An Ancient Indian Craft Left in Tatters

Mohamed Javen, 18, weaves a sari pattern his family has used for 100 years. Until recently, weaving was the second-most-common occupation in India.
Mohamed Javen, 18, weaves a sari pattern his family has used for 100 years. Until recently, weaving was the second-most-common occupation in India. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

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.

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