Friday 28 September 2018

Varanasi silk - a glimpse into a struggling industry

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
Silk weaving in traditional hand looms in Pilikothi

For any visitor to Varanasi, Godowlia market is a fascinating place to be. This oldest market of Varanasi is a treasure trove for a variety of local artwork and craftsmanship. While for people in the know it is a shopping haven, for the uninitiated, it is a threatening tourist trap. The keen buyer, looking for the renowned silk of Varanasi are ambushed by pushy salesmen at every step, their presence impossible to ignore. They tempt with the promise of cheap buy along with an opportunity of visiting a local factory, thus trying to prove the authenticity of the goods offered. Any unfortunate soul falling prey to this menace will indeed be shown a factory, where mass production looms spin out bright coloured fabrics from synthetic yarn. A purchase is obligatory, and the fabrics on sale are far from the quality of silk and craftsmanship the weavers of Varanasi are known for.

With the markets flooded with counterfeit Varanasi silk, the discerning shopper hence heads to the reputed shops as a safe bet, paying a premium price for their assured authenticity. The genre of the skilled weavers of Varanasi is gradually dying out. The high cost and skill required for weaving a true Varanasi silk is further worsened by the competition it faces from the technologically advanced textile regions of India. However, some still remain in the nook and corners of Varanasi, fighting to survive and save a dying art.

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
Yarn for weaving
Pilikothi is one such area within the city, situated not too far from the tourist hub, yet barely known by many visitors. Look up on the internet and there will be a few references in some travel forums. Encountering one such post aroused my curiosity and definitely warranted a visit.

From Godowlia crossing, a short auto ride took us to Maidagin crossing. Changed over to a second auto to Pilikothi. The auto driver was curious about our destination and purpose of visit. It did not surprise when he wanted to take us to his own factory. More often than not, every auto driver in Varanasi is connected to a shop, either his own, or of his cousin, or a friend and will try to persuade a visit. I was armed with a name - Haji Khalilullah Mohd Din, which I had bumped into on the internet, and saved us the hassle.

Varanasi, despite being known as the holy city of the Hindus, is actually a beautiful amalgamation of all religions. Approaching Pilikothi, the change in the religious landscape was obvious. The mosques, which are dotted around Varanasi, appeared more frequently in close proximity here. The roadside shop names proclaimed their owner's religion. Traditionally the delicate weaving of the Varanasi silk has been the realm of the Muslim households, the art handed down through generations of proud weavers.

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
The narrow, dusty lanes of Pilikothi reverberate with the sound of the semi automatic looms

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
The houses are over a century old
We got off near the Purva Madhyamik Vidyalay. There are a cluster of schools near the area on the Harthirath marg, which helps in easy navigation. Narrow lanes led us into the heart of Pilikothi. Century old buildings stood alongside the narrow, dusty lanes -  empty and away from the din of the main streets. But it was far from being quiet. The old walls reverberated with the rhythmic rumble from the tirelessly working looms. I felt I had been snatched and teleported to a different world. Every building in the area housed a family of weavers where the looms rumbled. Most of them had their own shop. We found the one we came looking for and headed in.

The neighbourhood is a favourite haunt of every retailer across the country. Purchases are made at wholesale prices and sold at a premium in fancy air-conditioned shops. Hence, as we entered, the first thing we wanted to clarify, we were definitely not sellers. Our purpose of visiting Pilikothi was out of interest and possible purchase for personal use. We received a warm welcome by the whole family and were seated in the gaddi, the shop floor where business was conducted. The sound of the working looms rumbled on as rich tea was served.

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
In-house store set up in the gaddi
We were introduced to a to a young man, Sufiyan, who was to help us with our visit. After completing his studies from Benaras Hindu University, Sufiyan had joined the corporate world and had his bright future set out. But about a year ago, he decided to leave his comfortable life and joined the family business instead. Hoping to ease the plight of the weaver community, since then his aim has been to build a strong online presence for his family business thus bringing this dying art to the people. The industry is in dire need of finance and publicity.

The finished goods were laid out on the covered floor - sarees, dupattas, dress materials, scarves. Though some were in beautiful soft silk, the use of other natural fabric in sarees was apparent. Pure silk is expensive, requires maintenance and worn only on special occasions. As a result, they have dropped in popularity in recent years. The more contemporary use of cotton and part mixed silk is a much desired choice, especially since they retain the speciality of the Varanasi weavers in their beautiful traditional patterns.

