Woven Textiles of Varanasi

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Item Code: NAJ982
Author: Jaya Jaitly
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Language: English
Edition: 2014
ISBN: 9789383098378
Pages: 128 (Throughout Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.0 inch x 8.5 inch
Weight 800 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


One of the strong and best known traditions of weaving in India is situated in Varanasi. It has had a tumultuous history of ups and downs but has steadfastly refused to be obliterated. Many cities have risen and fallen, but Varansi clings to its title as the oldest living city in the world. The River Ganga flows by, offering a sense of sacredness, continuity and eternal salvation for those whose last rites are performed on its banks. Hundreds of thousands of visitors touch upon Varanasi as a place of pilgrimage, to connect with history or to get under the skin of India’s spirituality.


Against this backdrop, the author, Jaya Jailty, emphasises the need to acknowledge the beauty of Varanasi’s textiles emerging out of age-old traditions and techniques. She highlights the danger of the loss of livelihoods and highly sophisticated skills. The erosion of identity and importance in the wake of machine-made imitations being produced in other parts of the world has already begun. The book also present, linking them to different moments in the city’s history, and makes a powerful case for rediscovering, preserving and patronizing these textile treasure that are inextricably bound to the ancient aura of the city.


About the Author


Jaya Jaitly studied in Japan, Burma, Belgium, and the UK. She graduated from Smith Collage, USA.


Apart from being a political and social activist, she has an intimate knowledge of the craft traditions of the country, having worked with crafts people for over 40 years. She is considered a leader and expert in this field.


In 1986 she founded an association of crafts people called the Dastkari Haat Samiti, which enables traditional workers to gain confidence in the marketplace through many innovative strategies. She is the creator of the concept of Dilli Haat, a crafts marketplace in Delhi. It enables thousands of artisans to sustain craft livelihood and preserve their cultural heritage.


She is a prolific writer and has published books on the Crafts of Jamun, Kashmir and Ladakh, the Craft Traditions of India, Viswakarma’s Children, a socio-economic study of crafts people, and Crafting Nature. She has created a vast documentation of the arts, crafts and textiles of India through 24 highly artistic and unique maps of all the states of India, called the Crafts Atlas of India. She has written stories on crafts children that were first published by Penguin and now widely distributed in many regional languages through the well-known NGO Pratham. She has assisted in creating, a syllabus for schools of India’s craft heritage for NCERT. Her recent publication Crafting Indian Script is based on a major project called Akshara combining literacy, craft and calligraphy. A Podium on the Pavement is a selection of her writings on a variety of subjects including politics, foreign affairs, women and social issues. She is also the editor and publisher of The Other Side, a monthly political journal on democratic socialist through and action.




Our highest salute should go to the entire community of people involved in keeping alive the traditions of handloom weaving in Varanasi. From the lowliest weaver, who is occasionally and tragically compelled to donate his blood to earn money to feed his family, to aged women who continue to sort yarn and spin, despite wearing broken spectacles and living in penury, to the elite group of Muslim and Hindu masterweavers; add to these the zari makers, exporters, traders, shopkeepers, urban textile designers, and dedicated activists and academics, all of them are enmeshed in this collective strength that refuses to let honoured skills die. It may be a compulsion for some because there is no other option for survival in sight. Many view it simply as tradition or habit. For others it is a source of prestige, pride and earning.


Older weavers reminisce nostalgically of the days when the younger generation came to learn and worked hard to hone the skills they were taught. Today they shake their heads in disapproval and despair as they describe how young men are busier with their mobile phones than with handwork, preferring to sit at a powerloom, provided the power is on, reading a film magazine while the machine does the work. They curse computerization and cheap foreign imitations of what their old naqshabands and masterweavers used to lovingly create. One masterweaver who owns a well-known establishment said tears had welled up in his eyes when he saw a master piece made by his forefathers hanging at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


I have made many trips to Varanasi over the years. The first was in 1956, the year Banaras officially became Varanasi, as a fourteen- year-old girl who had suddenly lost her father and was, in an unusual departure from tradition, taken to the holy ghats to perform the last rites and consign his ashes to the mighty River Ganga. For Hindus, this task is reserved for a son or nephew. However, being an only child, others in my matrilineal family from Kerala took an exceptional decision to place this onerous task in the hands of a young girl. Strangely, it was an empowering one for me.


The movement of the grand river flowing past with a power and determination of its own, the smell of incense, ghee and other auspicious substances thrown into a small fire at specified moments of the recitations, sending plumes of smoke rising and mingling with the white air, and the sound of chanting by a dozen of priests invoking everlasting peace for the departed soul, never went away from lny irincr memories although I have kept away from rituals ever since. These scenes still take place on the banks of the Ganga every day. People come from all over the world, cameras at hand, to watch this ultimate reality show of life, death, continuum and spirituality.


