An early autumn morning and I was shaken up by my mobile alarm. The most, annoying alarm in the world. I had to get out of my bed, the only way to make it stop ringing, as I left it on television set last night. It took me a while to realize that I was in my hotel room in Chanderi. The charming and beautiful town in Madhya Pradesh known as the birth place of famous Chanderi saris. The artisans who produce these masterpieces are called ‘Bunkers’- they belong to a community living in Chanderi since centuries serving the royals and rich.
This was my first visit to Chanderi. My colleagues were already at hotel reception waiting for me. I quickly got ready and left for Hauz khas (chanderi has got one too – like Delhi) with my team where we were told weavers community resides. We found ourself winding our way through the narrow bylanes of Chanderi. With every turn the streets got narrower, the houses were closer together and when the sun finally made an appearance, these streets looked even more sparkling. Emerging from one of the body-hugging gullies that make up the area, we finally found the place we had been looking for.
This was the locality of the weavers’ community. The houses in it were built in stone. They were all jumbled up in a way as if the architecture was done in haste and had no purpose in mind. The weavers, however, were now out in the street doing their daily chores in a very organised fashion.
The streets of the locality have literally turned into a workplace for weavers. All the artisans prefer to start early in morning, ducking sunlight to prepare fabrics and threads to be used in loom for weaving sari later. The whole process is no simple task- it demands patience and physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity. The first step was a fair accomplishment and now slowly the weavers began to migrate back into their homes. I along with my team members took this opportunity to tag along with young Tauqed, who was quite comfortable with us taking his photographs, to his place. This was the family of Abdul Hameed and Naseem Banu.
We walked up the entrance passage and reached a corridor lined on both sides with small rooms. We were directed by Tauqeed, who pointed his finger towards the first door, asking us to enter. We were elated by what we saw- there, in a tiny room lit entirely by tube lights, sat an elderly couple, completely focused on the sari they were weaving. They both seemed oblivious to our presence and surely the busy buzz of the world outside. Hesitantly I said, ‘Aadab’. They looked at us with surprise as if the work was only for divine interruption and not to be disturbed by someone ordinary like us. Kalle Bhai, our guide, who knew them well, came to our rescue and informed them that we have come to Chanderi to take their interview. This generated genuine smiles on their face, plus some doubts, and left them wondering what on earth we wanted from them. The elderly couple was Hameed and Naseem, parents of Tauqeed. And finally they stood up gave us a warm welcome.
A slow-talking 80 year old, Hameed, a third generation weaver, remembers learning the art of weaving saris on loom from his grandfather. In families like Hameed’s, weaving has been an uninterrupted ritual, a paternal legacy. He said, “This skill runs in my blood” while trying to locate his old specs. Hameed’s great great grandfather had migrated to Chanderi. They were originally a farmer family but changed their profession in Chanderi when they found a commercial scope in the weaving business. Hamid has four sisters and five bothers who are all settled in Chanderi and have same occupation.
The weaving culture in Chanderi dates back to second century. The ancient city is like a museum and is rich in culture, tradition and full of heritage temples, mosques and forts. Like mysterious Chanderi, Hamid is also vocally and visibly proud of his heritage; he learnt and excelled at the craft of weaving at a young age. “I am sure nobody can weave more beautiful saris than us, and we have improvised it and improved it over the years,” he said. The claim may first seem exaggerated or even boastful until one sees their loom work first hand. Their expertise lies in weaving on loom, and combining threads in two dimensions to create a fabric. Different colour threads are used to create beautiful designs and are woven into the fabric with such finesse that the patterns on a sari appears near seamless to the naked eye.
Hamid has cataract and is losing his eye sight, this is the reason he hasn’t been weaving full time for the past one year. But his sons still take his advice in every matter of importance. Hamid is married to Naseem Banu and has three girls and six boys. Naseem is also a top class weaver herself and spends most hours of her day weaving saris. “In old days, royal family women were fond of Chanderi saris. The ladies’ definitive way of accurately choosing the unique Chanderi sari was to blindfold themselves and touch the fabric. The softness of the fabric was the guarantee of authentic chanderi saris”, she said while being fully committed to her craft. The Chanderi saris are among the few most exquisite textiles ever woven. In the past it has been coveted by Mughals, Maharajas, nobles and other members of the rich class. A widely accepted theory among textile scholars associates that the cloth business of Chanderi was at its peak during the era of Mughal emperor Akbar. Later, under the patronage of several kings, with passing generations, the craft blossomed and Chanderi sari became a hugely popular luxury good in most of India. The industry flourished and imperial karkhanas- looms of sari weaving- were established. However, the golden period of the Chanderi sari has long since passed and today most weavers’ situation is dwindling.
The same weavers who once created magnificent textiles, saw prosperity and had great respects from kings, are witnessing an all-time low in the business and don’t have enough work to afford even the most basic lifestyle. “Today, very few people demand such exquisite saris, plus the modern generation has completely different tastes and preferences. Young girls are not likely to go out wearing saris or even appreciate the worth of Chanderi sari,” said Farid, the eldest son of Hameed, who is struggling to meet his ends as business prospects are drying up.
The current practices of weaving sari are exactly same as performed in ancient times. Few things in this profession have changed- handmade Chanderi Sari still takes a lot of time in production. Weaving a single intricate sari can consume up to six months. “The raw material used is very delicate and weaving needs to be done very carefully and design needs to look prominent and intelligently woven into main structure. This is all handmade, of course it consumes lot of time” said Majid, younger brother of Farid. Every member of the family has its own loom, even the daughter-in-laws. Marrying someone in the same profession is very common in the bunker community. This norm helps families to become financially progressive. Despite this, Hameed’s family, with 11 members, has very limited income.
One of the many plausible explanations of deteriorating conditions of Chanderi weavers’ is the uncertainty in their monthly income. The weaving occupation is entirely market driven, if middlemen place an order for saris only then would weavers make some money, otherwise looms are largely left unoccupied. Plus, payments received are so small that it barely pays for their cost of living. For weavers, real incomes have barely budged in the last few decades. Middlemen usually exploit weavers; control the market, delink weavers with end consumers and, pay peanuts for their hard work. In an event, where weavers can have direct interface with end customers, it will prevent them from getting deceived by middlemen for the true value of a Chanderi sari.
Amid all these uncertainties, young Zehra, nine-year-old daughter of Farid, brought us tea and some snacks. She was pretty, had brown eyes and nice straight black hair. The proud father told us that she studies in Gareema Convent School, in fifth standard, and tops her class every year. “Science is my favorite subject,” she giggled and ran back to her mother.
There was a time in India when wearing a Chanderi Sari was a matter of status and honour, gifting each other Saris on festivals and special occasions was a norm. Perhaps times have indeed changed and the art of weaving Chanderi sari has been left behind. Now it is up to the younger generation to take steps to document and preserve these practices, or there is a chance that we could lose this heritage forever. As much as I tried to stay positive about the bunker community’s future, I cast my eyes on Hameed, the old weaver. Seated in a corner, holding Chanderi sari in his hand, his eyes have a strange expression. I imagine that he is remembering good old days when Chanderi saris were a subject of great admiration. In this sense, he relives his past, where he was someone important and was not a part of this boring reality.