The architect-led Anglo-Bangladeshi group, Paraa, recently presented an exciting fashion show at Christchurch Spitalfields in London – as part of an ambitious project to create educational opportunities for the Bihari community in Dhaka – featuring creations from several young designers, all making use of Benarasi silks.
Recently renovated to baroque splendour, Christchurch is a spectacular space and, for that reason alone, would have been a most suitable venue. But Christchurch also happens to be on the street linking Old Spitalfields Market with Brick Lane and its elegant mosque. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate setting. Yet the choice of it, for an event ultimately devoted to regeneration of districts where Urdu-speaking weavers live and work in Bengal, does have its own irony.
At the show, His Excellency the High Commissioner for Bangladesh spoke with passion and in some depth about the magnificent Benarasi tradition. If the immediate purpose of the fashion show was to promote these silks to London and beyond, that is something Bangladesh should take pride in and support. Fabrics of such exquisite quality deserve to be recognised the world over. But the silk industry, wherever it has been practised, does have an in-built fragility, and the Benarasi tradition is no exception. To appreciate this, we have to turn to the past.
Reputed first to have started at the courts of dynastic rulers in ancient China over 5000 years ago, the history of silk is a lengthy and complicated tale. The ‘farming’ of silk thread and its use in weaving certainly reached the Valley of the Indus within a few centuries, later becoming established at several other centres in the sub-continent long before the prosperity of the Mughal Empire.
One of these centres – to many, the most distinguished of them all – is the city of Varanasi (Banaras). It lies in the great plain of the Ganges as it sweeps across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar towards Bengal and the ocean. The hand-loom weavers lived and worked in the surrounding countryside, and their output carried forward the ancient craft through several millennia to the period of British colonial rule until its abrupt end in 1947. Benarasi weaving – especially in the detailed, highly decorative ‘geometrical’ Islamic designs originating from Mughal times – was overwhelmingly a rural occupation, practised on a domestic scale. Faced with partition of the nation along religious lines, Muslim weavers chose to flee Bihar for the safe refuge of ‘East Pakistan’, taking with them their families, skills and knowledge.
A new generation has come to maturity since those turbulent days, and yet another already follows. Bangladesh, still at peace after 40 years, has granted full rights to this Bihari community. Benarasi silk weaving continues and Benarasi sarees retain their iconic place of importance in traditional Muslim social life. But prolonged peace and stability inevitably nurture fresh aspirations, especially amongst the young. There may well be those who, for some time, will be content to learn and practise the silk-weaver’s trade as have family members before them. But there are others who may choose quite different occupations from those on offer. There’s no certainty that the demand for the bridal silk saree will endure if its future price has to cover sufficient wages for sustainable standards of living in a growing economy.
Here in England, our forefathers’ awareness of silks was somewhat limited. Before the 1700s, most silks reached London from India and Southeast Asia, by way of the ‘Silk Road’. What with the intricacies of ‘farming’ raw silk, spinning and dying it ready for the loom, and complexities of the trade in fabrics intended only for the rich and powerful, silks were seldom seen in ordinary life – and few weavers learned to make them.
Across the Channel in France, a variety of conditions – climatic, economic and social – proved more encouraging. Locally-generated raw silk supplemented imported stock to encourage groups of weavers in a few mainly provincial cities, so that by the seventeenth century, French silks competed with those from the East and became popular among Europe’s wealthier classes.
The majority of France’s silk ‘masters’ and weavers were Protestant Christians, who believed that hard work served as well as formal worship towards ‘the glory of God’ and eventual salvation. Unfortunately, French royalty and the aristocracy – the majority of customers for silks – were Roman Catholics. Deep hostility built up between these two religious groups; repeatedly the ‘reformers’, who came to be known as Huguenots, were attacked. Murders and massacres took place frequently. For the sake of peace, Henri IV in 1598 proclaimed a law, The Edict of Nantes, declaring religious freedom for the Huguenots. As his kingdom prospered, so too did the silk masters. But tolerance is far easier to decree than to practise. Violence against reformers continued intermittently. With religious wars erupting all across northern Europe, Louis XIV revoked the Edict in 1685. Great numbers of Huguenots fled France forever.
As such, many silk weavers came to seek refuge in London. They settled just outside the City in Spitalfields – and quickly flourished. In 1688 the English replaced their own Catholic monarch James II with protestant Mary and her husband Duke William. Peace reigned, religious conflict declined, foreign ventures and colonial exploitations burgeoned, the economy grew, a new middle-class became significantly richer – and so, too, did the Huguenot settlers.
The weaving of silks spread quickly in east London. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, weaving of some kind was being practised in no fewer than 20,000 local homes. However, change had come over the silk industry. The masters, who were by that time second, or even third, generation immigrants, had become thoroughly anglicised, and had learned how to enjoy both the wealth and distinctive social freedoms conferred on them by the stuffs they traded, and their association with those who bought and used them. Through argument and influence they achieved a law suppressing imports, which impeded competition and kept prices high, and, having the power to do so, they held down weavers’ wages as well.
In 1822, in the grip of a post-war recession, Parliament at Westminster lifted the protective tariff against imports of silks. New centres of specialisation attracted entrepreneurs and innovators away from the constant problems of overcrowded east London. Working weavers drifted into other occupations to escape the hardships visited upon their families with every slight wobble in a persistently unsteady market. By the 1870s, silk-making had almost vanished from Spitalfields. The district declined into poverty and deprivation for almost 100 years. Its recent regeneration owes almost everything to the Bangladeshi diaspora, drawing many thousands of young Londoners to Brick Lane every week in search of cuisine, culture and colour.
The difficulties involved in making and marketing silks are many. Producers must constantly balance their costs of manufacture with rewards from sales, just as do producers in all other industries – but, unlike many others, without hope of economies of scale or thorough mechanisation. Those who trade must meet the vagaries of world prices for their commodity and cannot easily cope with the needs for higher wages and better lives for silk workers.
In the end, the ‘customers’ for silks in nineteenth-century England probably knew little, and cared less, about the hardships of Huguenot weavers. Through mounting the Benarasi silks fashion show in Spitalfields, Paraa has taken a bold step towards quite a different end. For that, it deserves success.
Photo Credits: Enamul Hoque and Sana Mir
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