A TALE WOVEN IN SILK
- Composed & contributed by Milan Sharma for The Street Edit
When you visit the holy city of Banaras (Varanasi), you cannot help but include a shopping spree to buy the famed Banarasi Silk Saree. But be warned of cheap imitations of the original craft. Some exquisitely priced and fancy, while some are downright cheap and too jazzed-up. Finding the traditional Banarasi silk fabric will take some leg-work. Hence, I set off to see how the much-coveted royal fabric is woven to create a stunning work of art. Walking through labyrinthine lanes, I reached a small and dilapidated weavers colony in the ancient city of Varanasi. I saw these weavers belonging to the Ansari muslim community working on handlooms and shuttle looms. Some were even working on mechanized looms to produce yards of Banarasi silk the city is so famous for.
But the once sought-after destination for Indian craftsmanship is slowly losing its sheen. I had read about the royal fabric and how embroideries are weaved onto it by skilled weavers. One such art known as 'Kadua' is fading away to oblivion, leaving only a two families to continue the delicate craft.In this form of interlocked weaving technique, intricate patterns or motifs are stitched by various silk threads onto the fabric being weaved on a hand-loom. The weaver creates the design on a warp of threads without having to cut it at the end of each pattern.
The weavers explained many reasons for the slow death of this mastery. There is a dearth of skilled weavers as they do not wish to learn the craft due to the fall in demand. This piece of artistry is completed hand-woven and takes a long time to create. Moreover, modern forms of weaving such as the shuttle hand-loom can make a 6-meter fabric in a fortnight. A dupatta with authentic Kadua work will require 3 months to create and costs upwards of Rs. 12,000 in Varanasi. Try to source the same fabric elsewhere, the buyer can end up shelling out Rs. 30,000 for the same.
Influencers in Indian fashion and haut-couturiers, barring a few like Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Ritu Kumar, Anita Dongre, have not been able to provide patronage to this artistry. Many designers and retail outlets are selling machine-made fabrics to naive consumers at high premiums. The only way to check if a Banarasi silk is authentic or fake is to burn the thread. If the thread smells like burnt hair, it is an original. The Banarasi dupatta I bought passed the test with flying colours. Even though machines have reduced the time taken by a weaver to less than one fifth, but they still haven't been able to replace the quality and the intricacy of hand-work. Many who understand this still prefer this heavy weave to be a part of their bridal trousseau. Actor Aishwarya Rai Bachchan famously wore a Banarasi silk saree on her wedding which was custom-made on order.
I left satisfied with my purchases but wondered what we could do as buyers to conserve the charm of the Banarasi silk. We can refuse to buy cheap imitations that are destroying this regal industry. For the connoisseurs of royal fabrics, a Banarasi silk saree remains and will forever remain an elegant and priced possession.