Gossamer dreams, grim reality

A tourist’s delight and a historian’s dream, Chanderi is a small town which nestles in a valley surrounded by the majestic Vindhyachal mountains in Madhya Pradesh. Myth has it that the town was founded by Krishna’s cousin; history records it as the empire of King Ched, dating back to 6th century BC. Endowed with a rich and glorious past, courtesy the powerful Hindu and Muslim rulers of the region, Chanderi’s cultural heritage includes 375 monuments and mammoth Jain statues dating back to the 11th century.

Today, this quaint town in Ashoknagar district is best known for the six-yard wonder, spun in cotton, silk and zari (gold), also known as the Chanderi sari. Walk into any of the numerous shops lining the streets of the Sadar Bazaar or Narsingh Mandir Chowk and you will find shelves-upon-shelves of shimmering Chanderis available in a variety of colours, patterns and prices. But while the Chanderi sari may be the main attraction of this town, the real stars are the local weavers — half of whom are women.

Nearly 5,000 families are part of this cottage industry and the loom — pit, dobby and jacquard — occupies the pride of place in every weaver’s home. The work, of course, is hard and back-breaking. Mothers, daughters and wives, toil for close to 12 hours a day to create the magic of a Chanderi sari. Too poor to afford electricity for long hours, they rely mostly on sunlight for illumination, which is a strain on their eyes. Their work area is cramped, with the loom, spindles and spool all housed in one small room.

A hole dug in the floor acts as the anchor for the loom, while the weaver has to squeeze herself in the two-by-two feet space behind the loom. There is just one advantage: They get to work from home, where they can finish their household chores, attend to children and cook, even as they meet their weaving deadlines.

As with most Indian handlooms, the skills of Chanderi weaving are mostly passed on from one generation to the next. “Spinning is a family business — many hands are involved. Besides weaving, the women also do many jobs on the side that require delicate handling, like filling spindles, sorting, cutting threads, and so on,” explains Munni Bai (55), who has been a full-time weaver for the last 15 years.

Weaving was the traditional livelihood in her family and her husband’s. Munni used to assist her husband in the business. After his death, she has been raising her six children with earnings from her loom. “I got three of my daughters married. Today, some of my children help me in the weaving,” she says.

On an average, Munni earns around Rs 3,000 a month. “At least it is dignified labour,” she says, as her sister-in-law Salma, who is also a weaver, nods in agreement. “Chanderi weaving has empowered the women here, as the earnings give them financial stability,” observes Chandra Bahnu, Munni’s brother-in-law.

While a simple sari takes a day to weave, a middle-of-the-line Chanderi takes anywhere from five to 15 days. The elaborate ones can take close to a month. The characteristic feature that marks all Chanderis is a rich gold border and two gold bands at each end of the sari. 

“The fragile lightness, pastel hues and intricacy of motifs makes the Chanderi a hot favourite of the rich and the elite. The delicate fabric requires careful handling otherwise it tends to tear. Chanderi is not what you can call every woman’s attire,” explains Bal Kumud Jaju, a wholesaler.

He is the only one from his family to have stayed back in Chanderi to continue nurturing the100-year-old family business.

Originally from Rajasthan, Jaju’s ancestors migrated to Chanderi several generations ago. They prospered under royal patronage.

Today, most of his relatives have migrated to cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore, where they have set up big showrooms, where they sell Chanderis along with other weaves. He, however, has remained a Chanderi loyalist.

But like all traditional weaves in India, even this trade is on the decline, Jaju confesses. Traditionally woven with pure, handspun cotton and silk, Chanderi saris were patronised by royalty. But that is no longer the case. The price of an original Chanderi can go up to lakhs of rupees, depending on the work and purity of the gold thread used. This means that there are not many buyers for the real thing. The traders and businessmen usually eat away a large chunk of the profits, which means that the humble weaver never gets enough money to buy and store raw material or to improve her lot.

Even the raw materials — cotton, silk and zari thread — used are not available locally;  Usually, it is the seths, or owners of big establishments, who provide the raw material — bought from whole sellers — as well as the design for the sari to the weavers, who get a commission, which on an average is about Rs 100 a day. Thus, for an elaborate sari they earn around Rs 3,000, while the shopkeeper sells the same sari for Rs 7,000 to Rs 9,000.

The government has not been of much help. No effort has been made to provide raw materials, or impart marketing strategies to local weavers. Even the weavers groups that have been formed — with a minimum of 10 weavers — have not been able to negotiate any benefits for their lot. Years of neglect have had far reaching consequences. For the women weavers, particularly, life is full of hurdles. Mostly illiterate, they are faced with problems like inadequate healthcare, poor nutrition and indifferent schooling for their children.

These women who transform plain thread into dreams that other women wear, are unable to weave a dream life for themselves.

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