For Indian Weavers in Varanasi, Help for an Endangered Craft


It wasn’t until I went to Varanasi, India, that the blue and gold silk sari with the intricate flower design that my parents bought me when I got engaged 15 years ago meant something beyond just another gift.

At the time, my mother was on a quest to find the perfect rendition of this traditional woman’s garb for my trousseau, and it had to come from this northern Indian city with its famed silk weavers. The weavers’ craft was in danger of extinction because of the increasing prevalence of power looms, she explained, even though the quality of the handwork was incomparable.

The jobs of the Varanasi weavers, once estimated at a half million men, may have been fading out back then, but on a trip in late 2013 I discovered that efforts were underway by two companies — the socially conscious New York fashion label Maiyet and the Mumbai chain Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces — to reinvigorate the ancient skill by employing the weavers and inviting tourists to visit them as they work. About 700 people have taken Maiyet’s tour; more than 650 have gone on Taj’s.

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To help create sustainable businesses, Maiyet gets some of its materials from communities in developing countries. It began its initiative in Varanasi in 2012; the next year, a workshop opened in the nearby village of Ayodhyapur, where it now employs 15 weavers.

The fashion line’s work in Varanasi got the attention of David Adjaye, a star British architect whose international works include the design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington. Mr. Adjaye is now designing Maiyet’s building for the weavers, which is to be completed in 2016.

Meanwhile, Taj had started resurrecting the desolate village of Sarai Mohana, five miles from Varanasi, which has a large concentration of weavers. Taj’s plan was to have the weavers make saris for its employees and guests. Since then, the village has been turned into something of a tourist attraction.

Varanasi itself sprawls on the banks of the Ganges River in the state of Uttar Pradesh, about an hour’s flight from New Delhi. A maze of narrow and winding lanes, it is considered India’s holiest city. During the day, Hindus bathe in the Ganges as a blessing and for spiritual salvation; at nightfall, the river glistens magically from the glow of thousands of candles floating on the water.

For centuries Varanasi was a hub for the silk trade. The gossamer fabric, woven by hand on long wooden looms, is recognizable to aficionados by its refined feel, substantial weight and audible rustle.

While the efforts to revive the craft are seen by many as laudable, they are likely to help only a tiny percentage of the local population. Even so, these endeavors have spurred hope in the area and have given tourists another reason to visit.

Weaving in India dates to 500 B.C. and flourished during the Mughal period from the early 16th to mid-18th centuries. Since Islam traditionally forbids the images of people and animals, weavers created floral brocades for saris and scarves, much like the gold flower pattern on mine.

Weavers, nearly all men, pass down their skills to their sons or male relatives. But their trade has been shaken over the last few decades as power looms offer a cheaper and faster way to produce the same goods, six to 12 meters of material a day, depending on the design; it can take a weaver weeks to create the same amount. This technology left many of the artisans facing starvation and selling the wood from their looms for firewood.

It was this plight that in 2005 caught the attention of Ratna Krishnakumar, the wife of R.K. Krishnakumar, who was at the time the vice chairman of Indian Hotels Company Limited, of which Taj is a part.

“I had heard about how bad the situation was for these weavers, but the final clinching point came when I was watching the evening news and heard about a weaver in his 30s who had died from overselling his blood to feed his family,” she said in a telephone interview from her Mumbai home.

Mrs. Krishnakumar, 66, came up with the idea of tapping the men to make the saris for Taj’s female front-office staff. The weavers now make saris for 550 women who work at 11 of Taj’s 114 hotels in India.

From the dozen or so villages on the fringes of Varanasi with unemployed weavers, the hotel group chose Sarai Mohana, hoping to raise public awareness of the weavers by showcasing the town and their work. The company first installed a water pump, and even opened a school for local children that has a computer lab. Taj supplied the silk yarn for the saris and hired Jay Ramrakhiani, 56, a Mumbai designer, to create the patterns.

An employee from the Taj hotel in Varanasi, the Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi, usually takes guests on free three-hour tours of the village of 5,000 residents, but Mr. Ramrakhiani likes to lead the visits himself when he is in town. Thick traffic and potholed roads mean that an otherwise quick drive is a 40-minute journey, one in which hundreds of rickshaws and cars jamming the streets give way to swaying fields of mustard plants.

Photo

A field in Sarai Mohana.

Credit
Poras Chaudhary for The New York Times

Sarai Mohana’s narrow, rocky lanes are lined with red brick single-room homes; cows roam freely and children scamper about in every direction. The craftsmen work in houses built of red mud and cow dung. At one, I saw three men weave saris in a slow and steady rhythm on old, six-foot-long looms. They sat cross-legged on cushions on the mud floor and occasionally glanced at the design cards before them for assurance that they were following the patterns Taj had hired them to replicate.

On another stop, I met the lean-framed Ashok Kumar Maurya, 35, whose family have been weavers for more than a century.

