A Whole Life With Jaquard India is full of craftsmen and traders and has a well known centennial textile tradition. Despite what western people think about unconceivable timetables and salaries, all Varanasi weavers are resigned to them and grateful at the same time for having the opportunity to carry out their job. Thousands of citizens dedicate their lives to work in this business from those who imports cocoons from Bihar to the salesmen who export certain clothes to different countries, including those who weave, dye or fold and unfold the scarves, dresses and all types of clothing. In all of these small family owned factories, the exceptional dedication of the workers imbues each piece with charm, magic, delicacy and passion.
by Sheila Torres
photography AndrĂŠs GutiĂŠrrez
ith an ancient textile tradition, India exports all kind of clothing products. Different areas in the country are characterized by their production in cotton, wool or silk. Many of these fabrics are handmade in small factories. The city of Varanasi is known as the holy city of the crematories, temples, tradition and a huge silk production in uncountable factories distributed all around the city. From scarves to bedspreads, each piece keeps many people in work; people who come and go and whose lives have taken place inside narrow rooms among primitive machines with colorful threads, hanks, balls and buckets. A factory basically consists in a not very luxurious hall where managers and designers sit on a big carpet drinking chai and making decisions about quantities and designs that are going to be made each day, and a central
courtyard where the dyeing process takes place. Around the courtyard, there are rooms within which there are rudimentary looms filling the whole room leaving little space for the weaver. Mehrotra is one of the most famous and antique silk factories in Varanasi. It was founded in 1962 by Late Chaushyam Das Mehrotra, later followed by his son and grandson. The complex has its base to the north of Sarnath where employment is given to 40 workers (one per factory) who spend a working day of eight hours in the factory with no breaks or days off and earn a salary of under 3.000 Indian rupees (about 45 euros). The company has two more establishments in the city center where the family members sell their clothing to the public, and some small factories located on the ground floor of different workers homes. While the weavers work downstairs, their wives do
the housework on the first floor where they live. The salary of these urban weavers is a little higher than in outskirts: they earn between 4.000 and 5.000 rupees a month (from 60 to 75 euro). The first step in the silk process is a trip to Bihar, in East India, where the silk cocoons are collected. The workers extract the raw material and carefully roll them into big hanks that they leave ready to be dyed in the factory. The dye can be bought in many different places in the country since there are many dye makers. They bring the sacks and one ofthe artisans adds the colored powder to a big pot with boiling water and stirs. Some drops of acid and a little bit of coconut oil are also added to the mix. They claim it gives strength and brightness to the color. The result is an intense color, which is very typical from oriental fabrics.
When the dye is ready, there are workers who immerse each hank into the colored water and then drain it for several minutes. After being colored, the huge silk hanks are hung in the shade until they dry. The dry ones are separated into balls and then, with a spinning wheel, they are wound into small rolls. The weavers use these small rolls to weave the different silk pieces. In each factory the atmosphere of work without motivation or shame can be felt. As if resigned to invert their time in what gives them their sustenance without any aspirations or fears: typical in the classist society in which they are born, they grow and then, they simply occupy their place. The manufacturing process of the different silk pieces is slow and laborious. It
consists in one single person who handles levers in a repetitive movement of the so called Jacquard loom. This rudimentary machine got its name due to its French inventor: Joseph Marie Jacquard, who invented parts of the loom in 1800. With each movement of the weaver, a thread crosses the loom through a previously designed pattern. Every pattern contains a pile of small drilled boards they call Jacquard cards. The holes in them determine the way the threads go in each step, so the shape of the whole design in the cloth is predetermined too. In Mehrotra, there are more than one thousand different designs. In the narrow streets where many children run around among motocycles and cows, the clatter of the looms can be
heard. The children take messages to adults in different places in return for some rupees or sweets. Depending on the type of curling or weaving process or the group of Jacquard cards used in each case, many different silk materials can be made: raw, satin, muslin, brocade, etc. Its prices vary between 400 and 1.000 Indian rupees per meter. Balkrishna is one of the grandsons of the Mehrotra founder who is in charge of an important part of the family business. He explains that their clothes are all made from pure silk. Their prices depend on the weight of the pieces and the number of colors that have been used, therefore, the cheapest item in the shop is a single colored scarf which weighs 35 grams and costs 250 rupees (about 3.50
euros). The production rate is one scarf a day per worker since a worker spends four days in the preparation of four. The most expensive piece is a huge eiderdown with more than six colors which was made by three weavers working full-time during one month. Its price is 35.000 rupees (about 500 euros). Balkrishna claims that many producers take advantage of the ignorance of some buyers selling mixed fabrics at the price of silk.
These conmen also mark down scarves, sarees or any other garment and make it unaffordable to compete against their prices. The Mehrotra manager recommends to check before buying. The way to test the material is to burn one of the threads, if it is pure silk is must smell like burnt hair, otherwise it could be a mix of different fabrics. Burnt cotton smells like paper
and synthetic material becomes a sticky ball when it is burnt. All these fabrics are cheaper than silk. Mehrotra exports its clothing pieces to many different countries around the world, to wholesalers or individuals, although the minimum order is one kilogram. The company still preserves an invoice from 1998 in which a purchase from an American company with a value of38.460 US dollars can be seen. In Varanasi any clothing establishment has a simplistic appearance. A white sheet covers the springy floor. Everyone, shop assistants and customers alike, has to go barefoot. Around this kind of mattress, where little mice can be seen shyly running every now and again, there are plenty of shelves filled with boxes which hold all the working hours in form of beautiful kerchiefs, elegant scarves and so many colorful clothes. Each time a customer comes and sit in one of Mehrotraâ€™s shops, Balkrishna, as a good Indian trader, offers a cup of delicious chai and opens uncountable boxes from which he takes and unfolds hundreds of scarves, clothes, bedspreads, etc., with two, three, four or more colors with different designs, tie-dyed colored, formal or casual. At the end of the visit, the establishment is completely full of clothes forming a meter high mound. Ratham, who says he has been working his whole life as an assistant and providing his services to the Mehrotra family, folds every single cloth and puts them in their place. His task consists in preparing and serving chai, bring the boxes from the shelves and fold everything away when the customer leaves. This process can be repeated about ten times a day. The assistant doesnâ€™t complain for his monotonous task, he, by contrast, is grateful and thanks the confidence and the trust this family has put in him. Despite his salary being under 45 euros per
month and his days off being only two a year corresponding to hindu festivities: Holi and Diwali, (the only two days the shop closes its doors), he is happy that he can work for this family. Ratham opens the shop at sunrise every morning accompanied by a Hindu priest who blesses the establishment by praying his prayers, pervading the room with the smoke of some incense sticks and sprinkling some holy water drops in the corners and the entrance of the premises. During the ceremony, Ratham cleans every corner with a damp cloth. He says it is an ancient ritual they celebrate everyday to make sure the sales go well and the business is prosperous.
From the silk cocoons to the distribution and sale there is a whole complex process which involves a large amount of people to bring the most exquisite cloth to the customer. Those who dyed or rolled it using their own hands to check the threads were properly curled or those whose arms and legs, no matter how cold or warm the weather was, thread by thread made possible the creation ofthese pieces of clothing with no more company than a soft light and the clatter of their Jacquard loom, have given a part of themselves to each single piece. A part of the essence of those men whose name nobody will ever read, will remain in the scarves around the neck of thousands of people around the world. In this way, an unbeatable tradition that transcends generations it is preserved with the delicacy and the strength of uncountable whole lives dedicated to a profession which obtains as a reward the simple applause oftime.