The Benaras revival programme
INDIA was, over the centuries, a vibrant manufacturing centre of extraordinary quality, as well as a robust marketplace on the trade routes, attracting business from across the seas. Traders came in search of fine products that were ‘made in India’. The skills of the subcontinent arguably surpassed the world benchmark, but by the middle of the last century the handloom sector stood diminished, in part a result of policies followed through the colonial era. A revival was initiated by the government of a newly independent India in the 1950s. The interventions into the sector of legacy industries that continue under the umbrella of the state have, however, abysmally fallen short of expectations. Today, under the call of ‘make in India’, fresh initiatives have been kick-started in the traditional skills sector that may, in fact, trigger a substantial revival of our products in both the domestic as also international markets.
In this context, the Benaras Revival Programme is one of several projects our company has committed to. The ‘programme’ requires us to look at the handloom sector in the city with a toothcomb to consider and initiate a reinvention. I must admit that in the beginning I was somewhat pessimistic and discouraged by what I saw coming off the Benaras looms. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I felt that little would be achieved by merely paying lip service to this area which clearly needs much more energy and acumen than what I thought I had in my atelier.
Handloom weaving, and in particular that of Benaras, requires the genius of a highly skilled mathematician, textile technologist, aesthetically sensitive art historian and a designer who understands the needs of a vast market, that is the India of today. This talent does not reside in any one individual. Therefore, the project had to go through the paces – one of learning from scratch the history, present status and the alternatives to the greatly endangered art of silk and cotton weaving in the handloom sector in Benaras.
In November 2002, the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, Government of India, celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Handicrafts by honouring our great living master craftsmen with the title of Shilp Guru. Two monographs were commissioned by the Crafts Council of India for the occasion, which were presented to the master nakshaband of Benaras brocades, Ali Hasan or Kalloo Hafiz, by the then President of India at a ceremony held at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi. This national award celebrated the career of Ustad Ali Hasan whose work spanned six decades of the last century, and embodied all the traditional subtleties of weave and patterning of the 19th century. Unfortunately, those skills had slowly been rendered obsolete by the bulk production that assumed prominence from the 1940s onwards.
Benaras is one of the oldest living centres of brocade manufacture in India. It offers an amazing repertoire of decorative designs ranging from the geometric to highly stylized floral and fauna representations from the late Mughal period, arguably one of the richest eras in India’s history of textiles. The craft was also known for its intricate weaves like the kinkhaabs, gold and silver meenakaari brocades which camouflaged the repetition in the design, thereby giving it the effect of a continuous flowing pattern. Also well known was the jaamdaani, gossamer patterned cottons with their pristine white on white design woven during the 18th and 19th century.
Last September, I travelled to Benaras where I met some weavers, merchants, cluster weaving heads, various officers from the Handloom Board, the Weavers Service Centre heads, and other government officials. The Weavers Service Centre, Varanasi, is part of a government initiative dating back to the early 1950s. It has in its archives stunning examples of work done during the Vishvakarma exhibition held in 1983, where a number of woven Benaras saris were revived by Martand Singh, Rakesh Thakore and the team working under Pupul Jayakar. That exercise had helped put handlooms back on the map and revitalized the WSC. The large room at the centre had a vast table displaying saris and samples from the exhibition, most of which unfortunately were in a shockingly dilapidated condition. For instance, while one half of a Baluchar sari was on display, the other half was in the WSC, New Delhi. An exceptional range of white on white jaamdaani weaves, a virtual directory of design that could have been used by generations of designers, was the more important set of resources designed and woven by the master weaver who had once worked on these premises. He was no more and his children do not wish to continue working at this labour intensive profession that pays a pittance. There is no incentive for them to continue with this traditional craft.
Most of the other samples, made equally painstakingly, too were in a deteriorated condition. The place was neglected with looms lying idle in an adjacent shed and needed a major clean up. The looms had not been used for one does not know how long. The indifference to quality was apparent in everything. The path forward, if there was one, was unclear.
