Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hanging by a thread

Thursday, July 31, 2008
Hanging by a thread
Silk weavers are struggling to survive as diminishing demand and competition kill off a proud tradition


Mian Ridge
Jul 31, 2008 |

In a dark, windowless hut lit only by the sunlight pouring through an open door, a bone-thin man is bent over his wooden handloom, weaving a shimmering silk sari of violet, turquoise and gold, thread by thread.
The exquisitely beautiful 6-metre cloth will take 10 days to complete and fetch the weaver, 55-year-old Abdul Majid, 600 rupees (HK$110): little more than he would have earned for the same work a decade ago.

Like most of the 300,000 handloom weavers of Varanasi, a city in northern India, Mr Majid is wretchedly poor. Diminishing demand for handwoven saris, coupled with competition from power looms which make several garments a day - in China and other parts of India - has left many once prosperous weavers close to starvation.

About half the city's weavers were now employed in other work, or unemployed, said Siddique Hassan, convenor of the Bunkar Dastkar Adhikar Manch, an NGO that campaigns for them.

Those who are still working in the trade - which is almost invariably passed down through the generations, along with sari designs unique to each family - say their rates have not increased in a decade, while the cost of living, especially at a time of high inflation, has risen steeply.

The Varanasi-based People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights says that a number of weavers and their children have died of starvation in the city in recent months.

"It is so difficult to feed the family," said Mr Majid, who looks dangerously undernourished. When this sari is finished the proud artisan admits that he has no more work. "I don't know what will happen next."

It is not only Mr Majid's labour that goes into making those 600 rupees: beside him, his sweet-faced seven-year-old son, Asalpul, sits helping him weave the leafed pattern running down the sari's edge. Nearby, his 15-year-old daughter is deftly spinning thread on a foot-powered wheel that appears to have been crafted from an upturned bicycle.

Neither child, said Mr Majid's exhausted looking wife, Akhtari Begum, had ever been to school; like most weavers' children, their labour was needed at home.

Varanasi has long been famed for its stunning silk saris. In India, handloom-woven saris are to this ancient city what tea is to Darjeeling or papier mache ornaments to Kashmir. But today, its weavers are typical of the millions of Indians left behind by market forces while elsewhere India booms.

About 90 per cent of Varanasi's weavers are Muslim; the remaining number are low-caste Hindus.

They live hidden away, too, in neighbourhoods reached by narrow, bumpy lanes, out of sight of the tourists who throng India's holiest city, picking up silk handweaves - or machine-made cloth passed off as the real thing - for a song.

As more Indian women wear jeans and business suits, the taste for these intricate weaves is disappearing. The closets of middle- class and upper-middle-class women once burst with handwoven saris in every hue. Today, they tend to buy them only for their wedding trousseaus.

"The new generation is not buying saris - only for weddings," said Mr Hassan.

And even there, the fickleness of fashion has done damage. The extravagant embellishments now in vogue - sequins, crystals and embroidery - are better suited to the plainer silks, woven on power looms, than multi-textured handweaves.

Power looms, which cost at least 150,000 rupees, were unaffordable to most handloom weavers, said Mr Hassan.

The downturn has been exacerbated by a structural failure to adapt to changing market conditions. Many weavers were stuck in hock to traders who may not buy their products, or buy them at a fair price, but stop them selling them to anyone else, said Adarsh Kumar, chief executive of the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association, a Delhi-based organisation that works to improve artisans' access to markets.

Because hand weavers tend to be grouped in small cliques, along complex village and caste lines, they have not pulled together to find more efficient, lucrative ways of doing business. For example, an entrepreneur who wanted to invest in the work of Varanasi's weavers would find it impossible to bring the necessary number of weavers together to work on a project, said Mr Kumar.

"What we really need is for crafts in India to reposition themselves, like in Italy, where handmade has a high value. That hasn't happened in India yet," he said.

"These skills could have been redeployed into making curtains, for example, but that transition has never been made."

Instead, a different kind of transition is being made: from skilled labour to unskilled labour, such as rickshaw pulling and daily-wage construction work.

Many of the weavers' huts in Mr Majid's neighbourhood, which once thrummed with the click-clack of looms, lie empty now. Inside, those wooden looms lie covered in dust and cobwebs.

Nizamuddin Ansari closed the door on his handloom hut last year and started working as a bicycle rickshaw driver.

As a weaver, he was earning the same 300 rupees a week as he had made 10 years ago - nowhere near enough money to feed his seven children. As a rickshaw driver he earns 125 rupees a day. Both jobs are tough - "rickshaw driving hurts my feet; bending over a loom hurt my stomach" - but he would prefer to be weaving the designs passed down in his family for "hundreds of years", he said.

Abdul Rashid, meanwhile, started working as a daily-wage labourer three months ago.

As a weaver, earlier this year, the father of six was earning 60 rupees a day, "but not every day". As a labourer on building sites, he earns 90 rupees a day. One of his children still works in the business, working for another weaver.

Others have no choice.

Asma, who goes by one name, works with her mentally handicapped son in a small hut, twisting strong white thread on an old wooden frame.

Four days' work, she said, would earn her 100 rupees, paid by a local trader who would sell the thread to a weaver.

Ms Asma is divorced and receives no support from her former husband. Her son is unable to do any other work.

Lying weakly on a charpoy beside her, Ms Asma's 80-year-old mother, who stopped working eight years ago, said that nearly half a century ago she earned only half as much as her daughter makes today. "It is harder for me than my mother," said Ms Asma. She, like others in the business, does not know how long her tiny income will last.

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