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 only in 1956. The city of Varanasi has an unquantifiable aura of being agelessly old, undefinably spiritual, and offering a sense of peace and continuity when 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 River Ganga. In the same way, possessing a brocade, a tissue or a tanchoi sari woven by a weaver from Varanasi, wearing it on your wedding day, or possessing one, is like having the reassurance of tradition and continuity in a life of full of sartorial changes. The names of different kinds of weaves and designs of the saris too lend a special story to the ‘Banarsi’ sari, as ubiquitous in a trousseau as the Banarsi 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 , kadwa kairi, badam, ambi, pan buti, gendabuti, t 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.
I have always linked my love of the Indian textile aesthetic with pride in the skills of traditional weavers and the imperative to ensure the survival of the heritage they carry in their fingers. Unlettered and unsupported, they create beautiful fabrics to adorn priests, popes, monks and monarchs all over the world. Monasteries are decorated with gyasers woven on the looms of Varanasi, and upholsteries in Middle eastern kingdoms are covered in fabrics made of peacock feathers also woven in Varanasi. My future mother-in-law gave me a rich pink silk Banarsi with golden motifs all over, to wear on my engagement day. My mother showed me her old Banarsi. I chose to wear that on my wedding day and not a freshly bought one which I felt was just a waste of money. It was an old rose tissue in which gold and pink silk threads were interwoven, with a pallu and wide borders decorated with pure zari foliage in the jamdani style. The next day, for the reception I had a more elaborate dark pink and gold striped Banarsi that belonged to my great aunt. I felt I carried the weight of my family history. It was already quite old, so while the gold threads (actually real silver dipped in gold) held out, the ageing silk began giving way, parting company from the zari strips which weighed the silk down. Being from Kerala it was more natural to have chosen a rich Kanjeevaram to wear for one’s wedding, but somehow, Banarsis cropped up at each such auspicious occasion and made me feel much more comfortable than if I had worn a stiff newly bought sari that had no story to tell me. In any household that is sari-wearing, where women still hold on to some customary cultural practices involving the use of craft or textiles, which would be at least 70% of India, a Banarsi brocade is bound to have been bought for a special occasion, and treasured till it frays. Even today, elder women pull out their old handloom treasures, offering them to collectors, museums, exhibition curators, their daughters, and even to designers who want to replicate the intricate old weaves, motifs and tasteful colourways.
But what about the weavers themselves? There are weavers living at many levels in Varanasi. At the lowest rung are those who earn a pittance when master weavers give them work. The subsist from order to order with no reassurance of regular work, and often desperation sets in. A rung above them come the weavers who are fortunate enough to be kept on by master weavers whether there are enough orders or not, simply because they need an assured work force at hand when orders are received. Production increases between September and March which encompasses the festive and wedding seasons for all communities. For those who do not wear saris, there is the salwar suit, sharara or lehngas to weave. Despite the buzz in large cosmopolitan cities that sari wearing is going down because ‘girls do not like wearing saris anymore’, there are master weavers, gaddidars, who have four-storied show rooms, 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 Banarsi saris and film actors wearing them encourage trends among aspirational women.
Fashion designers have been working for some years with their special weaving establishments in Varanasi. Often, I have found a beautiful, differently designed scarf among the master weaver’s routine collection. When asked where it is 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 is most often ten 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 even 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 every day wear, so my old saris are now holders of memories, wrapped in muslin cloth, and kept in a drawer. New developments in linen yarn and jute are adding to the repertoire, thanks to 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, computerized systems, better yarn supply, efficient dyeing and processing centres, our love of the Banarsi should not be considered enough.