan was to observe the finer points of the architecture and absorb every nuance —from floral motifs to the intricate jali (mesh) work.
“It’s because the motifs that you see on Banarasi saris, what are commonly referred to as bootis, are all inspired by Mughal architecture. The jali is what you will see on the pallu (loose end of the sari) of the katan (a type of weave)," he says. Dhawan, former president of Banarasi Vastra Udyog Sangh, is sitting with Jagdish Shah of Jagdish Das & Co., one of the biggest wholesalers of Banarasi saris in the latter’s store at Chowk, one of the most famous markets of the city. The conversation moves back and forth in time as they relive the heady days of the trade and its decline in the two decades starting 1990s, thanks to the popularity of power loom saris and trade policies signed by India following the economic reforms of 1991.
It is believed that during the famine of 1603, silk weavers from Gujarat migrated to Banaras and that was how silk brocade weaving started in Banaras. “Some say that even Lord Ram and Sita wore Banarasi handloom but that’s the stuff of legend. The history we are aware of is recent," says Dhawan. The Banarasi sari trade traditionally has three links; the first is the weaver or the bunker as he is colloquially known. The weaver works for a grihastha (master weaver) who sources the raw material, decides the designs and takes the saris to the wholesaler, who is known as gaddidar. Dhawan and Shah are both gaddidars. It is through them that the saris move onto stores and customers. “Trade in Banaras has always been along these lines. This aspect hasn’t changed come socialism or economic reforms," says Dhawan.
In a 2013, Mint reported that Varanasi was home to “approximately 500,000-odd weavers". According to a 2009 article in The Hindu, the size of the Banaras handloom market was estimated at Rs4,000 crore, although exact figures are difficult to come by. The reason for this, according to Dhawan, is that this is a business that works purely on trust and with little or no paperwork. “A grihastha can leave saris the combined value of which can run into crores and he never demands a receipt or leaves a price tag on the works," he says. There was a time when Banarasi silks were the emperors of the sari market. No wedding was complete without them.
However, in the mid-1980s, the first signs of trouble began to emerge with the growing popularity of power looms. These looms, which started out by making cotton saris, soon graduated to organza and other materials, says Dhawan. A piece that would take a weaver 10-15 days to weave, could be spun out in a day. Power-loom woven saris are difficult to distinguish from a handloom product and they were considerably cheaper.
In the 1990s, the handloom industry was dealt a body blow due to a combination of several factors, including changing tastes of customers as well as trade practices. In 1999-2000, the Indian government allowed duty-free imports of plain Chinese crepe yarn. Saris made from this yarn were easily available and at half the price, leading to a booming market.
A report titled Suicide and Malnutrition Among Weaver in Varanasi, commissioned by Peoples’ Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, states that the government imposed a ban on weaving with Chinese silk yarn from 1995 to 1998 in an attempt to protect the domestic silk industry.
“While this may have increased the demand for domestic silk, it had the inverse effect on Banarasi saris. Using the higher cost Bangalore silk only heightened the price gap between Banarasi saris and less expensive substitutes," said the report.
In 2001, quantitative restrictions on silk imports were abolished. This led to the market being flooded with considerably cheaper Chinese silk. “Chinese silk works well on the power loom so there was a surge in these saris dealing a further body blow to the Banarasi trade," explains Dhawan. This, coupled with the boom in man-made fabric from Surat that churned out synthetic saris including the “Banarasi" kind, meant that the handloom trade was severely hit.
“Earlier in all the big stores in cities, from Frontier to CTC, there used to be shelves and shelves of Banarasis. Then there came a time when no one stocked Banarasis beyond a few pieces," recalls Shah of Jagdish Das & Co.. This was the time when news reports about the abject conditions of the weavers started coming out. Men had to forsake the generations-old family trade to work as rickshaw pullers in order to make ends meet. In desperation, some even resorted to selling their blood. The despair drove some others to suicide. Consequently, the number of weavers started dwindling. Many among those who remain prefer to work on power looms as that brings in more money.
In 2009, however, a revival of interest in the Banaras weave started among the fashion community. The first manifestation of this was designer Sabyasachi’s collection, Peeli Kothi. Others prominent designers such as Abraham and Thakore and Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango followed suit. These designers didn’t just revive the Banarasi weave, but took it beyond its traditional form, making garments out of the fabric, in a “non-ethnic silhouette" as a Mint article of November 2013 explains.
However, Dhawan also attributes the weave’s revival to a declining interest in “embroidery saris", the term he uses for crepes and chiffons festooned with rhinestones and crystals. Also, since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Varanasi, there has been a distinct political push to revive the Banarasi weave. Fashion Weeks have had Banaras inspired finales and capsules, and there have been exhibitions in museums in Delhi and Mumbai. “There has been an improvement but it’s still in the early stages. The glory days are just a memory now. Let’s see if they come back," says Dhawan.