For Weavers of Festive Banarasi Sarees, Stagnating Incomes Leave No Room for Celebration

Reduced demand for sarees and a steep increase in prices of raw materials in the last five years have hit Varanasi’s weavers the most in the long supply chain of saree trade.

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Varanasi: Pointing at two scrap dealers who struggled to move their loaded cart through a narrow, meandering lane of Varanasi’s Nati Imli, Mohammad Ahmad Ansari says, “Many weavers have sold off their power looms during the lockdown.”

The two men were indeed carrying parts of a dismantled power loom that a bunkar (weaver) had sold at the price of scrap iron. An unprecedented financial crunch has loomed over Nati Imli, home to thousands of weavers whom the world knows as makers of zari-based, silk-bodied Banarasi sarees, ever since lockdown restrictions were imposed.

“One has to understand that Banarasi sarees are not for daily use. They are richly textured, intricately-designed and woven with great skill and care, which makes them a little expensive. They are worn for festivals and important occasions. Over the last three years, the demand for sarees has drastically reduced as people are unwilling to spend much on non-essential items anymore,” Ansari says.

Stagnating incomes, reduced demand for sarees and a steep increase in prices of raw materials in the last five years have hit Varanasi’s weavers the most in the long supply chain of saree trade.

“In Banaras, there is a famous saying. Bechne jao toh bikegi nahin, kharidne jao toh milegi nahin (When you go to sell, you can’t sell; when you go to buy, you can’t buy),” the 60-year-old Ansari says.

Nat Imli Bankar colony, Varanasi. Photo: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

What Ansari meant was the reduced demand over the last decade has forced traders to create an artificial shortage of Banarasi sarees in markets to maximise profits from limited stocks. The trend has affected not only weavers but also customers. “Traders do not buy as much as they used to, while an average customer can’t afford a genuine Banarasi saree at the current prices,” Ansari explains.

“The only time of the year when our conditions improve is marriage season. People still prefer wearing Banarasi sarees at weddings,” Ansari says.

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At this point, 30-year-old Akeel Akhtar, one of the few weavers in Nati Imli who still uses a handloom, intervenes. “A Banarasi saree exchanges at least four hands before it is finally sold to a customer. At every step, the cost of a saree increases by 30%. But the one who makes it earns the least in the chain.”

The sound of working power looms in every residence of the dense Nati Imli echoes across streets, making conversations difficult. But Akhtar says that the noise is like music to his ears. “We have been born amidst this noise. Every member of the family is involved in the saree-making process. When the looms stop, there is a lull in the locality. The lockdown forced a market shutdown; we were forced to stop the looms. The whole period felt like an extended funeral ceremony.”

Akhtar. Photo: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

A saree made in a handloom takes anywhere between 20-30 days, while one power loom can make “2.5” sarees in 14 hours, Ansari says. “Since handloom sarees can only be afforded by the super-rich, only those weavers who have some disposable income are using handlooms. The rest of us have switched to power looms to ensure a steady income, however little it may be,” he adds.

Most of these power looms are “second-hand”, he says, adding that to install a new power loom would cumulatively cost at least Rs 2.5 lakh – an amount which is unthinkable for most weavers. “Most of us buy rejected ones from Surat-based factories, and get them repaired. We incur a cumulative cost of Rs 25,000 per loom,” Ansari, who owns four such second-hand power looms, says.

“When we were born, the power loom makers used to come to our homes to market their products at really cheap prices. But we preferred handlooms in those days. But the power loom market caught up with increasing prices of handwoven Banarasi sarees. Thus, even the power loom manufacturers have escalated their prices,” he says.

Power looms ensure steady production and steady incomes. However, over the last five years, weavers had to take a big hit. “I can give you an estimate. For a saree in which we spend around Rs 3,000, we make only Rs 200 as profit. We can’t even properly recover our costs. The only respite is that we do not have anything to do with our workers as all of them are family,” Akhtar says.

Talking about the skewed nature of the Banarasi saree market, Akhtar claims that the same saree is sold in the retail market for over Rs 10,000.

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In such a crunched market space, expensive silk is gradually making way for artificial Chinese threads which appear to give a silk-like finish in sarees. “The cost of those sarees is much lower in the retail market. But our profit share has remained stagnant. For a saree that is sold for Rs 3,000 in the retail market, we get only Rs 50,” Akhtar tells The Wire.

The newly-imposed import duties by the Union government has led to a surge in prices of raw materials, even while impending market correction has not happened due to diminishing demand. “Even that Rs 50 profit doesn’t come to us. We sell because we merely want to recover our costs,” said Ansari.

Ansari. Photo: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Much of the other businesses associated with weaving such as designing, thread industry or imprint makers have also simultaneously been affected. Negligible profits, stagnant incomes and a demand crunch mark the weaving industry at every level of the supply chain.

Traders tell you that the commercial markets for sarees have crashed, so they are exploring new revenue models to keep their businesses going. The designers, also from the weaving community, tell you that although they had fixed incomes (around Rs 25,000 per month) for years, they haven’t received a raise since the last six years. The largely Hindu-dominated thread and zari makers say that they have been making only losses for years but can’t easily give up their traditional businesses. Those who are engaged in the dyeing process say that the overall reduction in demand over the last few years has forced them to diversify their businesses away from the Banarasi saree industry.

The only government relief that the weavers get is subsidised electricity, but that is too little, weavers say.

A designer. Photo: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Ansari claims that the last five years also kickstarted a new trend among the weaving communities. “Banarasi weavers have begun to migrate for work. Almost 20% families from Nati Imli have started to leave for Surat and Bangalore saree factories. There, the saree weaving process is not as fine as Banaras but they have assured incomes at the end of every month. In the process, we are losing such fine craftsmen to factory work,” Ansari says.

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“What should we do? Right from our childhood, we have only honed our weaving skills. We don’t know anything else,” Ansari laments. “Even an unskilled worker gets Rs 350 per day. And a weaver’s income in the last few years hasn’t been more than Rs 250.”

“We were a respected lot. People liked our skill. But that is a bygone era now,” he says.

Sarkaarein sirf Hindu-Musalman ki baat karti hai, jabki yahan karigar majdoor bante ja rahe hai (Governments only talk about Hindu-Muslim issues, even when artisans are gradually becoming mere labourers),” Ansari sighs, crestfallen.