The Tale of Banarasi Fabric

The Banarsi Fabric Making tradition started from the city of Banaras in India. Banaras is generally believed to be about 3000 years old and it was a commercial and industrial center just as Mohen-jo-Daro in Pakistan almost the same as the city of Varansi or Banaras was. This ancient city was noted for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory and sculpture.


Historical evidence shows that the Banaras weaving industry reached its peak during the Mughal period, due to the patronage of mighty Mughal emperors such as Akbar. It is significant to note that there was an abrupt end to the old motif designs in the 16th century, in the sixteenth century. Contemporary paintings that wholesaled personalized motifs were introduced to the public, but were slightly modified for the Indian taste. More emphasis was given to floral designs, and the ancient animal and bird motifs were given up for good. There was an influx of Persian motifs due to the influence and importance of Persian masters in the court of Emperor Akbar. Amongst these masters, Ghias Naqshaband is remembered as one of the most legendary. European visitors to India in the Mughal period visited Banaras and recorded their impressions of the city’s textile industry in their work. During Emperor Shahjahan’s time, Varanasi continued to be famous for the production of cummer bonds, turbans and garments. Women’s garments such as odhinis or dupattas (veils or long scarves) were the specialty of Varanasi up to the 18th and 19th centuries.
During the British Raj in India, many well recorded descriptions of Banaras zari and brocades were made by British travellers. George Viscount Valentia, in his travelogue, detailed some interesting information about Banaras textiles in early 19th century. Valentia held a Durbar in Banaras which was attended by textile traders who displayed some very good examples of zari and brocades. In his log, Valentia remarks that the brocades showed close patterns and were quite expensive, and were thus only worn on important occasions. He rightly observed that the prosperity of the people in the city mainly rested on its brocades and zari manufacture and trade these textiles were popular items of export to Europe. Valentia’s description not only provided the historical existence of the silk industry of Banaras but also explained how the socio-economic aspect of the people is influenced by textiles industry during that period.
The then collector of Banaras Dweance recorded a considerable number (580 houses) of several types of artisans of the city when he made a census report during those times, amongst who were Muslim carpet weavers and Rajput weavers who produced several types of zari and brocades. Bishop Heber had described that “[Banaras] had a very considerable silk, cotton and woolen manufacture of its own”. Colin Masckenzie, a traveller to Banaras in 1847, recorded some interesting information about the zari and brocade textiles she wrote about an Indian prince who visited their party, and wore “wide trousers of cloth of gold” or brocade. This seemed to have been popular amongst the gentry of Banaras, which is corroborated by her later account and also by the surviving examples of that period.
Brocade designs from Banaras have traveled far and wide. It is needless to mention here that the art style and its intricacies of the Banarasi art form have been refined graciously by assimilating the cultures of many religious and cultural sects to its already rich art forms so as to cater to the needs of all sections of the people of the world; but without loosing its basic structural instincts. It has been unique in the time immemorial and so also now.
Though the handlooms and craft designs has drawn the strength from its quality, reputation and art style, it is difficult for any user and artist to understand the vicissitude of art forms it generates on thousands of end used products produced by the skillful weavers of Varanasi. In order to bring these unique products to the knowledge domain of the larger users and patrons of these great products, a humble effort has sincerely been taken by the Human Welfare Association (HWA) to capture some of the selected unique products in this catalogue. Explanations to each of them have been extended in a very brief and holistic which may not explain the product elaborately. Of course, it is not in our strength to explain the product in language. The readers and the beholder therefore may imagine the uniqueness of the product largely in their own way. We also created this catalogue with a great feeling that a sincere visualization of the catalogue by the beholder will cosmically support the skillful weavers who have been creating these immortal art forms.


In the city of Banaras, there thrives an equally pristine tradition. Thousands of weavers are engaged in weaving Banaras fabric, which makes the city of Banaras another name for silk Fabrics. The Banarsi sari in particular, has gained popularity during the legendary Mughal era in which all art was interfused to create a spectrum of aesthetics. Persian Motifs and Indian designs on silk studded with gold and silver remained the hallmark of Mughal auspice. Today Banarsi fabrics are being exported worldwide infatuating millions of women in almost all parts of the globe.


