The Handmade Tale: India’s silk weavers

HandmadeTaleLosing your job is rarely pleasant, but simultaneously losing your employment, your cultural traditions and a way of life that supports whole communities is a worse redundancy package than most. For hundreds of thousands of Indian silk weavers, this is a reality which has seen the jobless forced into such desperate measures as selling their blood or even their own children to make ends meet. Death from starvation is common, although many take their own lives first.
It is only just dawn in Varanasi, one of Hinduism’s holiest cities, but the street corners and marketplaces are already teeming with people. Among them is Bhaiya Maurya, but he has not come here to admire the ancient temples that rise from the banks of the Ganges. He has come here, like everyone else, to look for work – any work. Over the next hour, trucks will come and collect labourers. If Bhaiya is chosen he’ll make 75 rupees today, less than £1, and he will consider himself lucky. Two days out of three his luck is out and he’ll go home empty-handed. Across the globe, recession is making countries fear the spectre of mass unemployment. Here in Uttar Pradesh, India’s northern and most populous state, there are more than three times as many mouths to feed as in the UK. The numbers out of work are staggering and the threads that bind them together are made of silk.

Patents and Protectionism in a Globalised World: voices of traditional Indian ArtisansWaiting at home in the village of Damodarpur 15 km from Varanasi is Bhaiya’s father, Hari. He is a master weaver who in the past decade has seen falling demand, rising costs and increased foreign competition decimate the silk trade. At its peak, it employed a million people in this area. Now, it employs less than half that number. As Hari explains: “A few years ago, everyone in my village was engaged in hand-weaving. Now, most people are unemployed. If everyone had work, then the village would develop automatically. First we need jobs, and only then will come safe water, electricity and roads.”

There is debate over whether the jobs they so urgently need can come from the labour-intensive hand-weaving sector, as they have in the past. The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh might have been thinking of the silk weavers of Varanasi when he told the G20 recently that he would resist the “inevitable pressures” for protectionism caused by “low growth and high unemployment”. The struggles of this industry are the familiar problems that increased mechanisation and globalisation can bring. Traditional hand-woven saris simply cannot compete on cost with machine-made garments from China.

Falling demand is also a symptom of cultural change. Fashions are changing across the subcontinent and Indian communities worldwide. Young girls are less likely than their mothers to wear saris. When they do, they want lighter, tighter designs, not the heavy, gold-and-silver-embroidered Banarasi sari of antiquity.

However, this weight of history and tradition may turn out to be the hand-weavers’ greatest asset. The Banarasi sari is famous throughout India and traditionally every Hindu bride will wear one on her wedding day. Weavers such as Hari are the only ones skilled to make it authentically, having passed the knowledge down from generation to generation. Ashok Kapoor, a trader who has worked to help preserve hand-weaving, sums up his concerns bluntly. “I don’t care about the starving weavers,” he tells me. “I care that the art is dying.”

Four and a half thousand miles away, in Whitechapel, London, there is evidence of what British politicians might call “green shoots of recovery”. The Banarasi sari remains a marketable brand. Imported saris sell for about £250, but even within India it can be difficult to be sure that what is sold as a Banarasi sari has actually originated in Varanasi. That is now changing. Realising that substandard imitations were damaging their reputation, and sales, the weavers have organised a co-operative, Banaras Bunkar Samiti (BBS). They now negotiate with traders as a group and, with support from the development agency Find Your Feet, they have managed to persuade the government to introduce a patent for Varanasi’s saris. This protects their product in the same way as champagne or Darjeeling tea. KP Verma, the assistant director of the state government’s handloom department assures me that this will have a transformative effect on the lives of the weavers, but Hari is wary. He is quick to point out that any success the patent has will rely on demand from relatively wealthy consumers who are prepared to follow the lead of Banarasi fans such as Bollywood’s Aishwarya Rai and pay a premium for luxury. Traders and exporters such as Maqbool Hasan concede that while there is still demand for genuine Banarasi silk from Indian elites, many buyers, including the large export markets of America and Europe, care only about price.

2009 VaranasiThe only thing that will revive the hand-weaving industry is co-operation. As well as lobbying the government, BBS have also formed microcredit groups to help the weavers back on their feet. A loan from the co-operative enabled Hari to reopen the loom he calls “the symbol of my pride”. It is now the only one in his village, where once there were 200, but it is a start. With help from Bhaiya’s younger brother, Krishna, Hari has diversified from saris into a wider range of garments and home furnishings targeted at India’s growing middle class. Meanwhile another son, Raju, was supported by a BBS loan to learn computerised embroidery. He is now one of the few villagers to earn a salary.

Having started out with little and lost much, the first task for these communities is creating new opportunities. Hari is a man of quiet dignity. He does not ask for charity. He wants only the opportunity to work himself and his family out of their situation.

As he says: “The most important thing in the definition of development is jobs. Work is essential for each and every hand.”

Originally published in The Guardian.

Read more about a former factory owner here: ‘Ghost in the factory’.

Read more about a local women’s microcredit group here: ‘Finance for the future’.