All my subsequent visits to Varanasi have been for the cause of artisans and weavers whose sad conditions, immense potential, and rich collective heritage have drawn me repeatedly to the narrowest and dirtiest by-lanes of this eternal city. At first, there was comfort in being amongst a continuing process that seemed as if it would go on forever. As years went by, the situation gradually turned grim. Looms began to lie idle, many draped with cobwebs that hung like grey garlands over wooden frames. The noise of the loud whirring of powerlooms took over from the gentler clackety-clack of the handloom. The grandgaddidars still sat against their bolsters on mattresses covered in white sheeting, but they began bemoaning the loss of markets. Governments sporadically came in with' schemes' to tide over their problems. But even while metres of sumptuous cloth unravel on those white mattresses, and piles upon piles of shimmering golden-hued saris are brought out to seduce women customers, there has been an air of quiet desperation about their condition matched almost equally by their enterprising efforts to re fashion production and reach out to the world as they did in better times.


For generations, the purchase of a Banarasi sari for weddings has been a matter of habit. Mine was no different. For all those women for whom sari wearing is a tradition, possessing a 'Banarasi' is a necessity. Not only does the bride have to wear a kumkum red, fuschia pink or flaming orange and gold brocade sari, she would also have a sheer 'tissue' veil woven all through with zari threads over her shoulders, for added modesty and adornment. The bridegroom's. turban would most probably be of Banarasi silk or tissue as well. Changes in style, habits and other extraneous influences may have brought the number of customers down, but when families have to buy saris in bulk to give to a number of female relatives as part of mandatory wedding custom, the Banarasi is always the most sought after, most appreciated. It is also the handiest to collect from the myriad shops in the bustling noisy city or from the air- conditioned showrooms of the more fortunate entrepreneurs. At the same time, cries of mechanized imitations and the dumping of cheap and tawdry alternatives in the marketplace became louder. Globalization has made trade freer than it ever was in the time of the Mughals or British rule. In these processes the strong displace the weak, hands give way to machines, and creative minds give way to computer-programmed designs.


The internet allowed competitors to pick up motifs that were never a part of the local culture and conveyed no roots in any particular identity or history. As far as possible, weavers have tried to adapt and move with the times. They give the single tag 'modern' to new additions in patterns like plain dots, zigzags, stripes, bows and English roses, as against the more elaborate traditional ones with Urdu names that described soft mist, the jasmine blossom or the famed nilambari sari which is in a particular shade of blue-black depicting the night sky, dotted with tiny butis in silver and gold zari like stars across a luminous firmament.


Fearing that the excesses of mindless globalization would bring about the extinction of precious localized traditions in textile manufacturing, local wisdom and techniques applied to the preparation and preservation of food, medicinal herbs and compounds and other cultural expressions that form a part of a country's tangible and intangible heritage, the Government of India established the Geographical Indicators Act in December 1999. It allowed claimants to such legacies to apply for legal protection against imitations of the same name by competitors who did not belong to that area. Basmati rice, Haldiram' savouries, neem toothpaste, Chanderi saris, and Banaras brocades, among others, had all come under threat. Hard work put in by many concerned organizations and individuals won protection under the Act for Banarasi Silks in 2009. The announcement was of profound importance. It was communicated by Law Wire-Communicating the Law, among other sources, on Tuesday, September 22, 2009. I reproduce an extract from this website so that the full import of these rights can be understood:


Banarasi Silk receives GI rights (India) Banarasi silk products have been registered under Geographical Indication (GI) rights with the name 'Banaras Brocades and Sarees'. This is the first ever GI status that any product in Eastern UP has received. Malihabadi Dussehri mango is another product that is enjoying GI status in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The GI rights curb others from processing or marketing any product under the same name and are as good as intellectual property rights. The GI certificate for Banarasi silk products have been received by the office of Assistant Director (Handloom) and other applicants. The certificate will prove to be advantageous for exporters and consumers, along with hand loom weavers, said Mr. Rajni Kant, President, Human Welfare Association (HWA) who is also one of the applicants. As GI status is the measure to restrict the misuse of Banarasi sari brand, it would benefit around 1.2 million people who are directly or indirectly associated with handloom silk industry of the region. According to the certificate issued by the registrar of GI, Banaras Brocades and Sarees come under four classes (13-26) that include silk brocades, textile goods, silk sarees, dress material and silk embroidery. This registration is for 10 years, which can be renewed further.


However, laws may accord rights but are only instruments. They do not guarantee survival unless many other sustaining inputs are available and the Act involves processes that assist easy enforcement. For the woven treasures of Varanasi it would mean access to cotton and silk yarn at reasonable and controlled prices, an efficient route to a wide variety of markets, including international ones, better facilities and workplaces for weavers, and a concerted campaign to highlight the hidden textile treasures origin a ting from this holy city. Understanding the differences between imitations and the real thing is also important.


While wandering along the ghats and visiting bookshops geared for tourists in Varanasi, I found many books on the Ganga, the holy city and its temples, but none on its weaving traditions that date far back in history and have been carrying on unbroken since their inception, just as the city itself has been an active living organism from an age that no history book can remember. If all who come to Varanasi to seek eternal bliss, enlightenment and salvation, took time to explore the interiors of the city where weavers proudly display their creations, they would be extending a helping hand to the tradition of fine weaving and its skilled and hard working practitioners. My writing is to give just a small, informal glimpse of Varanasi's textile past, present and future. It hopes to share with the reader the vast potential still very much alive among the few thousand remaining looms scattered in its rural and urban workplaces.






Varanasi Through Time


Types of Looms


Weaving Techniques


Handloom, Continuity and the River Ganga






Photo Credits





Sample Pages

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