Varanasi has had many names, beginning with Baranasi in old Pali scripts, and many others like Avimytaka, Suranshana, Ramya and Kashi, before officially becoming Varanasi in 1956. The city of Varanasi has an unquantifiable aura of being ageless and undefinably spiritual. It offers a warm sense of peace and continuity, as you leave the chaos of the city and sit on the steps of any ghat along the banks, getting lost in the stillness of the ever-moving Ganga. Perhaps, in the same way, possessing a Banarasi brocade or a tanchoi sari — crafted by a weaver from Varanasi, offers the steady reassurance of tradition and continuity in a life full of sartorial changes.
The names of different weaves and designs, too, lend a special allure to the story of the ‘Banarasi’ sari, as ubiquitous in a trousseau as the Banarasi paan is at a roadside kiosk. Like the multiple names of Varanasi, sari patterns, motifs and techniques like chaudani pallu, jangla, kinkhab, minakari, konia shikargah, ashrafi, to name a few. Even colours have a variety of names — nilambari for the night sky and kapur safed for camphor white. The weave and the name combine to create a magical identity for each sari.
But what about the weavers themselves? At the lowest rung are those who earn a pittance when master weavers give them work. They subsist from order to order, with no reassurance of regular work. A rung above them are weavers fortunate enough to be kept on by master weavers whether there are enough orders or not, simply because they need an assured work force. Despite the buzz in cosmopolitan cities that the popularity of saris is going down because “girls do not like wearing saris anymore”, there are master weavers, gaddidars, who have four-storied showrooms, selling only saris. They have customers who will buy over two dozen expensive saris at a time for a family wedding as giveaways, and aristocratic ladies of Bengal who demand reproductions of old heirlooms regularly. Bollywood couturiers rely heavily on Banarasi saris and film actors wearing them encourage trends among aspirational women.
Fashion designers have also been working for some years with their special weaving establishments in Varanasi. Often, I have found a beautiful, differently designed scarf among a master weaver’s routine collection. When asked where it’s sold, he answers that it is specially ordered by a designer who forbids him from selling it to anyone else. The weaver’s name never appears and he has no idea at what price it is ultimately sold. The difference in cost and sale price is very often 10 times higher, and the brand label makes all the difference. While we flaunt the names of Indian and foreign designers on our handbags and evening gowns, why is the weaver, who holds the essential knowledge of its techniques in his hands, given the go-by? Even Bollywood boasts of wearing a Ralph Lauren or a Manish Malhotra but never a Maqbool Hussain or Mohamad Junaid of Varanasi, when no new design can evolve without their active involvement and ideas. Even reproductions and renewals carry the designer’s name and not that of the original weaver’s establishment.
Banarsi brocades are known for the rich glimmers of gold and are not quite everyday wear. So, my old saris are now holders of memories, wrapped in muslin cloth, and kept inside a drawer. New developments in linen yarn and jute are adding to the repertoire, thanks to the efforts of textile designers. But, until the weaver has the respect and remuneration accorded to our designers, and, better systems worked out to find fair space for handloom, powerloom, computerised systems, better yarn supply, efficient dyeing and processing centres — our love of the Banarasi should not be considered enough.
Jaya Jaitly is former president of the Samata Party and founder of Dastkari Haat Samiti.