The head of the WSC showed me a loom which he described as being the only one of its kind left – the ghetua loom. This loom is now extinct and the experts in this form of weaving, Mohd Ayub and his father, too are no more. In the textile jargon of today, these masters would have been the couturiers of Benaras. They were the ‘designers’ who did the one-of-a-kind, the bespoke garments for the royal courts, worn by the rajas and nizams of different riyasats. Patterns and khakhas were individually designed for the sleeves, the back, the front, borders, the koniya, etcetera, and these actual size paper patterns were placed under the warp during the weaving process. The masterpieces were truly spectacular and must have taken several months and many looms to create. It suggested that patronage by Indian royalty, especially from the states of Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat was what enabled the weavers to commission dedicated looms to manufacture these one-of-a-kind miracles.
In any revival process the trick is to revive the intellectual skill or USP of that particular skill, and then marry it to the degree possible with the fast growing new technologies of the present millennium. The sub-human conditions in which the handloom weavers operate can and should be substituted by more friendly mechanisms and environments. The skills and the aesthetics are the elements that we need to preserve in this situation, and not the medieval workplaces that neither attract the next generation nor are conducive to preserving the priceless heritage of textile skills.
On that particular visit, I tried to make sense of the collections I had seen through the dispassionate eyes of a merchandiser. Nothing contemporary comes anywhere close to the sheer glamour of the way old saris were conceived: rich silks against the gold and silver woven into the warp and weft of a six-yard length of cloth with the dhoop-chhaun, threads aimed to shoot through shadows and light and catch the essence of the Ganga-Jamuna, or the mixing of the waters of the two rivers in their dark and light avatars to form myriad patterns of colour, silk against metal. A question came to mind: what were the reasons behind the decline of the silk industry in Benaras? Was it the design, or lack of it? Was it the colour palette, a lack of interest in the balance or possibly even the intrinsic character of the fabric. A reinforcing of the worth of the product seemed imperative – the reinvention of what makes a pure Benarsi different from a mechanized fake from Chinese looms.
The products that were shown to us suffered greatly from over-designing and pattern confusion that had, by and large, lost the original texture because of the changes in patterns and, even more, the substitution of yarns and gold threads by new material, in brief, generally losing track of the many elements that made Benaras textiles special. In the race to catch up with cheap Chinese copies to break into the export markets at competitive prices, there was a marked dilution of quality. A fine editing and revival job was needed to get the product back on the rails, with some innovative modern designs that could be produced by the high-end skills of the hand. Intellectual input was the key. The weavers and their community of spinners, dyers, and craftspeople knew their textiles and had a biological memory of how the weft and warp worked. They understood the butis, butas, the gold threads, the silk and cotton yarns, and did not need NIFT graduates to tell them how to structure and operate their looms.
The looms in Benaras are simple, almost primitive, and the cost of the Jacquard or jaalas is not prohibitive. What desperately need improvement are the working conditions so as to make the industry attractive to the next generation. Moreover, like in any other industry, what really matters is the recognition of their self-worth by the weavers, currently despondent and dispirited. But, as I had discovered in the embroidery sector, the real driver of change is the commercial feasibility of an aspirational product, not a reliance on subsidies. The role of the government, if any, should be that of a catalyst. Specifically, the government must stay away from the marketing of the products, a job done much better by the enormously innovative trader community of Benaras.
India has a huge market. If Benaras targets to get just one sari into each household of a family of five in one lifetime, even without a repeat buy, it could keep this industry booming, particularly if the products are designed for a market that is both discerning and wanting organically produced ‘legacy’ saris.
