On the trail of the celebrated Benarasi weave, with Master craftsman Maqbool Hasan.

The roads of Varanasi are narrow, dusty and teeming with traffic — human and vehicular, not to mention bovine, canine and feline. There are at least a dozen sudden brakes, an unending stream of screeching horns and human voices. But nothing will deter us, or persuade us to return to the safe confines of our hotel. We are on a mission to locate the nucleus of Varanasi's creativity: the weavers of the Benaras. When we finally arrive at Pilikothi, we are ushered through several tiny gullies, sidestepping open drains and ducking cyclists before we are shown through a little door and down a flight of stairs.

Sitting under a harsh blue light is Maqbool Hasan, a karakul hat perched jauntily on his head, trimmed neat beard, looking every bit the patriarch of all he surveys. And he surveys a lot in his crowded little room, overflowing with fabrics, sarees, materials, furnishings, stoles and shawls. We have to be careful not to step on any of these, before we find a clearing to sit in, cross legged. After all, that is how he is sitting behind his counter, manning his business for 66 years now, carrying on the legacy of his ancestors that has existed precariously over the last 200 years. Hasan is the sixth generation in his family's business of producing the legendary Benarasi weave. He watches quietly from his corner as his sons show us bales after bales of the magical weaves in silk and cotton — the tidal waves keep coming at us, until we're waist-high in these fabrics. Once we're done with these ‘initiation rites', during which time any question we throw at father and son is met with stoic silence, Hasan ambles over to our side, sits down and begins his story.

A legacy the young refuse

“You are seeing a tradition that is getting more and more difficult to sustain these days,” he tells us in shudh Hindi. “In my great-grandfather's time, this was a vocation that flourished. It had patronage of kings and emperors, but today we're more or less on our own, with perhaps a little help from the government.” Although Hasan has about 500 weavers working from him, from the comfort, or should we say discomfort, of their homes, carrying on this tradition is more like pushing a piano uphill.

The older generation, despite failing sight and health, continues to respect the craft, encouraging everyone — including the children who return from school — to try their hand at the loom, but the younger ones are not interested. It is clearly not lucrative enough, not when even schemes like NREGA begin to look more attractive to them. “The problem is, NREGA gives Rs 120 for unskilled labour, and here are these men, skilled at the art of the loom and earning much less than that!” At a recent meeting of the weavers' association in which he is in the core group, Hasan recommended that in order to attract the youth of the community, the association should match the amount the NREGA gives or pay at least Rs 200 per day. The matter is still being debated, but Hasan is keen to step into nostalgia, for that is where the craft's days of glory are lodged.

Tending to a tradition

His business card, which he hands us, proudly says Maqbool Hasan, National Awardee. Hasan's work in the field of handlooms has won him several laurels. “In 2001 I was given the President's Award,” he says. There is a Weavers' Service Centre under the Ministry of Textiles which looks for different and extraordinary work. The committee here recommended him for the award. It was indeed the start of a glittering career, because that was when he realised the full impact of what his work meant to the rest of the world. “It's not just making beautiful sarees, and taking orders and filling your stomach,” he says, “the work we and the thousands of weavers are doing here, is a tribute to tradition. We keep this tradition alive and the heritage of India alive.”

What was also pleasing was when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose 11 of the 48 awardees (which included Hasan) and had them over for a special ceremony where, ironically, they were presented with a shawl. When you look around in the little shop brimming with the goodies of the Benarasi and the Tanchoi weaves, you wonder whether the shawl the PM gave him had any heritage value at all. None, we are sure, but it boosted his morale like no other. The cherry on the cake was when the much loved Abdul Kalam, the then President, came to his booth at the time of the Awards and spoke to him, “so knowledgeably about the fabrics we had put up. Not only did he know the intricate details of handloom, but also had so many questions to ask about how we market this piece of heritage.” Hasan was most touched.

Extra-special skill

He shows us a very old piece of fabric. To the unlearned eye, it means nothing, but when Hasan explains what it contains, our eyes grow wider. It is a one foot square piece of maroon silk on which is woven a line of buttis. “Look closely,” he says, “There are 117 buttis here, each one of them different from the other, not one of them is repeated. Now look at the border. There are 12 different borders, all in real gold zari. Each one different.” And when you consider that all of this is done sitting at the loom, where repetition and rhythm make up the warp and weft on a single piece of cloth, then, creating this little number is indeed a feat of very clever and skilled hands! This was the piece he took with him, among many others, when he was invited to Oxford by the Oxford College of Arts and Science where, for 10 days, he put up the looms and displayed the fine art of weaving.

“The people there were so curious,” he says, obviously pleased at the attention his work was getting. “We were allowed to sell our fabrics. I had priced it at £10 and some people asked me, ‘is this real silk?'” It was then that he realised how much he was undervaluing his creations, and promptly hiked it to £20, at which people bought them fast and furious. He was truly overwhelmed though, when on the trip he visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and saw there “three of my fabrics put up on display! It brought tears to my eyes.” It still brings tears to his eyes, we notice.

Queens fought over his work

Another time he was invited to Bhutan and was caught in the middle of a frisson between the two queens. He was invited on an exchange of weaving technology. There, when he began to spin the loom, one of the Queens of the King of Bhutan spent inordinate hours watching him at work and bought up nearly 80 per cent of the goods he made. That should have pleased him enormously, except that the next day, when his work was front-paged by the local daily, the other Queen too wanted to buy his fabrics and there were none to sell!

His tryst with royalty doesn't end there. Back home, in his little Pilikothi, he has been visited by Britain's Queen Mother in 1959 and has pictures to prove it. Pulling out old photographs, dog-eared and yellowed with years, he shows us pictures with the father of the erstwhile King of Bhutan Jigme Sigme Wangchuk. Another time, when he met with the Saudi King Bin Abdul's eldest son, he presented him with a precious weave in real gold zari, depicting the store's name. His shop has played host to celebrities such as Tina Turner, Ismail Merchant and several Hollywood biggies. He has many stories to tell, but the best ones are told in the contrasting sharp and mellow colours of the loom, where the weavers sit under a bright light and spin their magic on the cloth, not sure what the future holds; but for now, the loom is clicking and clacking away, telling a new story, that someday Hasan will narrate to friends who visit him.

(This article was published on February 16, 2012)
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