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Dhaka's Benaresi saris' trade sees bad days

Benaresi Palli, the locality on the outskirts of Dhaka, that has been home to Benaresi saris for centuries, is now flooded with foreign clothes, mostly imported or smuggled in from India.

world Updated: Oct 03, 2007 19:01 IST

Benaresi Palli, the locality on the outskirts of the national capital, that has been home to Benaresi saris for centuries, is now flooded with foreign clothes, mostly imported or smuggled in from India.

In Benaresi Palli locality of Mirpur, where people have traditionally woven exquisite saris in their homes, the local weavers are losing out because of rising costs, the perceived changes in popular taste and government's neglect.

The craft of making Benaresi saris spread to Bengal from Varanasi (earlier called Benares) in Uttar Pradesh in India and thrived because of the blending of local designs and expertise.

But the real spurt came with the partition of India in 1947, with many families from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar migrating to both wings of Pakistan. Benaresi Palli (palli means neighbourhood) became their home in the erstwhile East Pakistan.

It was for long the most popular destination for women looking for elegant Benaresi and Katan saris. But now "the word 'Benaresi' exists only in name," The Daily Star newspaper lamented on Wednesday.

The imported or smuggled Indian saris are slowly taking over from the local products ahead of the Eid festival.

All the latest arrivals that sparkle through the windows in most shops are from the neighbouring country.

The latest 'hits' include Jaipuri chiffon, Kanjeevaram, Dulhan, Shanonda, Kachak, Monihar and Phulkoli.

In many cases, Indian designs are being reproduced in the market with raw materials coming from India.

Hindi movies and soap operas on television have a profound effect on the designs, says the newspaper.

"Various types of georgette and chiffon saris embellished with golden thread (zari), sequins, beads and stones are currently in vogue. We give the customers what they want," a storeowner was quoted.

"Women don't want Katan or Benaresi any more. They have been wearing it for years. Now they want something new," he added.

The weavers who have been part of the scene for long, however, disagree.

Mohammad Kashem, general secretary of Benaresi Palli Shop Owners Association, said that there are many women who still want Katan and Benaresi but admitted that its production has declined drastically.

Kashem's family is one of oldest in the area. His family along with many others, mostly weavers, arrived from Varanasi during the partition in 1947.

A large segment of the people who arrived here from Bihar later became the apprentices of these weavers.

Currently, there are around 4,000 handlooms in Benaresi Palli. Kashem said that only five years ago the number was around 25,000.

The rhythmic whipping of handlooms all day was the most prominent sound in the area. The noise is gradually dying away.

The sales area, however, is expanding every day outside Benaresi Palli. There are 98 stores in the area now. Most of them keep the spotlight on georgette and chiffon saris with karchupi (a form of embroidery), zari work with sequins, beads and stones.

Kashem explained: "There are various aspects that led to the fall of this glorious tradition. The most important reason is that it is no longer cost effective. Weavers could not survive with their income so they moved on to other trades."

"The profit is so meagre compared to all the excruciating labour and investment that it is no longer cost-effective," said Mohammad Sonu, one of the weavers.

"My father was a weaver. I inherited the profession from him. But I never want my children to become what I am. It is very hard to survive as a weaver," he added.

First Published: Oct 03, 2007 18:37 IST