“Five years ago, we were totally dead, without work and without food, but now we have a purpose again,” he said.

Back then, he could barely scrounge together enough money to feed his wife and young son rice, but after working for Taj, that all changed.

“My son is getting an education, I earn more than enough to run my home well, and my wife is happy that I can buy them clothes,” he said.

Taj pays the weavers 3,500 rupees (about $55, at 63 rupees to the dollar) for every sari produced and 550 rupees ($9) for every blouse.

The project started in 2008 with a dozen weavers but now has more than 40. Mr. Ramrakhiani said that they have woven more than 1,000 saris for the hotel employees. Another group of 12 to 15 master weavers creates saris that are sold at 15 of the hotel’s gift boutiques, including at its properties in New Delhi and London.

Like Mrs. Krishnakumar of Taj, Maiyet’s co-founder and chief executive, Paul van Zyl, was aware of weavers’ problems.

“We naturally hit on Varanasi when we were looking for skilled weavers,” said Mr. van Zyl, 44, the former executive secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, which was set up to deal with aftereffects of apartheid. The high-end line that he started is now available at 50 retailers worldwide, including Barneys New York.

To find the talent he needed, he teamed with an American nonprofit group, Nest, which seeks to help artisans build sustainable businesses. Nest in turn reached out to a local group, Loom to Luxury. The 57 weavers Maiyet hired through Loom to Luxury live in two adjoining villages, Kotwa and Ayodhyapur, about 45 minutes west of Varanasi’s center. The group supplies the men with the silk they need; the fabric is then sent to Maiyet’s New York office, where the clothing is made.

Loom to Luxury’s founder, Jitendra Kumar, 31, regularly takes tourists through the villages on a free four-hour driving excursion on rutted roads. Kotwa is where the Muslim weavers live; Ayodhyapur is home to a smaller number of Hindu weavers. A key part of the tour is learning about the different working environments of the two religions. “Muslims tend to work in the same room as their extended families, where there could be nine children, but Hindus want a separation from their personal and professional lives,” he said.

Ayodhyapur also has a spacious one-room workshop with 15 looms where visitors can learn a few technical aspects of the trade, such as how the looms are operated by a string of punch cards. They can also see the silk used in the luxuriant blazers, dresses, tops and skirts in Maiyet’s Varanasi line, priced between $500 and $2,500. The clothing comes in vibrant colors like coral and white with pale peach stripes and a deep brocade-patterned red.

This small center is less than a mile from the 25,000-square-foot space being designed by Mr. Adjaye. The building, estimated to cost $1 million, is being funded by Nest, which has raised money from individual donors and received a donation of construction services from Rasa Charitable Trust of India.

Photo

A reel of gold thread on a sari.

Credit
Poras Chaudhary for The New York Times

Mr. Adjaye, who lives in London, said he took on the project because Maiyet’s goal of preserving communities of artisans resonated with him.

“After going to Varanasi and meeting with the weavers, I was inspired by the intricacy of their craft and wanted to do what I could to help them,” he said.

Mr. Adjaye’s contemporary two-story structure will have space for a collective of 60 weavers serving the luxury market and an exhibition space for visitors. And it won’t be just a place for Maiyet’s goods: Mr. Kumar of Loom will run it, and the production will be open to other brands.

Such signs of progress, though, do little to change the facts of life for the majority of the Varanasi weavers, according to the Indian writer and activist Shobhaa De, 60, who has written about them and visited Varanasi more than a dozen times.

“The situation for the weavers isn’t any less bleak than it was five or six years ago,” she said. “Yes, a few that didn’t have work might be in employed now, but there is no widespread change.”

But for travelers, having the rare chance to be immersed in an ancient culture that’s so revered is appealing. Of course, the added pleasure for me came from finally seeing my still unworn blue and gold sari as the artwork it is.

If You Go

Visit the weavers’ villages near Varanasi to see what Maiyet and Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces have done to help the artisans stay in business. The excursions are free, but travelers need to hire a car and driver, which can be arranged through their hotels; costs start at about $20.

Our Personal Guest, a custom travel company in New York and India, can arrange for a car and driver throughout the trip, including airport transfers. The company can also make hotel reservations and create an itinerary with activities such as visiting the Ganges.

Loom to Luxury. Book a tour with Jitendra Kumar by emailing info@loomtoluxury.com.

WHERE TO STAY

Varanasi has several guesthouses and hotels, but travelers should rely on their travel agents to vouch for their quality and safety. Here are a few options:

Taj Hotels. The brand has the 130-room Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi and the more luxurious 10-room Nadesar Palace on the same grounds. Prices start at 4,500 rupees (about $72).

Radisson Hotel Varanasi. A 116-room property opposite the Gateway. Prices from 8,000 rupees.

WelcomHeritage Jukaso Ganges Varanasi. A 15-room hotel on the Ganges. Prices from 6,000 rupees.



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