A recent interview in The Hindu about the famed Banarasi sari, and the CSR effort of the TAJ Group of Hotels (part of the socially conscientious Tata Group) in keeping the age-old ancient weaving art alive, brought back memories of my visit to the dilapidated weavers colony in Banaras.
A visit to Banaras can never be complete without at least buying one sari or a few yards of the silk Banarasi fabric. Banaras was after all known for it! So, I really found it very unbelievable, when I could not spot too many shops selling the real stuff. Oh! There were imitations galore; gaudy, blingy, cheap and not a patch on the real thing.
I remembered reading about how the art of weaving delicate motifs on soft Banarasi silk was dying slowly due to multiple reasons, primary of them being lack of patronage, the coming of power looms and government apathy; the result of which was right before my eyes! It was hard to find a shop selling the real thing. When I asked around, I was told that since people prefer the cheaper varieties, one had to go to specific shops to get the ‘real’ Banarasi fabric.
I did what works best. Asked around, specifying that I wanted the old-style patterned weaves. Our taxi driver, who took us around the vintage city of Varanasi (Banaras) was a local, having being born and brought up there. It was he who recommended that I visit the weaver’s colony, since I was so keen.
The gullis (very small lanes) are small and narrow and yes dirty; littered with goat and cow droppings. Walking through the gullis felt a little eerie, especially more so since it was deserted and the only sound one could hear was the clanking sound emanating from the weaver’s looms. I was the odd one out, sticking out like a blue fish in the sea of yellow. I did get quite a few curious stares and glances, but most were happy watching.
Finally I found the loom, where the delicate fabric was in different stages of weaves. It was amazing to see art come alive in the dark, dingy rooms. The owner of the looms seemed to be an enterprising person, since he had retail cum wholesale shop near his loom. Piles and piles of fabric and saris were stuffed in a little room. In days gone by, most of the thread used to be either pure gold or silver. Unfortunately not any more, the owner told me, until and unless it was a special order. The silk yarn itself is so expensive and that’s the reason why the Banarasi saris have become expensive.
There was a time, when a wedding trousseau would not be complete, without at least a few Banarasi saris in it. Now many to have one in their trousseau consider it déclassé! Of course there are people like me, who scour the shops looking for the real thing; may the tribe increase! Amen!
I can see a very gradual change happening, the CSR effort of the TAJ Group being one of them. There are many celebrities who have got married in recent times in the Banarasi sari; global celebrity Aishwarya Rai Bachchan being one of them (it was widely reported in the media how her sari was made on special order in Banaras).
What if you do not have time to visit the weavers colony, but still would like to buy a little bit of this vintage weave from Banaras? You will get a small selection of saris at Jaharlall & Pannalall on Dasaswamedh Road (next to the famous Dasaswamedh ghat).
Suppose visiting Varanasi is just not in your itinerary, but you would still like to own a little bit of this royal Banaras weave? Then you could try stopping by at TAJ Khazana (chain of luxury lifestyle stores located across India, in many cities including, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Goa, in select TAJ Hotels). Apparently the front office staff at the TAJ hotels wears the Banarasi sari (part of the CSR initiative). So the next time you happen to be in a TAJ property, do take a moment to take a look at the royal handcrafted fabric draped across the lady staff members.
Some designers like Gaurang Shah and Sabyasachi Mukherjee patronize and craft some stunning traditional yet contemporary creations.
We lament the dying of an old age craft, but when it comes to patronizing it, we don’t do it. Each one of us can make a difference, I believe. Refuse to buy the cheap imitation of any classic old weave. There is truly nothing like the real Banarasi yarn, it is a story woven in silk.
As Oscar Wilde has rightly said, ‘Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.’ The Banarasi royal fabric lives and breathes the very distinctive and individual air of Banaras.