With no background on textiles, it was educational getting an insight into the industry and its working

The traditional Varanasi silk designs
Sufiyan took us into a room on a mezzanine floor where his uncle, the in-house designer, was hunched over a drawing board. On a piece of paper was drawn a delicate budding flower, meticulously painted in multiple hues. He was now representing his creation in accurate dimensions on a graph sheet. A small flower like the one we saw could take up to five hours of work. The completed graph sheet would be then sent away to be converted into punch cards and finally the punch cards fed into the semi automatic looms where the design would come alive in the fabric. After seeing some of the incredibly intricate designs he had drawn out, I realised I will never look at a saree the same way again.

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
The designs from the in-house designer. I deliberately blurred them out to respect their trade secret
Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
The fabric for a dress material lies around, freshly weaved

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
The threads still need to be trimmed
The adjacent rooms housed the looms which work throughout the day. We had to speak in raised voices to be heard over their constant rumble. The semi automatic looms, as the name suggests, still require human intervention. In my layman understanding, the lengthwise yarns or warp, are painstakingly laid out manually. Depending on the fabric, the number of threads could reach up to thousands. The loom then reads the punch cards and weaves the transverse yarns or weft, into the fabric. Silk is never woven in the semi automatic looms, as the thread is too delicate for the harsh handling of the machines. The traditional hand looms are still used for weaving the precious yarn, which we were lucky to be shown next.

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
The semi automatic loom creates the designs from the punch cards

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
The punch cards upclose

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
The weave is automatic, needing some human intervention

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
The looms cannot weave the delicate silk, but churn out other fabrics efficiently
Sufiyan led us to the adjacent building, belonging to another of his uncles. A narrow entrance door brought us into a small square courtyard in the centre of the two story building. He knocked softly on one of the doors on the ground floor. The door opened and they spoke in hushed voices. It was apparent he was trying not to disturb someone in there. The room was dark. A feeble incandescent bulb was switched on as we entered.

I could hear the subtle knocking of wood as my eyes adjusted to the dim light. On the other end of the room, a weaver was working on a hand loom, creating a bright red fabric which was glistening in the low light. The woven length was rolled up inside a plastic sheet for protection.

Weaving a standard silk saree can take about a fortnight. He had spent the previous four days working only on the pallu. For the weavers working on the hand loom, the weave design which we earlier saw programmed in a punch card, is set out in their head instead. A single mistake and the whole saree would be unsuitable for selling. Hence the need for darkness and the complete silence to help his concentration. We were feeling guilty about out intrusion and was hoping we weren't the cause of a disturbance to his tenacious routine. We thanked and made a quiet exit.

Varanasi silk weavers of Pilikothi
Hand loom weaving requires much skill and concentration

The silk threads
Visiting the premises of a true silk factory made us realise the reason behind high price asked for the silk sarees. A simple silk saree will sell between Rs 7,000 to Rs 10,000 (£70 to £100). A hand woven silk saree where the patterns are woven in with individual yarns, thus not needing any post weave trimming will need about three months work and their price can go up to Rs 50,000 (About £500) in retail shops. Depending on the skill required, design and quality of the threads, the price can even reach Rs 4,50, 000 (£4,500 approximately). The weaving industry needs high skill, and with the higher paying and technically advanced textile industries of Surat, the skill is fast draining from Varanasi.

We made a few purchases at the premises, but not of the famed silk and instead settling for the cotton ones. I loved the silk scarves woven in self patterns, so purchased a few as I could own a small piece of the lovely fabric without breaking a bank. The stock in their in-house shop was limited compared to what is expected in a retail shop. But we knew that what we were looking at was genuine craftsmanship, created lovingly by a family struggling to keep a dying art alive. However, the best way to make purchase is to look out for new products which Sufiyan posts regularly on their web page. The goods can be ordered online and are delivered throughout the country. Needless to say, they disappear fast. The details are given below.

Speaking to Sufiyan, and visiting the family changed my perspective of the weaver community in Varanasi. I could see how much this traditional craftsmanship meant to all the families in the locality. Also as like any other industry, it is more than just the weavers who make it work. Starting from the preparation of the yarn, once a saree is woven, there still remains a multitude of labour intensive activities for it to be considered a finished product. Unfortunately, the dying industry is also casting a shadow on these ancillary industries as more and more people are put out of job everyday.

The cost of running the looms is high. The machines need daily maintenance check as a single slip up can destroy the whole weaving. They are in dire need of a technology upgrade which the weavers cannot afford. While visiting the weaver community was an enriching experience, it also definitely created a sadness within. But what fascinated me was despite all their struggles, we were still greeted with an openness and warmth I didn't expect and was left speechless with gratitude.

Haji Khalillulah Mohd. Din
Web page: Haji Khalilullah Mohd. Din
Facebook Page: Orchid Silk

Here is a video I had posted on Facebook from my visit: Pilikothi - Varanasi

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