You can call it a spirited response to Indian Chinese food. But some see the entry of Chinese silk in the Benarasi saree market not only as an affront to a centuries-long tradition but also as another way for manufacturers to give the weaver an ever smaller slice of the profit pie. Raw silk from China is thought to contribute to 50-60 per cent of the sari-weaving market in Varanasi today. While prices of Indian cocoon silk range from Rs 1,600-Rs 1,800 a kg, the Chinese variety is being sold at prices as low as Rs 1,400 in the black market, threatening old favourites like Ramanagaram silk (Rs 1,923 a kg) from Bangalore.
Om Dutt, owner of Banaras Saree Factory, points out that the trend has grown over the last 10-15 years and is largely conducted by fly-by-night operators. "Much of the Chinese silk is smuggled through Kolkata and is sold 30-50 kg at one go below market prices.." Iqbal Ahmed of Silk Mine feels less threatened. "It is the actual weaving and designing that gives the Benarasi saree its value." Chinese silk, he adds, is mainly used for power looms, not for the more valued hand-loomed sarees. "It is thicker and only 20 per cent is used for handlooms."
There was a time when Japan was a large source of silk in Varanasi. So the issue of 'foreign' silk may not be bothering too many people. But there is some divided opinion about the way cheaper Chinese silk is disrupting market prices. But does the customer pay as much for an inferior product as she does for an 'Indian' Benarasi saree? "The reeds of the silk can be mixed and be passed off as pure silk when it is actually not," admits Ahmed. Others like Dutt think that the time has come for the government to step in to set some ground rules. "A cooperative will benefit the weaver who is getting the rawest deal as smugglers and manufacturers make a quick buck." The advent of the 'Chinese' Benarasi saree may have created a problem that needs smoothening out.