The sense of the peripheral is malleable for Banaras and, thus, a peepal tree can act as the most validating mapping indicator of a mohalla. Having probed multiple times about the specific peepal tree that stood on the yellow courtyard opposite a stone artisan’s workshop, eventually one could land up at Jagannath Prasad’s house.

A master artisan of Banarasi sarees and a second-generation weaver, Jagannath’s story is deeply connected to the history of arts in Banaras that somewhere converge on the complex checkered story of artisans and weavers of this city at large.

Synchronous with Banaras, Jagannath, who does not call himself a karigar, is nearly 80 years old. He is lean, needing glasses only when working on the loom. His father was a farmer, albeit with almost no ownership of land, who got himself trained in weaving, acquiring the skills from another master artisan, observing and getting a little bit of hands-on experience. This transition from farmers to weavers began in the last decades of the 19th century, when colonial governance had vested its energies in creating some paradigm shifts in the silk-weaving sector of Banaras.

Products from Manchester had flooded the market of Banaras, and were getting sold in the neighbourhood. In references by Sherring, there are mentions of high volumes of English cotton being supplied to Mirzapur. He also indicates the fame of Banaras as the key city of weaving “kinkhwab” or “kingcob”, the gold thread embroidery work with a Mughal connect. By the middle of the 20th century, the demand for “kinkhwab” dropped.

This paradigm shift led to a huge shuffling in traditional occupations. Like Jagannath’s father, a sizeable number of farmers migrated to silk-weaving. The demand for sarees increased in the 20th century, while kinkhwab or gold thread embroidery became niche and exclusive till it became passé, only to return as “heritage”.

Jagannath Prasad, national award winner and acclaimed master weaver.

The clanking of the jacquard was interruptive as Jagannath continued to share snippets from his life that seemed like a cinematographic back and forth between how his father actually had started off as a “jaoula” (colloquial term for “weaver”), his career as a second generation weaver, the support and encouragement that he got from late Pupul Jayakar, the overall scenario of the weaving sector, the post-independence weavers’ cooperatives and, of course, the changes in the technical aspects of weaving that made a huge impact while he was at the peak of his career.

“Banarasi (referring to Banarasi sarees) will never die, despite all the lows that this industry may face, because Banarasi is about every girl’s dream and this you may find really interesting a take; I myself find it somewhat strange, but this aspect of the Banarasi being a dream is what keeps us going,” the artisan was free-flowing.

Although sarees had the largest share in the demand chain, Jagannath had sceptically experimented with other products that were considered quite an impossibility in traditional handloom silk-weaving. He reminisces how once he had created tents made of handwoven silk, encouraged by Pupul Jayakar, and how they turned out to be a great success.

There was a slow but steady image change in assessing the very fine skills that a Banarasi craftsman could realise. This, in turn, reflected on the social positioning of a section of the master weavers of Banaras. For craftsmen like Jagannath Prasad and Haji Abdul Rauf Alijaan of Kotwa, experimenting with the weaving techniques had always been part of their skillset; however, all experimentations were also triggered by the demand of the marketplace.

Interestingly, this out-of-the-box activity did not earn them the label of designers, although Jagannath, Abdul Rauf and others confessed that they had often proactively suggested experimentation in terms of colours, thread counts, and motifs, creating a range of products beyond sarees, like stoles, dupattas, and more.

The Post-independence decades saw shifts in various elements of Banarasi silk-weaving, kinds of silk threads, stylisation, and most importantly, the techniques of weaving. Those who understood the worth of the traditional weaving methods, like the dori technique, which resulted in more of a tangible high-end product that would, in posterity, be considered a precious object or heritage, did try their best to not let it go.

A grand handwoven brocade, nearly 80 years old, from the private collection of Jagannath Prasad.

But a shift in the paradigm was waiting around the corner: the jacquard system made its way in in the early ’70s, forcing the dori technique to make way. Nobody actually had any clue of the jacquard weaving. The industry wasn’t ready with its human resources to cope with this monumental change, and yet, Banarasi weaving survived. This was the second or third occassion that handloom silk-weaving actually managed to survive, despite a massive stir in either the weaving techniques or the demand-supply chain of the market.