There is place for a revival, a ‘make in India’ again. The thought of the work involved and the responsibility can be daunting. It is difficult to change mindsets, but an attempt is definitely worth it. A community reverting back to a traditional skill is a wonderful possibility. Imagine a continuing way of life, where a craft is given a fresh lease of life, a respect for the inherited intellectual property which endorses the inherent capacity that a community has, all coming together to make a glamorous aspirational end product using a combination of the mind and hands.
The government should provide the infrastructure, financial and other support, to the clusters of handloom weavers situated around the Varanasi district. These are highly skilled artisans, some of them recipients of national awards. On one of my trips I had shown them my old antique saris and fabrics as well as twenty fresh artworks we had prepared in the studio – ten sari designs, eight dress material designs – all inspired by late 19th and early 20th century Benaras fabrics. I suggested that the saris being produced today had lost their inherent texture and flow due to an overuse of twisted mechanized yarns. They all agreed that every fabric I had referred to as the ideal for drape and feel, had an element of a weft which was made of handspun, untwisted yarn called paat baana, and that the entire fabric was made of the two – the taana, the warp, and the baana, the weft and when woven together it resulted in the amazing silks of Varanasi.
These were master weavers who knew their craft. There was great excitement when they saw the designs made in our studio with a state-of-the-art computer. The designs had been scanned from museum photographs, some from books, then modified and laid out in colour. The ones that generated the greatest excitement were the sari designs with borders, jaals and pallavs reflecting a very old ethos, but executed in a lighter, more modern way which would be eminently more wearable, lighter and sexier than the original saris, yet retaining the exotic essence of the original multi-curvilinear patterns of gold-silver and silk that Benaras is well known for.
Two of the clusters had a number of efficient weavers who understood the designs, asked the relevant questions and chose about twenty patterns they wanted to work on. The weavers from the third cluster were all from a single family of master weavers, a not-so-old patriarch and his two sons. While one son was a full-time weaver the other only worked part-time, looking for other avenues of work. The old weaver’s eyes lit up when he saw the designs. He repeatedly said that he loved them and would like to weave many of them. He was persuaded to start with four or five designs and subsequently add on others. We discussed the saris that he had in his collection – his were authentic designs – but alas many had lost their drape due to the use of stiff alien fibres. Fortunately, he was keen to weave the saris with the older yarns and as we left, shyly complimented me on the designs. This made my trip worthwhile and I felt that we were about to launch an economically valid revival project.
Thereafter, we met half a dozen other weavers and traders. Each one invariably had one or two pieces that provided a glimpse of an early aesthetic. We set to work, putting the designs into order, asking for loom lengths to be structured with colours from a past palette with yarns that were untwisted and metal threads that were not corrosive to the touch or the eye. By the end of the visit, we had managed to put some thirty new looms to work on the revival of Benaras weaves. They were not only the exotic metallic curvilinear patterns of gold and silver on matt silks, but the equally exotic white on white cutwork jaamdaani patterns that play with light, producing a matt and diaphanous see-through effect on fabrics, to give them a jaali or filigree-like pattern and sensibility.
We met Naseem Ahmed at his home in an ancient part of Benaras. He is a nakshaband with an impressive lineage, Ali Hasan’s grandson. A naksha-band, which literally means the tying of a map, is the maker of thread Jacquard. He is a pattern maker drawer or likhai. He draws the intricate designs prepared on a small loom, and with the karigar or weaver, actualizes the pattern on a larger draw loom to produce a brocade textile. The original designs were earlier drawn on sheets of mica with a steel pen. Later, they were made on paper and placed within a grid so that each section could be separately replicated on the loom according to the pattern. The process is extremely complex and needs dexterity and talent. To work out a pattern with iron styloes on mica sheets requires a perfect visualization of the decorative scheme in all its details. Every incised linear flourish has to be finalized.
