The audible rustle of silken wrap and wefts woven together with fine (real) gold and silver threads makes its presence felt on the Benarasi weaves. Connoisseurs of finer things are lured by the sheer beauty and intricacy of the thread work on fabric. The bridal trousseau is incomplete without the six-yard heirloom piece from this region.
Historical accounts render detailed insight on how master weavers were invigorated by prominent dynasties that ruled the subcontinent. The Mughals left no stones unturned in supporting the art form, giving weavers the necessitated reinforcement and support elevating the weaves to the point of international recognition even during the olden days.
Image Source: Travel.com
Traditionally, the weavers weaved using cotton. However with heightened demand for more luminous sheen, and smoother textures, weavers began incorporating silk of the highest quality. Cotton weaves were famously called the ‘Jamdani’ and became a hot favourite, especially during the summer months. The fabric was very well received even across foreign shores. The Banaras textile trade boomed during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today, things are changing, and this celebrated piece of fabric is dying a slow death. Weavers, who artfully weaved the fabric for generations together, find themselves living in appalling conditions. They are forced to burn their looms down to keep from the icy chills hailing from the northern frontiers.
In a tête-à-tête with Jay Ramrakhiani, an independent Mumbai based designer, we learn “most weavers are compelled to succumb to other lucrative metiers in order to make ends meet. Some do take to weaving on the side to make an extra buck. But one can observe the sharp decline in the interest to keep up with the art from as a primary means of earning a decent livelihood.”
“I personally sit with the weavers and create the designs before I ask them to execute the piece."
The couturier has prominently incorporated the weavers design skills into his eclectic range of Indian and western wear. It may interest one to learn that he played a crucial role in revivifying the Benarasi weaves, while it was on the verge of extinction. With the grants provided by the Taj group of hotels, Jay had restored the livelihood of around 200 weavers. He worked alongside the weavers artfully fashioning the employees of the Taj group of hotels. The weavers then had enough work to keep their looms from burning down. “I have ensured that the employees are well dressed, and are given valuable works of art to adorn at work.” Each hierarchy is distinguished by a style or a colour code incorporated in each piece. The brocade occupies a special place in Jay’s heart. He often accompanies visitors on excursions to the weaver’s workshop explaining them the nitty-gritties of the entire process of creating fine brocade.
The weavers were also encouraged to let their creative juices flow and create the choicest of ‘Kinkhabs’, and other traditional designs on saris and dupattas.
“I personally sit with the weavers and create the designs before I ask them to execute the piece. As a designer, I am inclined to using more traditional designs, but sometimes I do adhere to trends and special requests from patrons.”
Image Credit: Jay Ramrakhiani
Jay particularly enjoys working with traditional colours like ‘Pitambari’ (Yellows), ‘Rakhtambari’ (reds and corals), ‘Jamuni’ (Purples), Nilambari (indigoes), ‘Rani Pink’ bright and pale pinks and other hues. He bejewels the colours using traditional designs such as the ‘Anardan’ (pomegranate), ‘Junghala’ (the forest), ‘Shikarga’ (the game), ‘Kinkhab and Bootis’ (Small motifs strategically placed across the fabric, ‘Bootas’ (bigger motifs), ‘Kairis’ (The Indian mango motif) and many more, woven in real gold threads. In the earlier years; the environment around them inspired weavers. The traditional Muslim weavers steered away from incorporating figurines and stuck to nature inspired floral motifs. The latest designs involve geometric patterns as well.
The end of the Congress regime filled the weavers with a new ray of hope. The famed Modi government promised exorbitant grants to weavers in order to restore their life and livelihood. Laws were implemented restricting the use of power looms, in order to keep the traditional handloom from dying. Sadly, the tall claims were made only make to procure votes. Today all is lost. The pledged grants are nowhere in sight, and the art is on the brink of extinction again. A few eminent private bodies are trying to uplift the art form, but not much can be done overnight.
Brokers buying the drapes ruthlessly exploit the weavers. Sadly in most cases the weavers are unable to meet with the cost of the raw materials as well.
Image Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbera
“Ironic but true, but today instead of working with 200 weavers I am only working with a small set of 30 odd weavers. We made several attempts to keep the weavers from resorting to other professions, but all in vain.”, adds Jay.
Business is secretly conducted in the labyrinth of the bylanes of Benares. Recluses are oblivious to the trick of the trade, which is often conducted in code. Competition is stiff and weavers sell their wares at any price. Weavers are more inclined on selling their wares to bigger brokers make payments on the spot. Smaller brokers on the other hand pay after prolonged durations. But one must survive the tough onslaught.
Image Credit: HeritageWalkInVaranasi.com
The markets of Banaras come alive with the choicest of wares, but sadly even the seller derives pleasure in selling cheap imitations of traditional Banaras weave with gusto!
Written by: Heer Kothari