The reason for this existential situation of the weaving sector can be tracked way back into the previous century, from the late 1800s and later, when the shift first happened.

The primary reason for the survival of the Banaras silk industry, when all other cottage industries were surrendering to competition, was the special nature of its products as well as the versatility of its craftsmen. Speculations on the phenomenal success of the industry are based on the traditional skills of the weavers, the suitable climate of the region, the virtues of Banaras as a market, and its roles, both as a pilgrim centre and as the favourite residential spot of the gentry throughout the 18th century.

Resilience, flexibility, and adaptability are assets that Banarasi craftsmen have historically thrived on. Jagannath Prasad called for his youngest son, pointing through the window of his sales-cum-work station that overlooked into a big stretch of looms in action, on the courtyard. “In the British era, the colour of woolen threads were stable; it could be used with not much hassle, whereas colours of silk threads were bleeding every now and then. Terrible situations would crop up, often leading to the loss of big orders. It was tricky to use colours that tended to bleed, like maroon, red, and blue. Craftsmen like us were accountable to their select list of clienteles, including royal families and other affluent patrons, ordering boutique pieces intense in labour, which would eventually become exclusive sarees.’

One of the runners bought a medium sized basket, full of silk threads. Jagannath asked me to touch and feel them and then continued, “This happened only after Independence in 1947. Dye houses started sprouting all around and the silk threads were not bleeding anymore. Till date, maroon, yellow, pink, and blue are the highest selling colours. I have a feeling that their popularity will never downslide.” The elderly artisan had an expression of relief on his face.

The monotony of the clanking jacquards resonated through the otherwise quiet locality. Outside Jagganath’s three-storey house, children were initiating their third six-over galli cricket match. The local team was led by Abhishek Prasad, the 14-year-old grandson of Jagannath.

For now, he is not interested in silk-weaving. Jagannath affirmed Abhishek’s disinterest, “You see, nothing is permanent, what we like, what we don’t, what we wish to be, all are driven by the trend at that point. Maybe there’s a returning wave, where Abhishek’s generation would take up weaving. For now, government jobs seem to be more interesting for the 20-somethings. I don’t think I should resent his dislike for weaving, for in my trade, I have seen so many changes. What’s fanciful today may not be of any worth tomorrow; exactly how designs of Banarasis (the sarees) are, which you may see either too much of or never see again – a certain design of buta or an odd paisley, however much you may comb the market.”

A specimen of the time-honoured jangla work on a Banarasi saree, from the private collection of Jagannath Prasad.

Many times, a particular style becomes the rage. There is a demand created around a particular pattern, which would often have an impact on the overall industry with other factors, like time, technique, and craftsmanship working at tandem, like butas and borders, which were musts in the last few centuries, when it came to the designs of Banarasi sarees. In present times, the end consumers would not prefer these motifs or designs, simply because the influencers of the market have reworked on those designs, freshly packaging them based on the current market demands and choices of the patrons. So, what appears as a style trend today may be out of vogue and may even become unheard of in the future.

The complex part of this continuous change in Banarasi weaving can be attributed to the wear and tear in the socio-political milieu of the country from the 17th century till 50 years ago. From changes in the patronage of the trade to fabric variation, and new techniques that were introduced to the Indian markets by the colonial rulers, forcibly implemented via the weaving industry, to the departing aesthetics of the exiting Mughal regime, all of it added to a huge transformation in Banarasi weaving.

In the case of Banaras, its role as a pilgrim centre, with the particular demands of the market that arose from the ritual practices of the Hindus, must be considered one of the key factors of the change. Over and above these, the dynamics of what worked best for the capital invested and the goal of profits, interconnected with the consumption of the gentry, determined what would remain in Banarasi saree weaving.

Banaras: Of Gods, Humans and Stories

Excerpted with permission from Banaras: Of Gods, Humans and Stories, Nilosree Biswas and Irfan Nabi, Niyogi Books.