Loose weave

Published : May 06, 2011 00:00 IST

The book is a study of the complex multicultural ethos that lies behind the gloss of the Banarasi sari.

THE 1990s were interesting times. It brought about many changes the world over, particularly in India, where a transformation was taking place in the political and economic landscape. There was Mandir, Mandal, and neoliberalism. The effects of this heady mix on the Indian sensibility are still being deconstructed by scholars, anthropologists, sociologists and economists.

The Warp and the Weft is on the Muslim weavers of Banaras. It is a contemporary study, written with a rare passion, of the destructive nature of communal politics and what resulted from it. It was a challenge, intellectually and politically, to try to understand a society different from one's own, Vasanthi Raman writes in her 26-page introduction to the book. The weave is a metaphor for relationships; its tenacity and simultaneous fragility exemplify human relationships.

Vasanthi Raman, who is a member of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, has earlier written on issues of social transformation. She has also been Visiting Professor at the University of Joensuu, Finland, and Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla.

Though several others have done studies on Banaras, which is regarded as the holiest city of Hindus, Vasanthi Raman's perspective and the tools she has used to understand the momentous but less understood changes that Banaras underwent in the 1990s are unique. The book has nothing to do with religion in the sense in which Banaras has been looked at dominantly. But it discusses the politics of religion that was unleashed in the 1990s and the devastating impact it had on the communities there, and the weaving of a resilience that is quite markedly of Banarasi character.

The book, therefore, is about the complex multicultural ethos that lies behind the Banarasi weave the warp and the weft symbolising the plurality of activities that produce magnificent silk. A poignant verse by Gulzar, translated from Hindustani to English, given in Chapter 4, has the poet-lyricist asking the weaver to teach him the skill of weaving and ruminating sadly on how he too had woven a relationship where the knots in the fabric got stuck out for all to see.

Vasanthi Raman's book is an anthropological and ethnographic study based on detailed field work among Muslim families. She is justifiably critical of the effect of the Orientalist discourse in anthropology, which, according to her, essentialised the political and social differences between the two communities and which gets reflected in the postcolonial situation. Maybe it was easier to caricature and stereotype the Muslim, ignoring the diversity within the community and imposing the only identity the religious one on it.

She recalls the work of the sociologist Imtiaz Ahmed, who drew attention to the lacuna in empirical work on Muslims. Her own hard work in the course of writing the book reflects her understanding of the need to study a community that was perceived as the other and, as she puts it, the other within the other. The latter other is Indian sociology and anthropology.

She obviously has misgivings about the manner in which anthropological studies have looked at Muslims. Her study of 70 Muslim weaver families looks at three dimensions: one, the impact of communal violence accompanied by a slow and sinister communalisation; two, the growing concerns with identity; and three, the gender dimensions of these processes.

My attempt has been to avoid both the exoticisation and essentialism of the Muslim question', to consciously steer clear of a voyeuristic interest in the study of Muslims, particularly Muslim women, given the extreme politicisation of the relations between the two communities, and yet, simultaneously to highlight the socio-religious dimension and its impact on their lives, Vasanthi Raman writes with a rare candour.

Muslims form around one-fourth of Banaras city's population a rather high figure compared with the general proportion of the community nationally. The majority of them are Momin Ansaris.

Her interviews, Vasanthi Raman says, have covered a variety of subjects, ranging from the impact of communal violence on the community, current politics, historically sensitive issues such as Partition, the condition of weavers, the status of women, leadership of the Muslim community and Islamisation, to the more mundane and quotidian ones. Identity issues, communalism and gender form the crux around which the book is structured.

Colonial legacy

The idea of Banaras being predominantly Hindu is a colonial legacy. The latter part of the 19th century saw Banaras as an important centre of the Hindi movement, with figures such as Bharatendu Harishchandra playing a crucial role. The early 20th century also saw the emergence of a movement for the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), which contributed to and was fuelled by Hindu revivalism in the 1920s and 1930s. As in contemporary times, the revivalism in this period coincided with the obsession with numbers and attempts to reconvert groups from Islam and Christianity to Hinduism.

Vasanthi Raman believes that the BHU and Hindi movements contributed to the construction of a Hindu Banaras. This was in spite of the Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb (culture), which roughly spanned a thousand years and was epitomised by the Shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan through his renditions and by Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, through his works in the early 17th century.

The Banarasi sari assumes a central character in the book. The importance of tana-bana (warp and weft), or the weaving activity as it is known, is perhaps exaggerated.

Vasanthi Raman deglamorises the idea of two communities living in perfect harmony. The city has a history of riots, especially since the 1970s. The communal tensions have very much been an outcome of the uneasy feelings that arose as the Ansari Momins began establishing themselves in the weaving trade. The partisan role of successive administrations only widened the schism. What began in the 1970s resurfaced in a more virulent manner in 1992 and after.

Gender relations

Having worked at the Centre for Women's Development Studies, Vasanthi Raman explores gender relations in Banaras historically, through literature and other sources, and comes out with interesting details. Fertility and widowhood are so intricately linked with Banaras; the Banarasi sari was always an object of envy for married women and wearing one at weddings was a status statement, but at the same time the city became a favourite destination for abandoning widows and young women who had dared to stray early on in their youthful years. And there was a thriving category of courtesans as well. While much of such information may not be directly related to Vasanthi Raman's subject of study, it nevertheless provides an insight into the deeply patriarchal character of Banaras society.

