MAIYET:For Indian Weavers in Varanasi, Help for an Endangered Craft

New York Times
July 17, 2015

By It wasn’t until I went to Varanasi, India, that the blue and gold silk sari with the intri­cate flower design that my par­ents bought me when I got engaged 15 years ago meant some­thing beyond just another gift.

At the time, my mother was on a quest to find the per­fect ren­di­tion of this tra­di­tional woman’s garb for my trousseau, and it had to come from this north­ern Indian city with its famed silk weavers. The weavers’ craft was in dan­ger of extinc­tion because of the increas­ing preva­lence of power looms, she explained, even though the qual­ity of the hand­work was incomparable.

The jobs of the Varanasi weavers, once esti­mated at a half mil­lion men, may have been fad­ing out back then, but on a trip in late 2013 I dis­cov­ered that efforts were under­way by two com­pa­nies — the socially con­scious New York fash­ion label Maiyet and the Mum­bai chain Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces — to rein­vig­o­rate the ancient skill by employ­ing the weavers and invit­ing tourists to visit them as they work. About 700 peo­ple have taken Maiyet’s tour; more than 650 have gone on Taj’s.

To help cre­ate sus­tain­able busi­nesses, Maiyet gets some of its mate­ri­als from com­mu­ni­ties in devel­op­ing coun­tries. It began its ini­tia­tive in Varanasi in 2012; the next year, a work­shop opened in the nearby vil­lage of Ayo­d­hya­pur, where it now employs 15 weavers.

The fash­ion line’s work in Varanasi got the atten­tion of David Adjaye, a star British archi­tect whose inter­na­tional works include the design of the Smith­son­ian National Museum of African-​​American His­tory and Cul­ture in Wash­ing­ton. Mr. Adjaye is now design­ing Maiyet’s build­ing for the weavers, which is to be com­pleted in 2016.

Mean­while, Taj had started res­ur­rect­ing the des­o­late vil­lage of Sarai Mohana, five miles from Varanasi, which has a large con­cen­tra­tion of weavers. Taj’s plan was to have the weavers make saris for its employ­ees and guests. Since then, the vil­lage has been turned into some­thing of a tourist attraction.

Varanasi itself sprawls on the banks of the Ganges River in the state of Uttar Pradesh, about an hour’s flight from New Delhi. A maze of nar­row and wind­ing lanes, it is con­sid­ered India’s holi­est city. Dur­ing the day, Hin­dus bathe in the Ganges as a bless­ing and for spir­i­tual sal­va­tion; at night­fall, the river glis­tens mag­i­cally from the glow of thou­sands of can­dles float­ing on the water.

For cen­turies Varanasi was a hub for the silk trade. The gos­samer fab­ric, woven by hand on long wooden looms, is rec­og­niz­able to afi­ciona­dos by its refined feel, sub­stan­tial weight and audi­ble rustle.

While the efforts to revive the craft are seen by many as laud­able, they are likely to help only a tiny per­cent­age of the local pop­u­la­tion. Even so, these endeav­ors have spurred hope in the area and have given tourists another rea­son to visit.

Read the rest of the arti­cle at the New York Times