Anyone who knows of sarees is sure to have heard of the grand and majestic Banarasi sarees. These regal sarees hold a place of pride in the saree world – with many even holding it as the emperor (or should it be – the empress!). Woven in pure silk or contemporarily in georgettes, with an intricate inter-lay of metallic Zari or brocade, each of these sarees are a stunning work of ancient Mughal/ Persian inspired art.
The Land of Moksha – Supreme Salvation!
As the name suggests, these vastly coveted sarees are crafted in the holy land of Banaras or Benaras – avidly also known as Varanasi. This North Indian ancient Hindu pilgrim city, situated on the banks of the sacred river Ganges, has been touted as the land of Moksha in our scriptures. Many people, usually in the olden days, used to visit Kashi – Varanasi – to spend their final days – as it was believed that dying there takes one straight to heavens, freeing one from the vicious cycle of life and death. This city also has a deep spiritual significance.
The Indian Fashion Niravana…
Associations with the city of Banaras may be a legend or reality, we can’t say much on that. However, we can assure you that if you are an Indian fashion lover – then, seeing, feeling and wearing the beauty of a Banarasi saree will surely take you near fashion nirvana and moksha! Plus, we may agree or not – the association of these royal weaves with the spiritual city of Banaras creates a mystical aura around these sarees.
Banarasi sarees are one among the grandest Indian sarees – hand-crafted by master weavers, artists and their families, engaged in this family art since ages. These stunning sarees are amazingly grand and statuesque, and are an able representation of the rich textiles legacy of India. Many evolutionary changes these sarees have undergone in many years also represent the history and many cultural interactions of this diverse nation.
Woven in Gold and Silver
Originally inspired from Persian and Mughal designs and influences, and made for royalty and elite classes, Banarasis were crafted using silk yarn with real silver and gold fibers – in days of the yore. Employing labor intensive, painful weaving processes, artisans and weavers brought especially from foreign lands created the original precious metals’ yarns fabric – called as the Kinkhaab/ Khimkhaab. The heavy fabric was woven with simple patterns, so it will be malleable enough to be used as a textile for clothing. Sarees with such real Zari and fibers had a heavy re-sale value, and were often gifted by parents to their daughters, as a part of their wedding trousseau. With time, we may find only a far and few (extremely rare) mentions of this magnificent art, but thankfully, Banarasi Sarees survive – and thrive.
The Tumultuous Journey
The beautiful Benarasi saris have had numerous ups and downs. From enjoying the grand status of the royal saris to being the proverbial wedding sari and bridal sari in Northern India, when any Indian wedding was incomplete without them – there came a stage, where regal silk and Tanchoi Benarasis were facing a tortuous downhill journey.
Modern brides ditched the sari for lehenga choli, and the fashion world was full of less blingy, lighter, more chic variations of designer sarees and new fabrics like nets, georgettes and crepes. Suddenly, the grandeur of Banarasis was fading. Yet, it continued to be the eternal trousseau sari.
The real Banarasis continued to become more and more elusive, given their high pricing. Not everyone could afford these gorgeous zari-filled bundles of joy. It was not possible to cut the costs, though, as every authentic handloom Varanasi sari takes anywhere between 3 weeks to 6 months to get completed – by meticulous weavers, who weave these splendid beauties using ancient weaving secrets, passed onto them, through generations of Banarasi weavers.
The markets suddenly were filled with ‘fakes’ of Banarasi sarees. Far from the ‘real’ thing, these imitations were more ostentatious, their fabric – a cheaper variant of polyester or silk-nylon blend. Besides tarnishing the image of Banarasis, the fakes also gave a stiff competition to the ‘real’ stuff. Benarasi weaving industry lately is being threatened by the machine-made Chinese Banarasi saris. Since these sarees are cheaper and easily available, it’s always an easier option for the non-discerning consumer.
The Fight Back
The flailing Banarasi weaving community, however, fought back with these constraints, and secured a GI (Geographical Indication) certificate in 2009. This is an intellectual property right. This means that no product (of all the 4 categories, as classified under the GI certificate), manufactured outside the 6 identified districts of Uttar Pradesh would classify as Banarasi stuff. The weaver communities have also formed many unions, and have approached local, state and central governments to regulate power supply (for efficient working of powerlooms, and thus, expedite production) and raw material prices.
The Spiritual Journey
Today, many autonomous and private players have joined hands to contribute for the revival of these grand sarees and this amazing art. Asopalav also started an initiative aimed at the revival of these splendid creations, and its campaign ‘Spiritual Journey’ is all about that. This campaign aimed at increasing awareness about Banarasi saris – the authentic stuff and re-popularizing this amazing fabric. As a part of this initiative, Asopalav has incorporated rich Banarasi brocade and zari fabric even in creation of its bespoke bridal lehengas and Indian wedding outfits – under its designer label Kallidorah.