A Dying Industry – India’s Traditional Silk Weaving Craft

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The center of India’s silk weaving  industry is in Varanasi. Recently I had the chance to visit one of the local shops myself, and to see the traditional loom weavers working on the premises. We were taken through the small factory floor by Mr. Mehta, whose family owns and operates the shop upstairs and likely has for generations. He spoke proudly of the quality of silks and that he ships around the world… and while I half listened I videoed the tiny, frail older men working on the looms and as is often the case in India wished I could communicate with them easily to learn their personal narrative. Noticing my interest, Mr. Mehta boomed, “They get breaks whenever they want, one sari takes 10 days to make….” and went on to say that they are highly specialized workers, the only ones left who know the craft. I couldn’t help wondering that if they are so highly valued why are they working on a dirt floor in a smelly back room, with poor lighting (as an aside, all wore spectacles). Knowing how much Mr. Mehta was charging for his wares, I wonder how much money these men and their dependents ever see.

A recent article in the Economist called ‘Looming Extinction’ highlights the decline of the traditional silk weaving industry in Varanasi, sighting Western-style dress influence as one of the causes in falling demand, and the fact that women often now prefer the cheaper, brighter machine-made sari. Although Mr. Mehta did not speak about waning demand, his shop was empty except for us.

So what will happen to these men, who in my home country of Canada would be retired long before now? The article talks about their inability to purchase a power loom and adapt to the changing times, so they are often taken advantage of by exploitative middlemen (Mr. Mehta perhaps?). He was an impressive businessman, I’m certain if his margins are squeezed he will not absorb the pain alone.

Mahatma Gandhi fought against the ‘craze of machinery’ in his lifetime. I don’t think he objected to machines as such, but to the thousands of men that labour-saving machines put out of work and onto the street. No government re-training schemes, not then, and not now it would seem. Although these men and their sons are not ‘out of work’ they are part of an industry that is in decline and their skills are not transferable. There is no easy answer here, except I think Gandhi was right when he said the supreme consideration is man.

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6 Responses to “A Dying Industry – India’s Traditional Silk Weaving Craft”

  1. Rob Says:

    Joanna, your post really reminded me of how lucky I am to be (a) employed and (b) working in great conditions here in the US. I was also reminded of a post that my friend Peter Eliasen wrote about his work in China:

    http://visionspring.org/blog/?p=50

    Peter works for VisionSpring, the Acumen Fund investee that sells low-cost reading glasses – the kind of glasses that the artisans depicted in your video might buy to extend their working lives. What’s interesting about Peter’s post is his understanding of what “sweatshop labor” really means…

    I think you’ll find it interesting. Thanks for your post.

  2. Jim Harries Says:

    Gandhi did not live to see the era of globalization. While India has prospered in many ways from global trade – helping bring faster economic growth and higher incomes – traditional industries such as silk weaving are being adversely affected. As you say, the answers are not easy. But one wonders what Gandhi would have thought, on balance, of India’s rise within the global economic community?

  3. geeta krish Says:

    My friend Tracy and I were just in Varanasi in March and just happened to meet with manufactureres of the most gorgeous hand woven shawls and scarves. We have just launched Paisley Peacock this week to sell these beautiful products in the US. The response has been tremendous. We are hoping to do our part to revive this industry. The answer is not to replace the craft with machines but encourage younger artisans to continue the tradition. Hopefully this market in the US will result in better pay and hours for a whole new generation of weavers in Varanasi. I would hate to see this craft die. Watch for our website soon.

  4. Gauri Says:

    Silk Spectre II is the daughter of the slain superhero Comedian … Her revenge will be sweet wen she takes on Rorschach in the final fight of gud against evil. Check out their facebook page http://tinyurl.com/facebook-watchmen

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