The weaver of Benarasi saris hopes the new MP will get the city better electric supply so that his loom keeps going. He also has an advice for Modi: don’t compare us with Surat.
The noise of the powerlooms is deafening — five machines in a cramped room — till someone decides to turn off the switch. It’s the day before the election results and Mohammad Yunus and the other workers get together for a quick chat. Though Yunus is not a voter in Varanasi, he has a stake here. He knows Narendra Modi is winning, but doesn’t know what to expect of him. “Let’s see what happens,” he says. “I am from Bihar, don’t know what he will do for me.”
The switch is turned on again and the looms roar back to life. A thick jumble of multicoloured threads and sari designs on cardboard hang over Yunus’s machine where a bright pink Benarasi sari takes shape.
Over two decades ago, Yunus left his home in Purnea in search of work and, like many others from neighbouring cities, came to Varanasi. He first learnt to work on handlooms and shifted to powerlooms five years ago. He now works and lives in this textile unit in Pili Kothi, a locality that has been Varanasi’s weaver hub for centuries.
About 75 per cent of Varanasi’s population is involved in the weaving trade, directly or indirectly. The city has about 5 lakh weavers. Earlier, most of the weavers were Ansaris, a backward caste of Muslims. But over the last few decades, other Muslims and Hindus too have joined the profession. While powerlooms have been around for years, it was only a decade ago that Varanasi’s weavers shifted to these machines in a major way. Now 90 per cent of the weavers work on powerlooms.
His day and life, like that of any other weaver in Varanasi, is confined to the loom. It begins at 6 in the morning and goes on until midnight, with breaks only for meals and tea. That’s a nearly 18-hour work shift. “Our work stretches because of power cuts. Sometimes, we get no electricity for 12 hours a day,” he says.
It takes about 15 days to make a 6.5-metre sari on a handloom, but a powerloom makes one in about 4 hours. Though powerlooms have increased the pace and production of their work, it has also made their lives erratic. “It’s electricity that we need the most. That’s what we expect from the new government,” says Yunus.
He gets Rs 200 for eight hours of work, during which he has to weave about 20 metres of cloth, but he usually ends up working overtime almost every day just to meet his day’s work quota.
Around 7 pm, he takes a quick break and walks up to his shanty that’s round the corner from the unit. His 12-year-old son Jamshed Hussain is sitting with a few cardboard sheets spread out in front of him. The sheets have perforations that are used to make motifs on the saris. Last year, when Yunus visited home, he brought Jamshed with him to Varanasi. Jamshed now studies in a madrasa and earns Rs 60 a day working on the sari motifs.
But Yunus knows the craft his son is learning will soon be of little use.“Now you have computers that come up with designs. Soon, we won’t need these handmade designs,” says Yunus.
A quick chat with his son and Yunus is back at work. He looks concerned, his loom seems to have developed a glitch. He knows even the slightest of errors can destroy the fabric. Tana and bana, the vertical and horizontal threads of a weave, have to be in perfect sync for the cloth to be taut. In Varanasi, these threads are also a metaphor for a society in harmony. Any of these two threads cannot be pulled out without ripping apart the cloth.
Worried, Yunus tries to fix the tana. There is just one bana, the base, in any fabric, while tana of various shades are added to lend it grace and glitz. Within minutes, the smile is back on Yunus’s face. He steals a glance at his phone. It has not rung in the last two hours. “Last year, I got my wife Afsana a mobile phone. We now talk daily,” he says.
Thread dust swirls around, weavers cough and someone talks of a government scheme for weavers — an insurance cover of Rs 15,000 for them and their families — but few here have availed of it. “We hope the new government takes care of weavers,” says Yunus.
Modi has, on several occasions during his poll campaign, compared Surat’s “vibrant” cloth factories with Varanasi’s silent looms, but the city’s weavers say they are proud of their saris. “Our sarees are of a much better quality and finesse. A woman who wears a Benarasi sari doesn’t need jewellery,” Yunus says.
While the weavers complain of price rise during the last 10 years of UPA, they admit the export of Benarasi saris saw a surge. “I hope the same momentum continues,” Yunus says.
There’s another powercut and Yunus retires to his room. He has picked another trade in recent years — making LED torches. So every time there is a powercut, he sits down to assemble these torches. Yunus is saving up to go home to Purnea for Id-ul-Zuha that’s only two months away.
The power is back in a few minutes and Yunus quickly returns to his loom.