A Banarasi sari is a much sought-after acquisition for an Indian bride, wherever in the world she might be. Hundreds of women in Banaras, one of the world’s oldest living cities, have traditionally made a living of making these intricately woven and richly embroidered saris that are a global sartorial identity of Indian women.
Like in many other industries and businesses, the pandemic in 2020 sent crashing the dreams and aspirations of these women and their families that have lovingly passed on their craft from generation to generation.
Urmila Devi, for instance, had four looms that never rested. She and her husband wove three saris a day until Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 abruptly silenced the machines, killing their only source of income.
“There were days when we had nothing to eat. We thought we would not survive this virus. We were sure the virus wouldn’t kill us, but hunger surely would,” said Urmila Devi, who showed remarkable courage in dealing with the sudden adversity.
“I realized that if we have to survive, I have to do something,” said Urmila, a mother of two young children, who found not only an alternative source of income for her family but also other weavers, who were staring at starvation.
“I started looking for alternative work. As I knew how to sew and use sewing machines, I took the work of making masks, PPE kits, and other products. Soon, I got more and more work. I then involved other women of my community, who were also looking for alternative work so that they could provide for their families,” said Urmila. She leads a self-help group (SHG), which is a community-based team of 20 or more women.
SHG is a government-led financial intermediary committee mainly composed of local women that generally works as a group of people who work on daily wages by forming a loose grouping or union. Money is collected from those who can donate and given to members in need.
“We collectively made over 50,000 masks at one time and PPE kits and other things,” she said proudly. “We were happy and hopeful that we would survive this pandemic.” Initially things were tough.
“People would say all kinds of things about me as I stepped out of my home to look for work. But I was unfazed. I knew what I had to do,” said Urmila, whose efforts were not only praised but were recognized by the state government that awarded her too. “It was a tough time for all of us,” recalled Urmila. The Covid-related lockdown and restrictions led to nearly 0.15 million handlooms being shut down, leaving almost 20,000 weavers in financial crisis.
Sultana, a weaver, said, “In every lane and by-lane, you will find each household is engaged in this work of weaving. Women are responsible for the cutting and finishing, while the men work on the machine.”
Banaras – also known as Varanasi – is the spiritual hotspot of India as it boasts of over 2,000 temples. Located on the left bank of the Ganga, the rapidly modernizing ancient city, which is the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has not just been a significant center of spirituality but also a cradle of learning, music, and handicraft business.
Known for its beautiful temples and bustling ghats (steps leading to the river), it has traditionally produced some of the world’s finest silk saris, known eponymously as the Banarsi sari.
Crafted using gold or silver threads and created with the highest grade silk fabrics, Banarasi silk saris are considered the undisputed ‘queen’ of Indian saris. They are identified with their intricate and delicate zari work and opulent embroidery and have ‘booti’ or motifs across its six-yard drape.
The handloom and handicraft sector is India’s second-largest source of employment. But lockdown followed by lockdown and then restrictions in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic was a huge blow to this labour-intensive sector, rendering these people jobless and without any help.
Said Urmila: “We faced a terrible impact of the pandemic; every weaver’s machine in our village stopped production during that time. We needed clothes, medicines, food, and so much more; from where could we have got all this?”
Added Sultana, “The profession is such that all the family members are involved – the father will operate the handloom, then his son fills the threads, the mother will cut and finish the final product. When the entire household works towards this production, then only do we manage to earn enough for a meal.”
Before Covid, many of these weaver families were doing well, and they added more machines to increase their production.
The women, who had turned into small-scale entrepreneurs weaving intricate silk yarns, were earning a daily income of 800 to 1,000 rupees a day (approximately $13).
“We had three machines, and we bought another one so that we could meet the orders and fulfill the quota by making the required number of saris. But the number of orders slowly went down, and then it stopped as there were no marriages or gatherings,” said Urmila.
“From a daily income of Rs. 800 to Rs.1,000, our earnings dropped to Rs 250 per day, and then it stopped completely,” added Urmila.
Added Shanti Devi, “I started with one machine, then my fleet went up to two, then four, and finally I owned six machines. At that time, I didn’t have enough money for raw materials. There was no source of income; I would need Rs 10,000- Rs 20,000 to get them running. Our work completely shut down. It only opened last year, but it is yet to pick up pace, as the third Covid wave hit us,” she said.
These handwoven Banarasi saris have a timeless appeal and can sell for up to Rs 200,000 ((US$ 2,700) each. With Varanasi’s weaving industry generating about 50 billion rupees (US$ 677 million) in an average year, the impact of the coronavirus has undoubtedly left a long-lasting dent in India’s economy.
According to Ramzan Ali, a weaver, “Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the most significant impact that happened was the export of saris from here stopped altogether. The consumers who used to come here to purchase stopped coming. A lot of weddings were canceled. The marriages that did happen, the demand of sari in those weddings, if earlier they were 10, it was reduced to one. So, all these things, the consumers not coming, the stopping of exports, the demand for sari in weddings declining, because everyone was facing financial difficulties, this impacted our profession 100 percent.
Added Sultana, “So many people have sold their looms with the thinking that they will at least get to eat something after selling these. If we live today, we will get some work when things improve. But after selling everything, they are only left with problems.”
It was then that Urmila, breaking the glass ceiling, stepped out of her home to look for alternatives.
She was able to find different jobs for those not interested in sewing or weaving. Her help not only meant work for the women but also their unemployed husbands. Some are making small parts for ceiling fans, or have started independent self-help business models, while some others continued to make Covid-related material that found a market in small to medium hospitals.
“There were some women who had no idea about sewing. I taught them. At one time, we earned over Rs.40,000, which was distributed to all those who were involved in making masks, PPE kits, and other things,” said Urmila.
“When there was no source of income, we had a sustainable livelihood running for us because of the SHG,” added Archana Singh.
Praising the concept of SHG, she said, “through the medium of an SHG, not only the women of the village have found jobs but the men have also found a stable source of employment. Instead of venturing out to the cities, they are now stationed here, employed by the SHGs being run by the village’s women.
“I am thrilled that the women of my village have prospered with the self-help groups,” she said, adding that each woman was able to tap into their talent to improve their economic condition, which further contributed to the prosperity of their village too.
Today, as things have improved, Urmila and her husband have once again started weaving Banarasi saris, which they enjoy doing. But what gives her intense satisfaction is that she was able to help out other women and community members at a time of pandemic when life looked tough and they faced a bleak future.
“I cannot even describe my feeling when I see a smile on the face of a woman who is now self-sustained and financially independent. It gives me immense happiness and satisfaction.”
This article is part of a new series, Indiaspora Features, which commissions journalists to write about topics of interest for the global Indian diaspora.
Kavita Bajeli-Datt is an independent journalist associated with South Asia Monitor. She has worked in prominent Indian news organizations like IANS, PTI, and The Week where she wrote extensively on health, crime, politics, and art and culture.