Condoms lubricate the wheels of the Varanasi sari industry.
Bacche Lal Maurya, a traditional handloom weaver, has a modest workspace. The pedals of his handmade wooden loom are dug several feet into a cement floor, where he works with handspun silk threads and a pack of condoms.
Maurya weaves traditional Varanasi saris much the same way they have been produced for hundreds of years. Today, however, he competes in a global market and must adapt the ancient art form in ways his predecessors did not have to.
The weaver and his three adolescent sons visit the local health center every week to collect a stack of condoms. Every morning, they neatly stack the pack of condoms in a box before they start weaving intricately designed saris, tablecloths and brocades for their customers in Europe, America and Asia.
Rambachan, Maurya’s oldest son, powered the loom’s pedals with his legs and threw a shuttle through a maze of silk threads. The loom rattled rhythmically as the threads began to form a pattern.
Suddenly, his shuttle stopped midway through the maze of threads. Irritated, he tried to carefully extract the shuttle without breaking a single silk thread. Rambachan lost several minutes of work just detangling the shuttle. A broken thread can cost an additional 10 minutes.
He pulled out a condom and rubbed lubricant on the shuttle.
“Now,” Rambachan said, “It will fly perfectly.”
INNOVATING AN ANCIENT ART
The lubricant of the condom smooths the movement of the wooden shuttle and ensures it won’t catch on the threads.
“Condoms have been used by almost all handloom weavers of Varanasi for the last six to eight years,” Maurya said.
The condoms help reduce the time it takes to produce a sari, which, in turn, makes the weavers more competitive. It can take 15 to 20 days to produce a single handwoven sari. By contrast, a machine powered loom can produce up to six saris in a single day.
The decision to use condoms was, at first, difficult for the weavers, who value tradition. The looms are the same design built by their fathers and grandfathers. The threads are traditional silk, spun and dyed by the weavers’ wives, much as they have been for generations. The patterns have historic meaning. The colors won’t lose their luster when stored for future wear.
“Our community has preserved the ancestral art of weaving. It’s the hand weaving process that maintains the sheen and longevity of a Varanasi sari. It was a difficult decision to use condoms for weaving,” Maurya said.
But, at the time, the competition the hand weavers faced from machine woven saris was severe. A machine manufacured sari sells for one third the cost of a handwoven one. A glut of cheap, mass-produced saris, mostly from China, decimated the market around 1990, before the innovation of using condoms. A Chinese sari costs about $30, while a handwoven Varanasi sari begins at $50. Many of the Chinese saris were labeled and sold as traditional handwoven Varanasi saris, although they were produced 2,000 miles away.
China-made synthetic Varanasi saris gained popularity among customers because of their light weight. By contrast, an authentic Varanasi sari is heavy, which lends it sheen and durability.
“More silk threads in a sari mean more longevity,” Rambachan explained.
A customer shopping for a sari, however, may not be willing to sacrifice longevity for comfort.
On a recent shopping trip for a gift for her daughter’s wedding, Geetanjali Tiwari compared the two types of saris. She preferred the value of an authentic handwoven Varanasi sari, but doubted if her daughter would enjoy the weight of the fabric.
Tiwari glanced over the two saris, comparing the quality of the machine weaving to the Varanasi sari. Although she lives in a culture that is familiar with saris, she still struggled to tell the difference between the two. After five hours of shopping she still hadn’t decided.
“I want to gift my daughter a handwoven sari but I doubt she will ever wear it. This sari weighs around 13 pounds,” she said.
Tiwari and her daughter represent a larger trend of preference for lighter saris, which have hurt the market in Varanasi.
STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL
Thirty years ago, there were 160 weaving families in the village of Chhahi, in Varanasi, said Maurya. “Now, there are only 80. We do not have enough hands to fulfill the demand of foreign customers.”
The benefit of globalization was that outside countries appreciated Maurya’s art and wanted authentic Varanasi handwoven products. Varanasi weavings have become popular in countries as far flung as the United States, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Canada. Today, thanks to legal action to protect the weavers, it is a guarded designation.
“Before the invasion of the Chinese sari, Varanasi sari exports could be estimated around $10 million. The export was nearly halved,” said Rajnikant, general secretary of Human Welfare Association (HWA), a nonprofit institution that fought to get legal protection for the Varanasi sari.
The weavers’ designation takes advantage of the fact that, while most people cannot easily distinguish between a machine-made weaving, they still prefer a handwoven sari. HWA secured Geographical Indication rights, which are similar to a patent, for the Varanasi sari. It is a global designation, enforceable across borders. Prior to the protection, frustration escalated as the hand weavers were forced to reduce prices to remain competitive. Activists burned Chinese woven saris at rallies and demanded protection against the imports that undermined Indian wages.
Protection was finally secured in 2006, which guaranteed that unless a sari is woven on the traditional handlooms of individually designated weavers in Varanasi, they cannot be marketed under that name. The Geographic Indication distinctly identifies what, for centuries, was a vague but prestigious nomenclature. There is now a legal definition for a Varanasi sari.
“It’s difficult for a layman to differentiate between a handloom and powerloom manufactured sari. A handloom mark will wipe out the flourishing market of fake Vanarasi saris,” said Rajnikant.
Today the saris are sold with the mark of the weavers, each with his own designation. The penalty for violating the designation for Varanasi saris is severe. The government of India imposes a fine of $4,000 and five years in prison for forging the mark. The challenge remains to inform other traditional Varanasi weavers that the mark is available and encourage them to procure them.
“A handloom mark ensures a premium price in the G-7 countries. This will further boost the export of handwoven Varanasi saris,” said Rajnikant.
The market has improved for the weavers over the last decade. Their wages have stabilized and dignity has been preserved for their ancient art form. For Maurya and his village, however, the question remained how to adapt to increasingly mechanized competition.
That was where the condoms come in.
Before condoms, a locally produced powder was used to lubricate the shuttle. Unfortunately, it was expensive. The powder would also leave unattractive spots on the silk.
“Condoms became a popular choice because the lubricant never leaves spots and we get it for free from health centers,” said Ram Ashray, another Varanasi weaver.
Condoms have become and integral tool for handloom weavers. Nearby health centers give them out in bulk. The government of India guarantees Nirodh condoms are available under a health policy to curb the spread AIDS. Health officers in Varanasi are aware of the widespread use of condoms by handloom weavers for sari making, but declined to officially comment. The health policy does not monitor how the condoms are used, however, which is fortunate for the weavers who stack them near their looms and save about four hours of work per sari because of the innovation.
The government of India has not just protected the craft of the handweavers, but has inadverdently provided them the tools to keep producing their weavings in the form of condoms. While the legal protection was granted because of the sari, it will ultimately benefit other ancient handloom arts like Kanjivaram Dharambaram, Pochampalli, Jamdani, Chanderi, Asami, Kota and other handloom arts.
The art of handloom sari weaving may be hundreds of years old, but the weavers have shown they are well lubricated for new challenges.