The city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh on the banks of the river Ganges is considered as one of the holiest cities in India. Characterized by a maze of narrow lanes and meandering by lanes it has a history of culture and traditional crafts that are centuries old. Varanasi has been a hub of silk weaving and trade since ages. The Banarasi saree derives its name city of Banaras – present-day Varanasi. The play of warp and the weft weave fabulous designs. The traditional Banarasi saree with magnificence personified is the outcome of the creative streak and perseverance of the master craftsmen. The silk weaving tradition here goes back to the 1300 AD and continues till date.
To unravel the process of creation and gain insight into the intricate art of weaving a visit to JDS (Jagdish Das & Company) is of immense help. The Shah family emigrated to Varanasi in the early 1900s and is one of the leading business families in the saree weaving trade. You can have an in-depth understanding of the traditional hand-woven intricacies. One can know about the different weaving techniques and patterns viz. the kadwa, phekwa, kadiyal, meenakari, tanchoi, jangla, jamdani, paithani, patola and jamavar to name a few.
It is more of a family tradition in India wherein a mother passes on her silk saree to her daughter or daughter in law because a few generations can wear an exquisitely handcrafted Banarasi saree. The workmanship required for weaving is simply immaculate and takes years of practice to master. In fact, the old-fashioned looms imported from France are still in use in this labour intensive industry but interestingly are museum exhibits in Europe.
The weavers mostly men take about a fortnight to create a saree working eight-hour shifts on wages of about six hundred rupees per day. At times when the pattern is complex the saree weave proceeds merely at the rate of two inches per day and takes over three months to complete. The motifs on sarees have a history behind them and convey about the Tibetan, Mughal and Persian influence on our culture. You can find motifs like jamavar (paisley), lateefa (floral), shikargaah (jungle scene), gainda (marigold), ashrafi (coin), pinecones, rosettes and much more.
“Natural and vegetable dyes are our mainstay. They are ecofriendly give vivid colour and last longer” explains Mr. Rajesh Shah. Different types of Banarasi saree are available differentiated by the pattern or motif weaved on them like brocade, tanchoi, jamawar etc.
After liberalization and the opening of the economy in the late 1990s, the deluge of inexpensive Chinese silk imports threatened the very existence of the silk industry in Varanasi and served as an alarm call for everybody in the business. Consequently, the Geographical Indication status given to Banarsi brocade has turned the tide and enhanced the market value.
The top-notch designers of our country have also shown solidarity with the weaving community. They have come together to innovate and create bespoke designs from Banarasi weaves to give a contemporary style statement and promote usage of the fabric. The adoption of weavers and clusters is rejuvenating and sustaining this golden tradition for a better tomorrow for all he stake holders.