An Ancient Indian Craft Left in Tatters
Sari Weavers Struggle Amid Economic Boom
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 6, 2007; A01
VARANASI, India -- Deep in a labyrinth of stucco buildings, in a dark, cavelike warehouse, Mohamed Javen, 18, switched on a light bulb, sat before his rickety loom and began working on what was once the prize possession of every Indian bride: the hand-woven silk sari.
His feet operated the bamboo pedals, making a rhythmic clopping sound. He carefully positioned hair-thin strands of gold thread into green silk, crafting a glittery lattice of leaves, elephants and birds that unfolded like a painting.
This sari design, which has been in Javen's family for 100 years, can take up to two months to weave. Patterns like these have been a source of Indian pride for more than 2,000 years, with India's version of haute couture adorning wealthy women of the empires of Rome, Egypt and Persia. Until recently, weaving was India's second-most-common occupation, behind farming.
But in this ancient city along the Ganges, Hinduism's holiest river, an estimated 1 million sari weavers are facing almost certain ruin. Cheaper, machine-made saris -- many of which are copied from Varanasi's famous patterns -- are being pumped out of China and from newer factories in India's western Gujarat state. Adding to the weavers' woes, changing fashions and global trade rules have opened the Indian market to foreign competitors, leaving many once-prosperous sari weavers and their families in desperate poverty.
"This loom will be in a museum," said Javen's despairing uncle, Nazir Ahmed, 30, whose family was forced to shut down 12 of their 14 looms. "We would have never predicted this. We were India's artists. Now we are living in poverty."
The new India is home to smooth highways and shiny high-rises, all the accouterments of the developed world. But millions of craftsmen, manual laborers and rural workers are being left out of the economic boom. Nearly 70 percent of India's population lives on less than $2 a day, and with more than 40 percent of its young malnourished, India is worse off than Africa in terms of children's health, according to the United Nations.
India also lacks a social security system, leaving weavers, farmers and others vulnerable to market forces. It is a gaping hole in India's rush to become a developed country that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has pledged to fix.
"This is the ugly, painful side of globalization. It's a real crisis. If India is booming, you don't see it among weavers or farmers or other rural laborers, which is to say most of the country," said Lenin Raghuvanshi, head of the People's Vigilance Committee for Human Rights, an aid group here. "Helping those left behind is India's greatest challenge."
Few professions in South Asia were as esteemed as that of the sari weaver -- part artist, part craftsman. Using simple foot-powered looms, weavers for generations have fashioned elaborate patterns and scenes of weddings, mango groves and Mughal processions, replete with elephants and horse-drawn carriages. Their canvases are billowing sunflower and saffron silks, each six yards long.
The father of independent India, Mohandas Gandhi, clad in his homespun loincloth, launched his nationalist movement to defy colonialism by encouraging Indians to stop wearing cheap British machine-made cloth in favor of Indian-made fabrics, partly as a gesture of self-reliance. The hand-loomed saris from Varanasi became a national symbol for India's independence.
But today, the decline of the sari industry has had tragic consequences. In the eastern villages and cities of Uttar Pradesh state, 175 weavers committed suicide last year, despondent over their recent change in fortunes, according to the People's Vigilance Committee. About 70 percent of weavers' children are malnourished, aid groups estimate. The weavers also cannot afford basic medical care for their children, much less themselves.
That's how Razia Khatoon, the wife of a once-prominent weaver, last year ended up a stranded widow with nine children to feed.
In her village just outside Varanasi, Khatoon said customers stopped buying handmade saris several years ago. She had to sell the gold she received at her wedding, the Indian equivalent of hocking a diamond engagement ring. Soon after, she married off her two oldest daughters "just so that they could be fed somewhere else," she said.
Her husband, Mohammad Ismail, 50, became more and more distressed as profits from weaving continued to dwindle. He also had contracted tuberculosis and was unable to pay for the medicines needed to treat the disease.
"The saris he wove were meant for queens and princesses," she said. "But everything changed. He started to wish he taught his sons more useful skills."
Ismail died in July 2006, Khatoon said. Traumatized by her grief and her new financial pressures, she sat with his body through the night, as her children hugged her.
"I was afraid of the future," whispered Khatoon, 45, red-eyed as she recalled Ismail's death. "Then everything got worse."
Early this May, her pretty 20-year-old daughter, Ruksana, also died of tuberculosis. Now the disease is set to claim her 16-year-old daughter, Salma, who rests limply on a straw mat outside her family's shanty.
What makes the deaths of Ismail and his daughter so surprising is that the weaver's family was always self-sufficient.
Likewise, Ramzam Ali, 32, is the first weaver in five generations to have trouble feeding his family. "I rush every morning to find work as a rickshaw driver or as a day laborer, but there are already so many people already doing those things," Ali said. "If I can't manage to even feed my children, how will I mange to educate them in a different trade?"
Part of the problem is that Ali has a fifth-grade education and no other skills. His father taught him how to weave intricate patterns of lotus flowers and animal motifs onto silk. That's all he ever thought he would need. Now, he joins more than 370 million other Indians in the informal jobs sector, many of them illiterate, unskilled and in dire need of work, according to government studies.
Aid workers trying to help the weavers say the industry desperately needs a marketing campaign. They are talking to Bollywood stars about showcasing handmade Varanasi saris on film while also trying to market the handmade sari to the middle and upper classes as the "little black dress of India" in fashion magazines.
But the campaign has been slow, partly because of greater interest in Western fashion.
In the new Indian metropolis, casual, machine-made cotton kurtas, or shirts, have become the preferred attire of the young; long and colorful, the shirts can be worn over jeans. But as India's markets open, Western fashion outlets like United Colors of Benetton are being flooded by India's young middle class, eager to show the urbane hipness that distinguishes them from their parents.
Despite the boom in many information technology hubs in southern Indian cities, Varanasi's weaver quarters look like a ghetto, with men sleeping under broken-down looms strung with cobwebs, rutted streets with trash fuming at every turn and donkeys hauling in water for cooking and bathing, tugged along by barefoot urchins.
"I hardly care about booming India when I have no food or money," said Poochland Dash, 60, a white-haired grandfather and a once-wealthy weaver who said through tears that he is considering suicide. He is trying to sell the house he built during the golden years of the sari-weaving industry, with his saris featuring embroidery of men atop animals in rich indigos and reds.
"If a buyer insults me with a too-low price, I swear I will kill myself," Dash said.
Listening nearby, his wife started crying. "If he takes his life, I will take my life, too," she said, staring at the ground.
Special correspondent Indrani Ghosh Nangia contributed to this report.