Sari State of Affairs

EYE - June 26 - 2011


Unlike the designer weaver establishments I had been taken to see in the past, the poverty was appalling and the younger people had obviously deserted the profession, leaving a predominantly older group behind, and few younger women. The physical labour was very hard and I felt that all this sweat was just not worth the beauty of the sari being woven; the more intricate the weave, the more it meant that the man or the woman with an emaciated body and a barely subsistence-level hut would have to work.

I was told that the younger generation prefers regular jobs to all this back-breaking work, and I thought with surprising relief, "Thank God, there is some progress". I did ask myself why anybody in this day and age of gadgets and robotics and artificial intelligence should actually do so much manual labour. If you asked the question, "Does anything else done on a machine match up to the sheer beauty of this?", the answer is definitely a resounding "no". But if the question asked is, "what was wrong with a power loom sari?", the answer is "nothing really". Also, the sheer difference between the price I paid in Mumbai and the price the weaver asked for was outrageous. I do know that I pay a design premium in my favourite shops but this was way beyond a design premium. Before this visit, I blindly bought into the perspective that buying handloom was good for the weavers and for the craft because otherwise, in the absence of demand, they would not earn enough and the craft would die out and be lost forever. After my visit, however, I thought that we must perhaps not buy handloom, because the working conditions they are made in are very subhuman. There wasn't much joy of weaving on any of the weavers' faces – just a grim acceptance that the job had to be done, in order to earn money to stay alive.

I was pondering about the economics of the situation – demand, supply, prices, fair ROE (return on effort) etc, when I found a part of the answer on a visit to Jetpur in Gujarat. A power loom and printing centre, it had some really beautiful saris whose borders on both sides were very nicely handloom-woven, with weaves from different parts of the country. The rest of the sari was printed to match and complement the weave. This way, the price-performance point, as it were, is optimised. On some saris, matching hand-woven borders were sown on separately – and the overall effect was quite pleasing. A few days later, I was gifted a sari from a big shop in Mumbai which had the same formula but done in silk – a stunning handloom border skillfully blended with a print on the rest of the sari. Two thoughts occurred to me – innovation is alive and well in the micro and small-scale sector, and this is not the kind of "this as well as that" solution that big businesses usually think about. If this becomes more of a formula, and the borders of salwars and parts of kameezes have it, we actually may end up having a bigger and a higher-value market than present. We are willing to pay Rs. 100 more for an exquisite patti which may take 10 units of time, but we may not be willing to pay Rs. 1,000 for an all-woven garment which takes 200 units for time. So it could be win-win for the customer and for the supplier. This doesn't solve the problem of middle men and penury of the present weavers. But at least if there is demand for handlooms in this form, it will encourage more experimentation, and can attract young people to learn to trade or stay in the trade, because there will be more of premium placed on design. Then, if software can have tax exempt parks, so can weaving designers.

I await the day when saris will be worn over tights and not petticoats, with pallus draped like dupattas around the neck and not over the breasts, and the blouse will be the piece de resistance of the whole ensemble (we are getting there on the latter). At a sari shop, I was told that the reason there is not much demand for the thick silk saris that earlier were the rage, was that most upper-middle and upper-class Indian women were now working very hard to stay thin – going to the gym, dieting, walking, etc. They were not interested in clothes that did not show off the figure. So the move is towards soft fabrics that drape differently from traditional silk and cottons. So, soon perhaps we will see cotton borders, synthetic bodices, handloom and power loom combos and it will be a whole new look of continuity and change.