Apart from the banks of the Ganges and sacred temples, the historic city of Banaras is also known for its unique weave in sarees that has defined the Indian woman through centuries and is definitive of its regal culture. Renowned and known across the world, a veteran weaver of a Banarasi saree interweaves Indian culture, tradition, and history.
While its soul remains traditional, there has been a fair amount of experimentation that has helped keep the exquisite craft alive. Palak Shah, whose family has been involved in the business of Banarasi sarees for generations, and is promoting the craft in the capital along with her father Bharat Shah through the flagship store Ekaya, says, “Banarsis still hold a very important place in a woman’s wardrobe and is a favourite among the fashion conscious as well. Its appeal refuses to fade with time.”
“Traditionally, the sarees came in subtle shades and mainly silks, but now we have benarsis in vibrant pop colours, trendy motifs and on figure flattering fabrics such as georgette to make it more practical for the modern woman.”
It’s not just the tradition that makes Banarsis so special. They command premium and prestige due to the skilled weavers hailing from the trade from Banaras and their handwoven pieces that come in a diverse range – tanchoi, upada, uchint jamdani, khaddi, kadwa, cutwork, kaaiyal, jangla, meenakari, embossed, booti, shikargarh and nilambari.
Kinkhab, which is one of the finest brocades with intricate work inspired by Tibet motifs continues to hold a place of pride as it is much in demand from among the who’s who from Bollywood and corporate houses. Ekaya is known to make exclusive curative designs for their high-profile clientele that includes Tina Ambani and Naina Mittal. The legendary Banarasi saree was made out of pure silk with zari work that involved pure gold or silver threads, and became known for its simplicity as well as opulence.
However, Syed bhai, a fourth generation weaver proud of his artistic lineage says a lot has changed over time with saree-making getting more commercialized. Saree work based on daily wages has turned factories into sweatshops. “Earlier quality and designs were paramount, now also a Banarasi as compared to other weaves is made painstakingly but are produced in much larger numbers, with large looms, and designs that are not as delicate as during our father’s time when every piece was made with sheer passion for the royalty.”
Now, it is mostly “tested” zari used which is basically artificial gold/silver threads also because of the exorbitant rate of the same. Traditionally, the motifs have been quite interesting, revealing many cultural influences that the benarasi went through. Mughal motifs, geometric designs, garden scenes, hunting scenes, all inhabited the canvas. One motif that’s back in fashion are the animal figurines, with peacocks, birds and elephants. Many of the master weavers or ustads in history were accomplished designers who further fuelled the value of the craft.
Hayatullah is a reputed pattern maker was known to have woven a portrait of Queen Victoria in silk and gold thread. While traditionally the colours used were magenta, red and green, now Syed says it’s a much wider palette with fluorescent colours in demand.
Legend has it that the Mughals brought the art of weaving to Varanasi. These techniques were highly appreciated by the royals for their intricacy and design sophistication. The motifs had Mughal and Persian influence. The city of Varanasi besides being of religious importance to almost all religions, became a hub for woven cloth as commerce flourished. A large part of the weaving community from Gujarat moved to Varanasi post a famine in early 17th century. This movement brought newer weaving techniques (Tanchoi) to the region. Woven Banarasi sarees with gold kadai (embroidery done with zari on the loom) became an attire for the rich.
In light of all the cross-cultural influence, in a very recent development the weaving centric region of Uttar Pradesh secured a GI (Geographical indication rights) in 2009 which prohibits a similar product of another region from being labled as ‘Banarsi’. The kharkhanas of Madanpura and Alaipura are supposed to be the nerve-centre of traditional weavers.
According to Sanjeev Manglani, Managing Director, Kalpana, a heritage store that stocks a large number of Banarsis, “The significance of a Benarsi saree in a woman’s wardrobe is well reflected by it’s essential presence in a bridal trousseau. The Benarsi weaves posses a very high emotional significance in India because of their intricacy, charm and elegance.”
The store has stuck to designing Banarsis with small motifs, intricate jaals and elegant geometric designs for their discerning clientele who don’t want to store it for only a ceremonial occasion but be able to wear it aesthetically more often. Also, the beauty of a Banarasi according to Sanjeev is that it has been able to adapt itself to changing design demands that have been imbibed into the traditional weaving technique by the local weavers.
Designer Rahul Mishra who has been involved in the revival of the Banarasi, owing to his long drawn fascination with it says, “I have made multi-coloured Banarsi jacquard outfits as Benarsis with their luxury effect have inspired not just Indians but even western designers such as John Galliano and Jean Paul Gaultier who recognized the richness of the craft.” A fine Banarsi like a kinkhab with intricate weaving, according to Rahul could even take just 2cms a day with two weavers working on it, such is the workmanship involved.
A Banarasi saree is also an heirloom piece, says Rahul, and adds that his mother married in one, and had a few valuable pieces that were passed on to her by the women in her family. He also recalls how one generation ago, women would wear jamdanis during the day, which were brocades on austere coloured cottons, which has again become an anomaly.
With softer fabrics becoming more fashionable and a lot of blends common, the classic katan silks and stiff organzas have become rare. Indigenous wild silks such as monga and tassar are combined with finer yarn to create interesting textures.
Typically, a Banarasi saree takes anywhere between 15 days to 6 months to be woven depending upon the intricacy of the design.
It takes three people – a weaver, a bundle handler and a motif artist – to put together a Banarasi saree. The motif artist creates a sketch on paper – based on which several punch cards are made. After creating a base, the weaver incorporates the design created by the design artist with the help of the punch cards.
A regular Banarasi saree incorporates in itself nearly 5,600 thread wires, these threads are managed by the bundle handler. Despite such intricate work and perfection one only fears that in changing times and economy, the rich craft rooted in the classic tradition of Indian culture, the Banarasi saree does not lose its character completely, and the weavers with their specialised knowledge are encouraged to preserve the art that is intricately linked to our rich heritage.