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Chanderi Saris

Destination Management

(Credits : Malini Nair)

When he comes to Delhi, Chanderi weaver Zaheer Mohammed Tuntani often takes a walk down the popular sari marts of Chandni Chowk. He asks to be shown Chanderi saris and 15 out of 20 times, a dazzling five yards of fakery is spread out with a grand flourish before him. To the ordinary eye, this looks like the gossamer-thin textile Kareena Kapoor, an Indian actress endorsed a couple of years ago. But Mohammed is a weaving veteran. And it takes him a second to spot the powerloom duplicate even though it has the trademark zari border and the much-loved lotus motifs as well.

“They say this is the real thing. Most of them don’t even know that Chanderi comes from a town of the same name. They think it is a brand,” says Mohammed.

Like other handloom traditions which have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, Chanderi is paying the price for its own popularity. The textile’s market is currently somewhat schizophrenic: elite clients snap up designer Chanderis at Rs 10,000 and up; and those who want the look minus the price go for cheap, powerloom lookalikes now flooding markets.

This churn is threatening a heritage over five centuries old, and the livelihood of the town’s approximately 12,000 weavers whose looms clack day and night. A third of the population of Chanderi, a small town along river Betwa in Madhya Pradesh, comprises weavers, around 60% of them Muslims. There are 4,000 looms at work here creating business of Rs 65 crore every year, as per a 2012 industry report.

“If this tide of powerloom fakes is not somehow stopped, it will ruin Chanderi’s fine reputation,” says Mohammad Mudassir. It takes a weaver around 10 hours of backbreaking work over three days — sometimes more depending on its design complexity — to spin a sari. The entire family chips in with the labour including the women of the family. It is easy to understand the lure of the powerloom —it can churn out 30 metres of cloth a day, while a pair of human hands can weave two to three metres. Prolific production means bigger sales and incomes.

The intricate work, the expensive silk cotton yarn and the zari means that the price of a genuine Chanderi sari rarely falls below Rs 3,000, that too if you source it from its hometown. In metro markets, it rarely falls below Rs 5,000 and in a designer shop, the price will double.

So, if a buyer who covets a Chanderi spots a bright piece of brocade-edged work at around Rs 800, it is unlikely she will fret about its provenance. Powerloom fakes in fact have gone one step ahead — you now get bright ‘printed Chanderis’, a perversion of the tradition that only allows weaves. “Traditionally, Chanderi has been positioned as a fabric for the royalty and the elite. It was never meant for mass consumption. So whatever is sold at Rs 600-800 is obviously not Chanderi even if it is a very good approximation,” says Ankit Kumar, design head of Chanderiyaan, an NGO that set up an e-commerce site for weavers who wished to sell directly to buyers.

Powerloom Chanderis are mostly spun in Varanasi (ironically, both Varanasi silk and Chanderi are GI tagged, so they cannot be crafted elsewhere) and Surat. They are either woven with zari or woven plain and then sent to Jaipur for block printing. In effect, pretend Chanderis don’t even touch the town.

There was a time when the town’s weavers, with no access to the market, depended on exploitative traders for their livelihood, earning under Rs 100 per sari, a fraction of its sale price. This changed in 2004 when the weavers set up as self-help groups such as Bunkar Vikas Sangh and Tana Bana and found the collective strength to bargain with traders. The bigger weavers became more market savvy over time as well. Pioneering design work by designer Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango revived Chanderi as a luxury textile. Celebrity endorsement also pushed up wages, and weavers now earn anywhere between Rs 12,000 and Rs 16,000 a month, say self-help groups.

On any given day, around 500 saris are woven in Chanderi, some are exclusively commissioned by designers and command high prices. Some are sold directly by weavers while others go to the town’s eight big traders. This entire economy is threatened by the machine.