The construction of Banaras as a Hindu city was primarily by the British. What is little known, says Vasanthi Raman, is that the city played a significant role in the cultivation of Arabic, Persian and Urdu learning. But the Muslims of Banaras found no place in the standard accounts of the city. She writes about the Momin Julahas thus: The trauma of being excluded in histories is humiliating enough for a community. It was further magnified in the case of the Julahas by the burden of having to live down the vilification of their community that was the staple of all writing and official accounts of the colonial period.

The book has seven chapters, each rich in contemporary and historical detail. The first chapter, Hindu Banaras: Plural Realities and Singular Representations, looks at a lot of historical and ethnographic material on the imaging of Banaras over the past two or more centuries. It gives a good idea of the disjunction that existed earlier and exists even now, the only difference being that the agents provocateurs are different. The following chapter is an extension of the first, looking more at a specific community that contributed much to the sari industry but yet was stereotyped and demonised, thanks to colonial sociology.

Muslims of Banaras

The lives of the Muslims of Banaras are described in Chapter 3, which begins with a couplet of Kabir about the warp and the weft. The next chapter, Communal Violence in the 1990s and Hindu-Muslim Relations, takes the argument in the first chapter forward, but with a contemporary thrust. The argument here is that religious identity was always thrust upfront in the historical, primarily colonial, accounts of riots as if that was the real cause of social conflict. For instance, in 1809, where the earliest documentation of riots in Banaras is mentioned, all communities had come together over a strike over house tax an administrative measure by the British. But this was glossed over by those who documented the events in that period.

This chapter and the one after that, on the worlds and homes of Banaras' women, are among the biggest in the book, perhaps indicative of the importance that Vasanthi Raman gives to both the issues. Chapter 6 is about the economic crisis the weavers faced, and the last chapter has narratives from two remarkable women.

Vasanthi Raman takes some poetic liberty by describing how the Banarasi sari hides within its folds the secrets of the relationship between the Hindus and Muslims of the city. Her humour gets reflected when she writes, almost affectionately, about how she had to sometimes curb the reformist zeal of Muniza Khan, the Registrar of the Gandhian Institute of Studies, so as to allow the ethnographic project of the study to proceed unhindered.

She says how the skilled weavers of the Banarasi sari were Muslims and lower-caste Hindus while the main traders of it were Hindu Banias. The inroads made by a section of the Momin Ansaris into trading were not looked upon favourably, and tensions grew as the crisis in the industry exacerbated, tensions that had to do with changes in the mode of production. The association of Muslims with the industry is almost a thousand years old.

Given the author's own specific interest in women's studies, there are two chapters exclusively on that subject: Chapter 5, Of Home and the World: The Homes and Worlds of Banaras women, and Chapter 7, Walking the Razor's edge: Narratives of Two Women. Hindu women, the author says, were the principal consumers of the Banarasi sari. No North Indian wedding was considered complete without the women of the house buying a Banarasi sari. It was a symbol of social status. Like the weave, the Muslim weaver and the married Hindu woman were quite interwoven in their common accomplishment, that of the Banarasi sari.

Weaver's role

Whether the role of the Muslim weaver was played down deliberately over the centuries is not clear. But what is remarkably evident is that except for the couplets of Kabir or passing historical references, the role of the weaver not only as a part of the production process but also as a significant presence in the social fabric, was never celebrated. Was it because the weavers were lower-caste converts to Islam? Or, was it an outcome of the othering that Vasanthi Raman points out assiduously in all her chapters? She writes: The relationship of interdependence that has existed between the two communities has been based on the materiality of production in the Banarasi sari industry.

But clearly this was not enough to cement the social ties between the two communities. The imaging of Banaras itself perhaps never went beyond the strictly religious. The women, as wearers of the sari or as courtesans or as widows, were incidental.

Vasanthi Raman goes into the intricacies of the weaving process. What is interesting here is that Muslim women too were integral to the weaving process even though the master weaver was mostly a man. But she finds that women too worked on the powerloom. But the labour, as is the case with much of women's work, was invisible. She looks closely at the way of life of the Momin Ansaris, the women and the children, and the socialisation process itself. Many of the perceptions shared by the Muslim women are not very different from those experienced and articulated by women of other communities. But there is an added dimension to this: the impact of communalisation.

Despite the interweave of relationships in the production and the marketing of the sari, the feeling of insecurity, writes Vasanthi Raman, is pervasive among the Muslims, given the character of the riots post-1990. Many plural customs vanished, she writes, and a line of control emerged in the warp-and-weft relationship. Boundaries, especially social ones, became rigid.

The other area that has made inroads into the plural weave is the market. Vasanthi Raman expresses concern at the fate of the artisanal family, the Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb, and the straining of tana-bana.

A sensitively written book on what is a sensitive subject, The Warp and the Weft is packed with details, collected and collated painstakingly by Vasanthi Raman, who often explains why the project was undertaken in the first place. Her deep empathy with the weavers, her generosity in acknowledging the wide range of people from whom she drew out information, her field work and the effort of sifting through existing literature on the subject make the book an eminently enjoyable and stimulating read.

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