The Face of Sustainable Fashion.
The lobby of Taj Land’s End was cool and fragrant with huge bouquet of lilies. After a sojourn in Singapore, husband insisted upon being back in India as he missed his land and I unfortunately was pining for my sparkling, picture-perfect erstwhile house. My sadness was momentarily broken when I heard,“Mr. and Mrs. Datta, your room is ready, please follow me” and I turned around only to be stunned by a elegant employee of Taj, with an affable smile wearing the most beautiful sari I had ever seen. Quickly breaking out of my wallowing-in-self-pity state, I realized that the stunning hand woven Banarasi sari was a uniform! Perhaps for the first time since the decision to move was made, I felt happy. To my utter delight, the staff member who came for turndown service, again, was wearing a hand woven sari. How amazing is this country, its crafts and its genius crafts people who can create luxurious masterpieces with such ease that it can be worn by the efficient employees of India’s largest hotels!
Many years later, came the delightful evening when I met amazing and really stunning Mrs. Ratna Krishnakumar who is the galvanizing factor for this happy choice of uniform. She shared that it was her time spent at the Paramparik Karigar and the deep interactions with the weavers there that made her resolve to act for the empowerment of these struggling artists. She lent impetus to the marginalized, physically challenged youth via Aranya Naturals that boosted her confidence to take on the mammoth task of setting foot in the ancient motherland of handwoven luxuries – Banaras.
To say that it was an uphill task is an understatement. Weavers in Banaras, pretty much like in the rest of the country, have had a rough ride since Princely states were abolished post independence. It is not to say that all of our Royalty nurtured them the way they deserved but what followed by way of blood sucking ‘Gaddidars’ and now, some designers, makes them seem like messiahs.
Most of ‘Gaddidars’, ‘kothiwaale’ or whole sellers’ practices were vicious and cruel. They would ensnare talented weavers by a myriad of ways most preferred of which was lending money at such ridiculous rates that the weavers and his future generations were trapped in a subservient existence in appalling living conditions. Confined in tiny, crowded basements infested with disease where these genius artists would work long hours, impoverished, hungry, helpless till they finally died, all too young. Their pathos filled existence comes alive in the book ‘Jhini Jhini biini chadaria’ by Abdul Bismillah who lived amongst the weavers of Banaras to relate this heartbreaking tale of desensitized exploitation perpetrated by the elite and the politicians. At this point, designers enter the scene. Some of them talk of a dream scenario of independent work, freedom from the clutches of the gaddidars and continuous work. Only, first they need some amazing samples that can fetch lucrative orders to start off the journey to independence, they argue and weavers agree. In the predictable future, designer tags are added to these samples and are sold at amazing prices and quick buck is made or the sample is given to be replicated by captive weavers of the designer or, in the worst situation, the sample is replicated on the power loom thereby robbing the weaver of his earnings and his cherished craft. Generations of illiteracy, exploitation, ill health and abject poverty has left our weavers jaded, pessimist and despondent. Many a times people complain that the weavers are so disloyal or they just don’t want to work. I can only request them to read the book to understand how damaging their past has been.
It was an uphill task indeed. Ratna ji approached Sarai Mohana village in U.P. where the weaver population had dwindled to a sad number. She was greeted, naturally, with suspicion and cynicism. Dumbledore said in the a Harry Potter book – “We are always confronted with the easy path or the right path” and much to our good fortune, she chose the right but tedious path. She knew that the first thing she had to do was to build the trust of the weavers. She, with immense support of Tata Trust, took on the nurturing challenge and undertook many confidence-building exercises.
Indian Hotels adopted Sarai Mohana village, supplied the weavers with solar lights to enable them to work in proper visibility conditions, water pumps were set up to improve the ease and hygiene of the community, medical camps were organized on a regular basis and medicines were distributed free of cost.
Eyes are the first casualty of a weaver who works long hours in insufficient lighting, without any medical intervention during dilapidating vision condition. Regular eye checks were conducted and over 85 pairs of glasses were distributed in the first camp itself. The local school refused education to the children of this impoverished community where Tata Trust intervened and started supporting the local school to ensure education to the weavers’ children. Nutritious mid-day meals, books, school bags etc. are provided to encourage education. The only request made by the Trust was to introduce the subject of weaving as a part of the curriculum so as to inculcate a sense of pride and relevance for this craft in the hearts of the younger generation.
The weavers responded with immense love and a relationship of mutual synergy and respect was created. Soon, finest and most intricate saris were made by them that became the pride-filled uniforms of the Taj Luxury Hotel’s employees.
Ratna ji fondly remembers one incident when she took the pictures of the Taj ladies wearing the saris to give a face to the wearer of these creations, to the weavers. The weavers were thrilled but what moved her was when she returned to the village, she found that picture on the mantle with the God and Deity’s images! “It has been one of the most satisfying aspect of my life to see the lives of weavers turn for the better and to see the pride and self respect come back into their lives,” Ratna ji shares.
An added bonus to her close association with Master Weavers was the revival of vintage, out-of-circulation Banarasi saris. The weavers were overjoyed to work on the weaves that challenged their craft and were a cherished part of their history. Many saris were brought back to life from mere scraps and images and reached eager cognoscenti through the Taj Khazana stores.
Presently Ratna ji is working on creating a space where these revival projects can be undertaken and where the entire community that is needed to weave a sari, can come together, be it dyers, thread spinners, loom setters, graph makers, card cutters, weavers et all.
When I asked her how we, the regular people can strengthen our craft, she was clear in her advice, ”Please try and buy from the weavers directly but don’t haggle on the prices as that yardage is his true labour of love. Whenever such opportunity arises, please support weaver organisations. Above all, be aware consumers and ask questions on the source of the sari and do remember that power loom kills creative and artistic weaving endeavor.”
The video that follows showcases the paradigm altering change that a fashion choice can bring about.
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