Iwas somewhat humbled by this information, and with some trepidation gave Naseem a couple of designs to see if he could revive some old curvilinear patterns on silks used for bridal clothes. I gave him two fabrics, both around one hundred years old, and he seemed to be at home with them, confident of making the jaalas and weaving the cloth with the complicated patterns. I left the old samples with him, hoping he would be able to source the untwisted yarn to ensure the fabric would be as supple as the original. I also put him in touch with Shyam Sunderji, a senior member of the industry, who suggested the metallic yarn that could be used to substitute for the real zari that the originals were woven with. I felt optimistic about the endeavour I had embarked upon.
Earlier there were two schools of patterning in Varanasi. The naksha-bands like the famous Ali Hasan, disciple of Jafar Ustad (c.1886-1956), who specialized in buta or flowering shrub motifs, inspired by the Mughal style. They worked spontaneously on forms and apparently most of the classics in sari weaving evolved from this inspiration. In contrast, figurative and zoomorphic elements were ascribed to Hindu nakshabands such as Bisesvar Prasad (c.1860-1935). He was both a potter and wall decorator by profession, and executed hundreds of brocade patterns with human figures and faunal imagery for several weaving establishments. He seemed to effortlessly rationalize the physical structure of animals and birds as well as those of human beings. His palette was spirited and gave an earthy feel to his compositions, enhancing each detail with a draughtsman’s incisiveness, hence deviating from a folkloric repertoire to a more classical one.
The families of Ali Hasan and Bisesvar Prasad maintained a working rapport for four generations – a remarkable conjunction of design that kept the Benarasi element constantly reanimated in their figurative patterning. Gradually, around the early 1970s, the representation of faunal imagery became spiritless and repetitive, resulting in a rigidity which often marks non-imaginative production processes in a craft that is losing its relevance. Over the years there were a number of revival efforts viz. design interventions by Jasleen Dhameja, or Martand Singh’s effort to display Benarasi weaves in successive exhibitions around India. However, after the initial impetus the process started to peter out yet again.
At the moment the Benarasi weaves appear largely lifeless, made without the requisite ‘soul’. The more contemporary designs of both saris and yardage being woven seem to have lost the earlier economy of design and suffer from an ethos of over-designing the fabrics with a profusion of metallic yarns. The yarns themselves have also changed – from handspun to mechanically produced twisted yarns – taking away much of the drape and sophistication of the matt quality of the silk originally used. The only innovation which has taken place in the saris, if it can be called that, is the influence of the saris woven in other parts of India, disregarding the fact that they represent a different genre and tradition. For instance, the saris have pallavs from the Orissa tradition, borders from the Kanchipuram, and jaals from the Benarasi repertoire – together producing a confused and unaesthetic product with little appeal. The saris suffer from the proverbial problem of being neither chalk nor cheese, appealing neither to the modern young consumer nor to the older woman who prefers a more classical sari.
Benaras has of late been in the news since it is now Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency. He has initiated a number of programmes for the city, one being a special focus on the weavers of the region. The Ministry of Textiles has been activated by the BJP and Shaina N.C., a designer who has initiated programmes which involve fashion designers collaborating with the Handloom Board to make use of Benaras textiles in their collections. This initiative, among others, has resulted in the Lakme Fashion Week dedicating a full day to handlooms, in which I participated with a show dedicated to the revival of the beautiful traditional weaves. An exhibition was mounted at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai where weavers and designers displayed Benaras textiles. The Amazon Fashion Week too dedicated its finale to Benaras as well.
While these and other interventions have focused attention on the city and its weaving skills, it has still left the critical structural revival of Benarasi weaves on the back-burner. It is important for private organizations to restructure weaving initiatives to make them economically viable, with back end systems in place for inventories and with effective distribution and marketing systems. That is what ‘make in India’ needs to address for giving a fresh lease of life to the myriad legacy industries that are today wallowing in neglect and decay. This will revive in situ employment and, at the same time, conserve and regenerate the true strengths that are in the DNA of our people, waiting to be released into the markets of today. Similar to what Thai silk managed earlier, Benarasi textiles must now take their rightful place in the global market.