The Pakistan territory also has been known for excellent silk weaves since the first millennium B.C. In the Middle Ages, silk, gold and silver brocades made there found ready buyers in Europe, the Middle East, and even China. The weavers’ raw material, the silk cocoons are imported from China and the silk thread is cultivated at these centers only. They mostly fulfill demands of cities like Lahore and Karachi (the two major cities) and to some extent of Hyderabad. The major centers continue to be Orangi town and Shershah where the fabrics are woven on a large scale.


After independence a large number of weavers migrated from Delhi and Banaras and set up workshops in Lahore, Karachi and Khairpur. However, after the partition of Bangladesh in 1971, the majority of the weavers have deserted Khairpur. One of the reasons for this was language and state rights that were promised but never given to those who migrated. Thus the people belonging to Indian origin migrated to Karachi and settled in Orangi town, which has emerged as one of the biggest Khadi hand loom markets of Pakistan. These weavers have continued to weave these brocades in traditional patterns, but have also introduced newer ones and while taking inspiration from the old Mughal silks.


In Pakistan Banarsi fabric making is normally carried out as a home industry in one of the most underdeveloped areas of Karachi, Orangi Town, a lower class settlement.  It is a well-known fact that cottage industries can play a significant role in the development of any economy. As it is observed that this industry does not require too much financing, imported and highly sophisticated technology. In Pakistan there are a lot of things, which we can appreciate; one of which is a Banaras cottage industry of Pakistan and the people who are in this work from many years are also noteworthy. Because of these hard working people this industry compete in foreign markets and acknowledged worldwide. The people in this industry deserve a great applause for their staunch dedication to continue their work and to earn their livelihood no matter what the trails of hardship may be. This documentary would highlight the importance of Banaras cottage industry, which may be an un-noticed small industry for the people of Pakistan and for the rest of the world.


Banaras Town in Orangi Town that was established in 1964 is the place where the original weavers and their families were first settled with an innate skill of making banarsi fabrics as adept artisans. Today these devoted craftsmen practice their traditional business, weave the fabric and supply to an ever-growing yet selective market in Karachi. Some daring and enterprising people in this trade have opened their outlets in the Banaras Town area, craving to make it big with mere hard work and a bit of luck.


Banaras town located in Karachi’s orangi town is famous for its production of silk and banarasi clothing. It is a place where banarsi fabric making is carried out as a home industry. Different techniques are used there to produce a product that has a splendor of creativity. Techniques include handloom, power loom, graphic design, cultivation of thread etc. Each store has a unique display of colours and designs, and entire households are involved in the business with the women working on handloom where as on the other side the men are involved in making and selling the fabric. Initially the most widely used technique was handloom but this trend is declining as the handlooms are being replaced with the power looms due to the technological advancement plus the rise in demand.


Pakistani government have traditionally been oblivious of their own country’s skilled potential and economic prospects, so they habitually over look the fundamental requirements of forsaken weavers of Orangi Town in Karachi, who always strive to sustain their trade even in the most pathetic of situations of their own economic survival. Even some foreign governments identified their existence and have rise their support for this significant trade in Pakistan.


Weavers of Banarsi fabric were acknowledged by the Saudi Government while honoring and assigning them with a task of making a cover of Khana-e-Kaa’bah. Weavers of Banaras Town were also asked by the Saudi Government to conduct a workshop for the weavers of the cover of the Holy Kaa’bah.


Banarsi fabrics produced in Banaras Town vary according to quality of fabric, design, use of quality silk and work of zari to make the finished product a splendor of human imagination and creativity. In every alley of Banaras Town there is not only the work of Banarsi fabric manufacturing but there is also a Banarsi Cloth Market where around 200 shops readymade silk fabrics. These shops also supply the silk products including Banarsi fabrics and saris throughout the country.


It has been learned that with each passing day the ratio of profit is decreasing because of surging cost of production, heavy taxes and lack of governmental subsidies not forgetting dreadful outages of electricity on hourly basis. The people in this industry deserve a great applause for their staunch dedication to continue their work and to earn their livelihood no matter what the trails of hardship may be.


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