Those who wander the streets of Varanasi long enough will eventually find Lallapura. As a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in an otherwise Hindu stronghold, Lallapura changed my perception of the Indian city, making me fall all the more in love with it. From the moment I walked into the colony, I could see how different it was: in a city painted in shades of saffron (the most sacred color in Hinduism), Lallapura is chiefly decorated in green (a color traditionally associated with paradise in Islam). But it’s the beautiful amalgamation of, and the strong connection between, the various religions and the interlinked economic and social relations that distinguish Lallapura as an important piece of Varanasi.
This place is a street photographer’s paradise, as it offers new visuals and fresh perspectives of one of the most photographed cities in India. But Lallapura is also known as the home of the Banarasi weavers who have mastered the craft of fine silk and zari work (embroidery in pure gold). Their craftsmanship has left its imprint everywhere — from the Mughal attire and royal regalia of olden days to the apparel worn by present-day Indian brides and created by modern international designers.
When I passed through Lallapura, I could hear the rhythmic clatter of thousands of handlooms and sense the thousands of skillful hands weaving warp and weft in near darkness. Rather than relying on mass production and modern advances, the weavers use age-old techniques; therefore, it takes them anywhere between two weeks and six months to create one six-yard-long silk sari. Faced with long hours in kaarkhaanas, or dimly lit workshops, the weavers often have to step out and stand at the entrance to relieve their tired eyes and rest their hands.
Generations ago, only the rich and famous of medieval times and British-held India wore the weavers’ saris. They prized the clothing for its intricate weave, its Islamic motifs, and its gleaming gold embroidery. But now, due to the introduction of Westernized fashion and the threat from the inexpensive knockoffs flooding the markets, fewer weavers work in the streets of Lallapura. Most of today’s artisans end up working like bonded laborers.
I grew up in Rajasthan, a region several hundred miles west of Varanasi and known for the preservation of its rich heritage and culture. Even now, most families continue to buy goods from craftsmen who have been in business for generations. Throughout time, the women in my family have spent hours with these artisans, discussing exactly how they would like a particular garment to be created or embroidered, and those clothes have stayed in the family for generations. So, as I walked through the lanes of Lallapura, I couldn’t help but think of those weavers, of my family, and of our heirlooms.
But my understanding of handloom and fashion doesn’t really end with my time spent back home in Rajasthan. As a fashion student who has worked in the industry, I have seen how brands selling Indian handloom textiles and fabrics build relations with these makers and often underpay them for garments that they then overprice to their customers. The weavers never get a fair price for their hard work, which is the main reason why the younger generation is looking for a way out of the business.
But despite a downtick in the number of new weavers joining the trade, I can still sense a desire to safeguard this craft that is sown so deep into the veins of Lallapura. What I can conclude from my conversations with the weavers of Lallapura is that, in a world where we have brands producing both fast fashion and sustainable apparel, there still exists a handcrafted tradition that has survived for centuries. It might face lows in the coming years, but it will never completely vanish, and if we do more to implement fair trade in Lallapura, then I see no reason why the number of silk weavers should take a permanent dive.
After all, this tradition is as rich as the gold and silk threads it uses. It refuses to change its philosophy or give up on fine quality. It is still here, and it is still alive.