Sari weaving unravels in India

In India, more women are wearing jeans and other Western clothing. That’s bad news for sari weavers in the city of Varanasi. Demand for Varanasi’s famed, 6-meter silk saris, which have been hand-woven there for centuries, is falling, as the Christian Science Monitor recently reported. The problem is due to much more than changing fashions, ...

593635_080730_sari2005.jpg
593635_080730_sari2005.jpg

In India, more women are wearing jeans and other Western clothing. That's bad news for sari weavers in the city of Varanasi. Demand for Varanasi's famed, 6-meter silk saris, which have been hand-woven there for centuries, is falling, as the Christian Science Monitor recently reported.

The problem is due to much more than changing fashions, however. The hand-woven saris -- which typically have ornate patterns and scenes, such as Mughal processions of horses and elephants -- have to compete against cheaper copies that are churned out by machines, some of which are in China. The result: Varanasi's hand loom weavers are plunging into grinding poverty.

In the face of creative destruction, perhaps weavers could reframe their product. "What we really need is for crafts in India to reposition themselves, like in Italy, where handmade has a high value," Adarsh Kumar of the All India Artisan and Craftworkers Welfare Association told the CSM.

In India, more women are wearing jeans and other Western clothing. That’s bad news for sari weavers in the city of Varanasi. Demand for Varanasi’s famed, 6-meter silk saris, which have been hand-woven there for centuries, is falling, as the Christian Science Monitor recently reported.

The problem is due to much more than changing fashions, however. The hand-woven saris — which typically have ornate patterns and scenes, such as Mughal processions of horses and elephants — have to compete against cheaper copies that are churned out by machines, some of which are in China. The result: Varanasi’s hand loom weavers are plunging into grinding poverty.

In the face of creative destruction, perhaps weavers could reframe their product. “What we really need is for crafts in India to reposition themselves, like in Italy, where handmade has a high value,” Adarsh Kumar of the All India Artisan and Craftworkers Welfare Association told the CSM.

Indeed, couldn’t ornately woven fabric be used to make table linens, decorative sofa pillows, tunic shirts that could be paired with jeans, and even Western-style dresses? And all marketed to people worldwide, not just Indians? In fact, one Canada-based businesswoman is using such logic to preserve alpona, another Indian art form that’s been in decline.

It looks like the business savvy to reposition Varanasi saris hasn’t yet materialized. And if it doesn’t, weavers’ lives may be left in tatters.

Preeti Aroon was copy chief at Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2016 and was an FP assistant editor from 2007 to 2009. Twitter: @pjaroonFP

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