- November 15, 2012 1:38 pm
For decades, a handwoven Benarasi sari with its rich brocade and bright colours has been an essential ingredient of the great North Indian wedding. Whether it is the Bollywood star or the middle-class Hindu bride, when it comes to taking the ‘saat pheras’ (walking around the sacred fire seven times to solemnise a marriage), they do so, resplendent in the glittering fabric woven by the bunkars of Benaras, most of them Muslims. The six yards of silk woven in the ‘gallis’ and ‘mohallas’ of this holy city are special not just for the beauty of their weave but for the inter-community ‘tana bana’ (warp and woof) that they embody. But what are the lives of these dream weavers like? Find out in this excerpt from Beautiful Country – Stories From Another India.
For decades, a handwoven Benarasi sari with its rich brocade and bright colours has been an essential ingredient of the great North Indian wedding. Whether it is the Bollywood star or the middle-class Hindu bride, when it comes to taking the saat pheras (walking around the sacred fire seven times to solemnize a marriage), they do so, resplendent in the glittering fabric woven by the bunkars of Benaras, most of them Muslims. The six yards of silk woven in the gallis and mohallas of this holy city are special not just for the beauty of their weave but for the inter-community tana bana (warp and woof) that they embody. We were sad to see these symbols of our syncretic culture and creativity close to extinction, for people said that the weavers of Varanasi were selling their blood to feed their children.
We saw these children even before we had seen their parents. Our guide through the narrow lanes was a young bespectacled man of average height, Lenin Raghuvanshi, convener of the Peoples’ Vigilance Committee on Human Rights. For the last fourteen years he has been working for the rights of the poor in his city, especially the bunkars. …
Lenin took us to see the SOS Children’s Village in Varanasi. In 2003, SOS had started an outreach programme to provide non-formal education to out-of-school children of kumhars (potters) and weavers in the five to twelve-year age-group. We were taken to a small room in which a hundred of these children were seated. They looked tidy but quiet; too quiet… Outside the classroom the parents, who had come to collect their kids, were waiting. Most of them lived in Daniyalpur, a locality in the nearby Choubeypur Thana area. Rashida, a young woman in a faded green salwar kuta, was carrying her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Ruby. The child had matchstick legs. ‘She had never had tika karan (immunization). Dal and rice is all I can give her. There is no money for milk.’ A pretty girl in advanced pregnancy with three children clinging to her stood in a corner. Her name was Sabiha. She shyly answered our queries. ‘No, I have never seen a doctor.’ ‘Yes, I had all my babies at home.’ ‘Rozgar (work)? Our family gets orders. It takes us fifteen days to make a sari for which we get Rs 500. This money is paid to us by the gaddidars (middlemen).’ …
While discussing the efficacy of our schemes or the achievements of the development commissioner, handlooms, only one face comes to mind – that of Maimun Nisa. It is her story that we want to tell.
Hers was the first house we visited in Daniyalpur. We went there simply because it was closest to where the car had stopped. It was a one-room mud-and-brick structure. A broken charpai and a run-down loom were the only furniture. A white-and-orange fabric was trussed on the loom. A frail woman sat on the floor, sewing tiny stars into the fabric. Next to her, on the floor, lying on scrap of cloth, was a small child. As soon as we entered her home, she picked up her child and stood up.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Maimun Nisa.’ Thin face, sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, a frayed pink dupatta covering her head. Her son, Imran, was tiny and had the face of an old man – shrivelled and shrunk. His feet were so thin that we wondered if he would ever be able to walk. His head seemed too big for his small frail body. We assumed her was eight months old.
‘He is eighteen-months-old,’ she said.
‘Eighteen months!’ We could not believe what we had heard. ‘What do you feed him?’
Eyes lowered, she mumbled, ‘Sabudaane ka paani (gruel of tapioca).’
‘What! And what else?’
‘Do you feed him milk?’
‘We have no money to buy milk and I have none in my breasts. All I have ever been able to give him is sabudaane ka paani.’
We heard a sound behind us. Turning around, we saw a tall, thin man with a balding head and a small white beard. He was crying.
‘Mushtaq her husband,’ someone whispered.
‘Madam, we have nothing. We get Rs 15-30 per day for weaving saris and decorating them with stars and glitter. If we ask for more, the middlemen will give work to someone else. And with it the house will go, too. You see it belongs to the dalal (agent). As long as we work for him, we will have this roof over our heads.’
Looking around the bare room, we did not see a single pot where any grain could have been stored. The chulha (wood stove) in the corner seemed hardly used.
‘Don’t you get BPL and Antyodaya rations?’
‘No. We don’t have any cards. Getting them means giving money to the dala babu (middlemen).’
‘To earn additional money, Mushtaq used to sell bananas on the railway platform. Then they charged him with theft and even this source is gone,’ Maimun Nisa added softly.
In her helpless eyes and face, we saw a mother who is forced to watch her child die every day because she is unable to feed him. …
On the way to Nati Imli, a colony of powerloom weavers, we stopped at Handloom House, a shop where some beautiful specimens of Benarasi silk saris were selling for Rs 1,200 to 20,000. The kind of sari we had seen at Mushtaq’s house was selling at Rs 1,500; he and Maimun Nisa only made Rs 150-200, that is Rs 100 for sequin work and Rs 50 to 100 for weaving; that was what they got for three days’ work. …
Kashi they say is enlightenment… our visit to Benaras had definitely enlightened us; it had taught us about derivation and misery, sorrow and poverty, like we had never known.
(Excerpted from Beautiful Country – Stories From Another India By Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda; Published by Harper Collins; Pp: 365; Price: Rs 399.)
(© Women’s Feature Service)