The Taj Group of Hotels has pulled back impoverished Banarasi weavers from oblivion by ensuring they live and weave with dignity.
Benares is older than history, perhaps even older. And, along with its ancient temples, ghats and the Ganga, there is the Banarasi sari that is so vital to its identity. The Banarasi was once the toast of the world. European and Indian royalty patronised the craft, and it flourished, absorbing influences from Islamic traditions and Hindu lore. Intricate hunt scenes, elegant paisleys, flora and fauna all found expression in jewel tones and jari work. Then came the hard times and the Banarasi sari lost its sheen. Loss of patronage, the onslaught of power looms and administrative apathywas too much for the Banarasi weavers to contend with and they slid into abject poverty. Instead of shimmering silks with threads of gold and silver, the craftsmen now sold blood to earn money. The looms fell silent or were cut up for firewood.
The weavers were staring extinction in the face when the Taj Group of Hotels stepped in. They commissioned the weavers to weave saris for its front office staff. But only a few weavers benefitted from this. So, they adopted more villages and worked on providing the weaving community health facilities, education for its children and a better working environment. The productivity of the weavers increased and many from the younger generation who had become rickshaw pullers and labourers came back to weaving.
Excerpts from an interview with Sarita Hegde Roy of Taj Khazana.
Two-thirds of the equity of Tata Sons, the Tata promoter holding company, is held by philanthropic trusts that have created national institutions for science and technology, medical research, social studies and the performing arts.
The focus of their attention has been health, empowerment of women and children, scientific research, education and, like the Banarasi project, revival of arts and crafts. Taj Hotels, specifically, has always engaged with the local communities. For example, at Kumarakom, it looks after the upkeep of the Missionary school near the hotel. At Fort Aguada Goa, the hotel buys fish from the fishing village nearby. It buys jute bags and pottery made by the villagers for use as laundry bags and to set yoghurt, respectively. We also work with NGOs who are involved in community projects. We are environment conscious and all our properties recycle kitchen waste and water for use in gardens.
Taj Khazana sustains the livelihood of talented craftspeople. We work directly with the artisans, like we have been doing with the Banaras weavers, or with NGOs who work with them. The idea is to create a template for reviving other crafts. We have so many states with so many arts and crafts. It is impossible to even know all of them. Some of them are dying out even as we speak. But if we provide sustainable patronage, I think we can save some of them. Taj Khazana is working in tandem with more than 70 different artisans.
The Banarasi Project
Just to see the spark back in the weavers and the fact that youngsters are coming back to the fold is gratifying. The weavers have an innate sense of design and aesthetics. Only sometimes do we bring designers on board to contemporise the designs or advise on colour combinations. We have requested our guests to share any old Banarasi saris or even scraps of material they have, so that we can ask the weavers to revive those designs. Many of the saris you see here today have been copied from old family heirlooms. Ancient designs have been successfully revived and showcased through trunk shows in major cities.
We are trying to do similar work with the Pochampalli weavers. And there are also plans to set up a design school.
Old motifs, New life
Kinkhaab: Means love for eternity. Coveted by the royals in the 16th and 17th Centuries, the intricate motifs are of silk, gold and silver threads.
Shikaargah: Hunting and riding motifs with lions, tiger, elephants , horses, flora and fauna and huntsmen and riders. This design takes 14 to 16 weeks to weave.
Jaangla: Motifs inspired by jungle foliage. Several other motifs such as Bagh Boota (bunch of flowers), Pankha Booti (fans), Kairee (paisley), Phool and Jaal booti are incorporated to enhance or reinvent traditional styles.
Jamewar: Gained recognition through the silk route and patronage of the aristocracy. Jamewar weaving centres in India developed in the holy cities and trade centres. The Mughal kings played a vital role in the enhancement of jamewar by putting their inspirations into the cloth’s designing and visiting the weavers on a regular basis to supervise its making. The Indian motifs were greatly influenced by Nature, with classical motifs such as the hamsa, kamala, kalpa vriksh, purna kumbha, hathi, simha, lata patra and peacocks. These motifs have existed for more than 2,000 years. Four months of painstaking work goes into the making of each Jamewar sari.