What the Chinese Banarasi wore to the Pandemic

What the Chinese Banarasi wore to the Pandemic

Disrupted silk yarn imports from China will impact weaving of Banarasi silks but that’s hardly the topmost concern say stakeholders  

Will the Coronavirus caused disruption in the import of Chinese silk impact silk sari and fabrics in India—especially in Banaras? “The factual answer is yes,” says Bharat Shah, founder of Ekaya and co-owner of SND Silks in Varanasi. Will this alter the warp and weft grammar of Banarasi silk saris, thus leading to a change in quality and feel of the final product? “Yes, it will to some extent,” agrees designer Hemang Agrawal, creative director of the Surekha Group in Varanasi. Will reduced imports of Chinese silk yarn affect Kanjeevaram sari production in the South of India? “A resounding no,” says K Radharaman of the House of Angadi in Bengaluru.

It is not a rapid fire round on the life and times of Chinese silks in India, so the core arguments behind what these experts say must be unraveled.

The dependence of Banaras silk weaving (as well as other allied silk industries) on Chinese silk has been a contentious reality for the last many decades. While exports of silk products from India have relied on good quality Chinese silk to net hefty orders, the imports of that very same raw material have hampered the growth of the Indian sericulture industry.

In the 2018-19 budget, the late finance minister Arun Jaitley increased import on Chinese silk yarn from 10 to 20 per cent to “protect domestic industries”. Yet it directly affected quality of silk exports from India.

In 2018, the Central Silk Board of India released figures on the increase in production of indigenous high-quality silk, adding that imports of silk yarn to India will come down. The production of bivoltine, a substitute for import quality silk increased too and was targeted to touch 12,000 tonnes by 2022. India’s raw silk production too had increased alongside. From 30,648 tonnes in 2016-17, it was expected to reach 45000 tonnes by 2022.

Multi-coloured silk yarns.

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has added many uncertainties to the mix. It will re-determine the silk route, supply chain frequencies, even trade relations between countries.

As well as the “Chinese Banarasi sari”.

A metaphoric symbolic of fake “handlooms” or the “duplicate handloom market” of India, this sari is a sad joke for purists. Its cheapest versions from where the caricature originates are an instant delight for those looking for cheap decorative or bridal saris. Everyone can afford a Banarasi sari in that sense as its prices range from  ₹500 to well, a few lakhs for the original, handmade, heritage patterned piece.

The “Chinese Banarasi”, in caricature as well as the cacophonous kunj galis (narrow lanes) of India’s oldest city Varanasi crackles like a thin sheet of steel foil spiked with plastic zari. It has been a market reality for as long as pure handloom saris, the latter made from imported or local yarn but softer, fragile, shinier that fall and fold like luxurious fabrics. Many experts will agree that it is entirely possible to arrive at a fine handloom or powerloom product even with Chinese yarn.

To add salt to this soda, you do not think of China when you utter the words “Chinese Banarasi”. However, the same utterance looks perfectly possible under the Made in India umbrella. That is the level of infiltration of Chinese yarn in our heirloom products.

Photo: Shutterstock

A woman weaving a silk sari on loom in Kanchipuram. There will be no effect on Kanjeevaram silk sari industry with disruption in Chinese imports during the pandemic.

Chinese silk, stronger and consistent in quality is used across all hierarchies of saris made in North India—Bengal or Banaras. However, it has no trade presence in the South Indian silk sari industry, which depends entirely on Karnataka’s mulberry silk.

“Chinese silk is uniform in quality and is used for the warp in both handloom and powerloom industries,” explains Agrawal adding that Chinese yarn was long being used also as the base for all crepe de chine and georgettes. “Now Indian textiles are used as base fabrics, but they are not as strong,” he says.

Shah agrees. “Mulberry silk from Karnataka is fragile; it necessitates more yarn for the weft and thus leads to more work for the weaver.” He also believes Banarasi weaves made from Karnataka silk are softer, finer, lighter, and allow for greater intricacy in weaving.

Joydeep Roy of Coloroso Weaves of Kolkata who works with Banaras weaving looms for silk saris agrees that Karnataka mulberry silk is a transparent fabric rendering a nicer, luxurious texture.

India also imports silk from Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries, but the reliance on Chinese silk in North India has been the most. The Indian sericulture industry has never been able to catch up in the last 50 years or so, in quality or quantity say the experts.

Speaking from Bengaluru, K Radharaman, founder and creative director of House of Angadi however explains how this barely applies to the creation of the gorgeous Kanjeevarams of the South. “For 20 years now, the entire handloom weaving moved to mulberry silk from Karnataka and it stays that way regardless of rising demand,” he says. Radharaman’s exposure to the silk route from other countries to India began early in his life as his father RK Raman, among the oldest weaving exponents of the region, would travel to different districts in China to understand production and supply chains. “India’s sericulture and other indigenous industries were destroyed by dumping Chinese yarn at throwaway prices initially and then raising the prices, thus leading to profiteering,” says Radharaman, reiterating what many bemoan.

Photo: Shutterstock

Colourful silk threads and silkworm cocoons.

Is it time then to reexamine in the near future the import duty on Chinese yarn given recent assertions in the wake of the pandemic?

The mutiny and the irony around the Chinese Banarasi will be rewarped after the pandemic and not just because of China.

That however is a secondary debate, says everyone we spoke to. “It will be some time before we get orders for festive or bridal saris, (for which Chinese silk yarn is also used) as the immediate problem is about bringing work to the weavers,” says Joydeep Roy.

Agrawal agrees. Using the poignant phrase “The Silence of the Looms”, the title of his former podcast, he says while the supply side of silk will undoubtedly be impacted, the fact is that there may likely be no demand for decorative silk saris in the next six months of so. Agrawal categorises Banarasi silks as luxury adding the luxury segment will first be hit in the COVID-19 impact on local businesses.

Shah is more optimistic. “I only have Plan A and that is to revive the Banarasi weaving business and look after my weavers. There is no Plan B for me.”

It is Plan C–Chinese silk—that we must rue about.