June 2016 | Sonia Divyang

Weave-ing success

Tata STRIVE, the Tata group's skill development initiative, supports the weaver community of Varanasi by helping them adopt technology, upgrade skills and find new markets. In the process, it is infusing new life into the traditional banarasi silk industry

For 16-year-old Mohammad Saalim, weaving magic using silk is as easy as child’s play. Saalim’s repertoire includes an array of garments made from silk; however, the centrepiece of his creativity is the banarasi sari — five yards of silk decorated with intricate designs woven using gold and silk threads — which has been the byword for sartorial elegance for Indian women since ages.

The skilling sessions organised by Tata STRIVE infused new ideas and designs into the handloom industry

The banarasi sari, which takes its name from the holy city of Benares or Varanasi, has for decades been synonymous with grandeur and opulence. In recent years, the banarasi silk handloom industry has been under threat due to competition from mechanised units, cheaper synthetic alternatives and competition from Chinese silk imports. The time taken to weave one garment and the labour involved has made banarasi silks and brocades a costly affair. Despite the premium the silk products command in the market, the lot of the traditional weaving community has failed to improve.

This is why Tata STRIVE, the Tata group skill development initiative, included programmes to support the floundering handloom industry and transform the lives of the weaver community in India. Today, Tata STRIVE works with local weavers to enhance their skill sets and find new markets through the use of technology. “It was observed that a lot of people were leaving this art form looking for jobs with better financial prospects. We felt that we should not let this art form fade away,” says Ameya Vanjari, head, technology and innovation, Tata STRIVE.

Tough task
Traditional handloom banarasi silks and brocades are the outcome of an elaborate and labour-intensive process and are generally woven on manually-operated jacquard looms. Weaving is typically done within the household, with most weavers hailing from the Muslim community. Designs are first traced onto graph paper and replicated to make the cards which control the weaving on the loom.

Weaving a saree on a loom

The woven garments are sold to middlemen who pocket a lion’s share leaving the weaver with a pittance for his efforts. Bleak financial prospects have led to the younger generation opting out of the knowledge and skills handed down through the family and migrating to cities in search of financial security.

Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) came up with a sustainable solution — the ‘Weave’ application. In partnership with Tata STRIVE, a customised training programme for weavers was developed. The training incorporates soft skills, financial literacy, digital literacy and customer focus. Apart from this, skills to use the ‘Weave’ technology platform were taught to help weavers connect to the 21st century marketplace.

“TCS has been investing in innovative solutions in the space of skill development for a while now. Weave is one of the many solutions. The solution helps the weavers in two ways — connecting them directly to the markets, thus improving the ability to earn, and optimising the labour-intensive process of creating new designs,” says Prema Subramaniam, project manager, Ignite, TCS.

New avenues
Learning digital skills makes it easier for the weavers to use their traditional skills in more efficient and productive ways. Tata STRIVE’s training programme addresses the needs and aspirations of the youth and trains them in design, technology and customer interaction. Spanning 10 weeks, the programme follows an activity-driven and participatory approach to learning. Mohammed Saalim is among the 11 participants, most aged 16 to 23, who have volunteered for the training in Varanasi.

Creating motifs on graph papers

In the initial days, it was an uphill task. “The lack of exposure and the perception of losing valuable man hours were critical challenges in mobilising youth for the programme. The initial days saw erratic attendance,” recalls Vasant Raj, a facilitator with Tata STRIVE.

Making participants, with no exposure to computers, digitally literate was a difficult task for  trainers. During the training, the participants receive guidance on the Weave software and learn how to make designs using computers, and interact with customers to take orders.

Weaving new skills
The Weave software has considerably reduced the effort that goes into creating new designs. “I have learnt many new and interesting things here. The training programme has helped me gain confidence and overcome shyness,” says Mohammed Saalim as he demonstrates how he can dexterously create intricate designs using the software.

Weave is not meant for design alone, it also enables users to connect directly with weavers or bid for products created by others. “It also serves as a platform for customers to choose from a gallery of motifs, create new motifs, and create personalised products and place orders,” says Ms Subramaniam. The application thus helps infuse new ideas and designs into the handloom industry, helping it keep pace with changing market trends.

Watch how Tata STRIVE is helping Varanasi weavers conserve and improve traditional skills

Opening up futures
“Coming from impoverished backgrounds, the 11 youths lacked confidence and knowledge about how to groom and portray themselves and even found difficulty in adjusting to others. Life skill sessions, which included different modules on change management, soft skills and self discovery, were also part of the training”, says Mr Vanjari.

The skilling initiative has not only boosted the self-confidence of the participants but also nudged them on the path of entrepreneurship. “I have learnt things like preparing budgets and interacting with customers, after coming for the training programme. Today, I feel confident and can do business my way,” says Mohammad Hussain, another participant.

The skill development initiative has extended a much-needed hand of hope for the weavers of Varanasi. By leveraging modern technology and infusing new ideas, the banarasi silk brocade and sari industry is poised to regain some of its lost shimmer.