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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 25, June 14, 2014

Handloom: An Endangered Industry

Saturday 14 June 2014

book review

by Imtiaz Ahmad Ansari

Entangled Yarns: Banaras Weavers and Social Crisis by Vasanthi Raman; Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla; 2013; pp. X+126 (Hardcover).

The book Entangled Yarns: Banaras Weavers and Social Crisis by Vasanthi Raman deals with the various dimensions of the weaving industry in Banaras and the people associated with it. The book is a sequel to her previous book, titled Warp and the Weft: Community and Gender Identity Among Banaras Weavers, published in 2010. When read together, it presents a complete picture of social, political, economic and cultural aspects of weavers and the weaving industry in Banaras.

However, Entangled Yarns has its own merit. The book mainly deals with the crisis before the weaving industry after the 1990s, when India opened its market for the world. The fundamental unit of production is family; therefore, it is the artisan family which bears the brunt of the crisis. Although the focus of the study is the Muslim families, the book also captures the inter-community relations in general and social relations of production. The book is mainly based on the data collected through ethnographic method and other published secondary sources.

Momin Ansari Community

The book focuses on the Momin Ansari community of Banaras. It is a tightly-knit community. Occupation and spatially restricted endogamous marriages provide solidity to the structure. It is mainly through the women that the community’s boundaries are maintained. Prof Raman breaks the myth of a homogenous Muslim community. Momin Ansaris of Banaras are divided into various taats (lineages or clans). Marriage decisions are regulated by these taats. Not only social differentiation but economic and sectarian differences are also marked.

The world of Momin Ansaris is identified by weaving. It is continuing from generation to generation. The family is the basic unit of production. The division of labour is based on age and sex. Women and children are an integral part of the weaving process. Most of the preparatory work like carding and making the yarn ready for weaving and other post-preparatory work are done by women and children. The child is even socialised into the weaving process from an early age.

The Looming Crisis

A major part of the book deals with the decline of the handloom industry and the pitiable condition of the weavers in general, and Muslim weavers in particular. The most famous product of the Banarasi handloom industry is the Banarasi silk sari. Whereas a majority of the weavers are Muslims, the main traders in the sari industry are Hindu bania (traditionally trading community) groups. Presenting the historical antecedents of the challenges before the weaving industry, Prof Raman mainly focuses her attention on the crisis in the post-liberalisation period. During the last two decades the industry has declined rapidly, leading to severe impoverishment of weavers and their families to such an extent that the horrible realities of malnutrition and suicides have come to the surface.

The causes are multiple. Indiscriminate mechanisation has led to the fast depleting handloom weaving. The cheap powerloom-made products have flooded the market. The machine-made cheap imitations have reduced the demand for handloom products. A rough estimation shows that one powerloom can produce the same quantity as produced by 14 handlooms. The mainstay of Banarasi handloom is its design. However, advancing technology has created a challenge for the very survival of the handloom industry.

Competition from Surat has adversely affected the Banarasi sari industry. Automated looms, abundant power supply, yarn and cheap labour in Surat facilitate the production of silk saris on a mass scale. Recent media reports show how the traders are using ‘WhatsApp’ to copy the design and send it back to the manufacturers in Surat who print them on saris and send back to the traders in Banaras.

The work structure of the industry is such that a thin stratum of middleman (grihasthas/gaddidars) stands up at the top followed by a huge middle stratum of mostly self-employed weavers and the bottom consists of a thin layer of wage workers. The role of gaddidar (middle-man) is very important in creating the stark situation before the industry. The trade is mainly controlled by these gaddidars. It is this class of traders who provide the raw material as well as control the market and sometimes also own the looms. A majority of the independent workers (self-employed) ultimately had to turn up to these gaddidars for the access of raw materials and, in a sense, works for them. This middle stratum is depleting very fast and expanding the base, that is, the stratum of wage workers. The result is that the work structure has taken the shape of a pyramid with a thin layer of gaddidars at the top, a relatively thicker middle stratum of self-employed weavers and a huge base of wage workers.The rapidly changing fashion trends have also added to the misery of the handloom industry.

Other than these local factors, there are global factors as well that are equally responsible for the worsening situation of the Banarasi weaving industry. In fact, it is the economic policies adopted by the Indian Government in the post-liberalisation phase which accounts for the major challenge to the Banaras handloom industry. The New Textile Policy (NTP) of 1985 produced a paradigm shift in the Indian growth history. The author writes:

“The shift was from an emphasis on state-controlled import substitution to that of an export-oriented growth with the liberalised market economy playing a significant role. The emphasis was now on modernisation, efficiency, productivity and market compe-tition in sharp contrast to the earlier policy thrust on employ-ment generation, equality and social justice. This shift was favourable to the powerloom and mill sector.” (p. 44)

The trade liberalisation policies, adopted by the goverment in the 1990s, further aggravated the situation. The New Economic Policy of 1991 intensified the process of depleting the handloom industry.

One of the major blows to the Banaras handloom industry is from what is called the ‘China factor’. Although the indigeneous hand-loom industry was already facing challenges from China, the abolition of quantitative restrictions on silk (as required under the WTO regime) in 2001 further threatened the industry. As a result of this, silk import increased tremendously. Banarasi sari ‘Made in China’ flooded the Indian market. However, the Chinese yarn was more expensive than the Indian yarn. The level of import from China clearly shows how aggravating the situation became. As recorded by the author, within a short span of four years (from 2000-01 to 2004-05), the Chinese silk fabric imported to India increased to a whopping 6560 per cent, from 14.48 lakh metres to 9.649 crore lakh metres.

The Question of Survival

Although the declining handloom industry has affected a range of people from gaddidars to wage workers across all religious and caste comm-unities, it is the Muslim artisan weavers, self-employed as well as wage workers, who have experienced the brunt of the crisis. The ensuing pauperisation has forced the weaving class to move into other labour intensive occupations like rickshaw pulling, construction work, etc. The gloominess of the situation can be gauged from the fact that even cases of child malnutrition, selling blood and suicides have been reported among the weavers.

The crisis has presented another paradox before the Muslim families. Earlier, the women used to work within the confines of the home but now they have to search for daily work outside the home. Many of them have started working as domestic servants. It has upset the gender roles. Large scale migration has been adopted by these families as survival strategies. Bangalore, Surat, Hyderabad and Rajasthan are the major destinations for these migrants. Whereas earlier it is the males only who migrated to different areas but now the entire family is migrating to escape from the clutches of starvation and death and to earn thier livelihood.


The textile industry generates employment second only to agriculture. For the weavers of Banaras, weaving is not only an economic activity. It is a way of life. It is their cultural identity wrapped in the inalienable process of tana-bana. However, this identity is under threat and on the verge of extinction. Both local and global factors are responsible for the present crisis.

The Banarasi handloom industry is dying and could be a thing of the past unless India’s next government steps in. The crisis which the Banaras handloom industry is facing today could be a reality for other indigeneous industries tomorrow. The right time to act is now.

The reviewer is associated with the Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at: imtiaz.ahmad01@gmail.com