Chapter 3 - West Bengal's disappearing weavers
The story of my return from West Bengal in the close comfort of the Ladies Compartment has been well documented on Instagram, but I never really told you much about the trip to get there and the amazing weavers of this area.
Even though I've made this trip several times before, it doesn't seem to get any easier. First, I have to get to Kolkata from wherever I am. Hopefully I have a train ticket booked, but sometimes the tickets are sold out so I just have to get to the station and hope for a cancellation. Having said that, I've never had anyone check my ticket on the train and I'm sure there are plenty of passengers who don't have one.
After 5 hours on the train heading north towards the border of Bangladesh, I finally reach my first destination. This is where I have to stay overnight at a hotel I refer to as 'Stalag 13'. It's not that it's dirty or unsafe, just very Spartan - a bed, one fluorescent light and a tiny window that looks out onto an identical room opposite.
The next morning I set out by car to the weavers' village. It takes 1-2 hours depending on the state of the careening, tooting traffic and how many head-on collisions we encounter on the way. Surprisingly, you very rarely see accidents on Indian roads, but in rural West Bengal, the roads are very narrow and in poor condition so it's not unusual to come across a smash here.
Though this is the most difficult destination to get to, it's also my favourite place to visit. There are many weaving co-ops in this district but my contact is a lovely man called Nani who organises this particular group of weavers.
There used to be 8000 weavers in this district, now there are only 2000. This is partly due the younger generation moving away to find more lucrative jobs in the city, but also because of the lack of domestic interest in handmade products. I have seen this happen in all crafts across India, and these craftspeople are acutely aware that without international interest in this type of product, it will die out completely.
Though the majority of the weavers live in the village and this is their full-time employment, many of the weavers that Nani works with are farmers who weave part-time for extra money. Every house in the area has at least one loom which enables the weavers to work in between their other jobs. These people never leave their district, speak no English or Hindi, and without the support of a co-op, have no way of selling their products except in the nearest village.
Nani supplies them with the raw materials for spinning and weaving and then commits to buying the finished product from them, less the cost of raw materials. Each weaver has their own specialty ranging from the finest silk and jamdani, to coarser cottons that the local people wear and use every day. Nani doesn't specify what each weaver makes, but encourages them to create something new if they can.
To help solve the problem of the disappearing weavers of this region, Nani has started recruiting young women, after they've finished their schooling, to take up the craft. While waiting for a suitable marriage match, women of this age are often involved in the other processes involved with weaving, such as spinning or finishing, but weaving is predominately a male dominated occupation.
Nani took me to meet a young woman of 19 who has only been weaving for a year. She was working on a large windowpane check which is a challenging fabric. When I asked Nani if women were better weavers than men, he replied, "Men are strong and fast but not perfect. Women are a bit slower but they're much more careful and their weaving is superior." He said that when this young woman first started weaving she used to cry every day, but within a year she has become his number one cotton weaver.
Despite taking these measures to ensure the survival of this cottage industry, Nani fears that the weavers of West Bengal will eventually disappear completely and with them, his livelihood.
Like most Westerners, my reaction to this situation was to try and find a solution. I try not to assume that I know what would make their lives better, so I ask Nani what I could do to help. I imagine he's going to say schools, water, healthcare, but this was his answer...
"These people are village people, they don't want to have to leave their homes and families to find work. They are lucky because they have a skill, but we need to sell the fabric for them. We need to connect your people to my people. We need to get the products from their hands to your hands."
That was the abridged version, but maybe you can start to understand why the weavers of West Bengal have a special place in my heart - it's not just the four-course lunch that Nani's Mum makes me or the afternoon naps among the fabric. They are kind, gentle and generous people who welcome me into their homes every time I visit, and their incredible skills never cease to amaze me.
Lunch, naps, visits to the spinners, warpers, weavers and dyers being over, it was time to do the entire journey in reverse. But first...one more night at Stalag 13.