During my first stay in India in 2008 through the UNESCO-Aschberg bursaries program at the Sanskriti foundation, I became interested in the silk craftsmanship and decided to explore the city of Varanasi, a famous place where silk weaving industry is the leading manufacturing activity. There, through interaction with locals and personal research, I discovered the working and living conditions of a whole community (i.e., nearly 90 % of the Muslim community in Varanasi) who relies almost exclusively on the success of silk weaving business.
The silk weaving has known a considerable interest from numerous foreign luxury brand companies and European interior designers, opening new markets. However, Muslim weavers somehow seemed not to have benefited from the new prospects for the weaving industry. On the contrary, they have been exposed to the increase competition from Chinese silk traders who can mass-produce at lower costs and efforts, and the technical changes of weaving techniques practiced in other countries that integrate computer design.
Upon returning to Varanasi in December 2012, with the support of several leaders of the Muslim community, I was given access to the social pillars of their community (e.g., madrasa and dispute resolution council), master weavers’ workshops, and many weaver family households. They shared with me their way of life, their traditions, and their concerns regarding the dim prospects of an activity that has been passed through generations, and recently threatened by both industrialization and globalization. They allowed me to capture and understand the working process, and the hierarchical relationship existing between Master weavers and weavers; the first ones providing the raw materials and work opportunity, and the latest providing their labor.
In weaver family homes, everyone over the age of 10 contributes to the tasks. Men are assigned with the physically strenuous work such as weaving while women do embroidery and clean up the textile surface. Children quit school to support the weaving family business by either weaving or embroidering. In one room, family members representing up to 4 generations weave together, from the grandfather, father, and son, to the grandchild. The business model based on craftsmanship and family household on which the Muslim community of Varanasi relies for its subsistence is seriously at stake.