Saturday, July 18, 2015

A not so sorry sari story

Attending a wedding in India, which I did this past December, was awesome for many reasons one of which was this: not only older women but most of the younger women too were wrapped in saris.
Silk saris.
In a mind-blowing array of colors of designs.
No two saris looked the same.
And every woman seemed to delight in the sari that she was wearing.

Right from a young age, I was impressed with the beauty of the sari.  I had no idea about the differences that the elders talked about: Kanchipuram silk versus Benares silk, for instance.  All I knew was that saris were gorgeous and that I liked some more than others.  It was exciting when I was asked for my opinions on the saris and I was always willing to jump in with my comments on the color scheme, the pattern, the "border," and whether it will look good for that particular woman.  I think it is a surprise that I never had even the faintest interest in wrapping myself in one! Thankfully ;)

Of course, there was no equivalent for the males, whose traditional outfits at weddings was nothing but a white veshti and an angavastram.

No Angavastram though! ;)
Thus, it is no surprise that I could sympathize with Sashi Tharoor's lament that women were ditching the traditional saris.   Of course, the intellectual me also felt right away that it was atrocious for Tharoor to complain about the loss of traditions after his own life far, far away from the traditions.  But, I suppose people like us will always talk and write about the rapid changes that lead to the tossing overboard of traditional practices--even saris.  Why, even the half-saris! ;)

As women ditch the traditional saris, the industry that once employed hundreds of thousands has been rapidly changing as well.  In the place of human hands weaving those silk threads into colorful patterns that the silk saris become, machines have taken over.  The artisan and artistic craft is dying.  While Kanchipuram silk continues to flourish for various reasons, Benares silk is long past its glory days.  It is now being sustained in ways that makes this sari-fan jump with joy:
The jobs of the Varanasi weavers, once estimated at a half million men, may have been fading out back then, but on a trip in late 2013 I discovered that efforts were underway by two companies — the socially conscious New York fashion label Maiyet and the Mumbai chain Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces — to reinvigorate the ancient skill by employing the weavers and inviting tourists to visit them as they work. About 700 people have taken Maiyet’s tour; more than 650 have gone on Taj’s.
Hurrah for capitalism and the profit motive!
The fashion line’s work in Varanasi got the attention of David Adjaye, a star British architect whose international works include the design of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington. Mr. Adjaye is now designing Maiyet’s building for the weavers, which is to be completed in 2016.
Meanwhile, Taj had started resurrecting the desolate village of Sarai Mohana, five miles from Varanasi, which has a large concentration of weavers. Taj’s plan was to have the weavers make saris for its employees and guests. Since then, the village has been turned into something of a tourist attraction.
How awesome!  
For centuries Varanasi was a hub for the silk trade. The gossamer fabric, woven by hand on long wooden looms, is recognizable to aficionados by its refined feel, substantial weight and audible rustle. ...
Weaving in India dates to 500 B.C. and flourished during the Mughal period from the early 16th to mid-18th centuries. Since Islam traditionally forbids the images of people and animals, weavers created floral brocades for saris and scarves, much like the gold flower pattern on mine.
Weavers, nearly all men, pass down their skills to their sons or male relatives. But their trade has been shaken over the last few decades as power looms offer a cheaper and faster way to produce the same goods, six to 12 meters of material a day, depending on the design; it can take a weaver weeks to create the same amount. This technology left many of the artisans facing starvation and selling the wood from their looms for firewood.
Yes, it is that old tale of technology condemning artisans to starvation. The Luddites found out years ago as the Industrial Revolution unfolded in England that fighting the change is hopeless. Adapt or die.  It was literally the death of one weaver that, ironically, led the hotel chain to employ some:
It was this plight that in 2005 caught the attention of Ratna Krishnakumar, the wife of R.K. Krishnakumar, who was at the time the vice chairman of Indian Hotels Company Limited, of which Taj is a part.
“I had heard about how bad the situation was for these weavers, but the final clinching point came when I was watching the evening news and heard about a weaver in his 30s who had died from overselling his blood to feed his family,” she said in a telephone interview from her Mumbai home.
Mrs. Krishnakumar, 66, came up with the idea of tapping the men to make the saris for Taj’s female front-office staff. The weavers now make saris for 550 women who work at 11 of Taj’s 114 hotels in India.
Mrs. Krishnakumar deserves high praise,don't you think so too?
The project started in 2008 with a dozen weavers but now has more than 40. Mr. Ramrakhiani said that they have woven more than 1,000 saris for the hotel employees. Another group of 12 to 15 master weavers creates saris that are sold at 15 of the hotel’s gift boutiques, including at its properties in New Delhi and London.
Like Mrs. Krishnakumar of Taj, Maiyet’s co-founder and chief executive, Paul van Zyl, was aware of weavers’ problems.
“We naturally hit on Varanasi when we were looking for skilled weavers,” said Mr. van Zyl, 44, the former executive secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, which was set up to deal with aftereffects of apartheid. The high-end line that he started is now available at 50 retailers worldwide, including Barneys New York.
If only the business world can always look a little beyond it's narrow and short-term interests--we will all then be collectively much better off.

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