The sarees that West Bengal’s first woman chief minister wears are custom-made by the weavers of Hooghly.
When Mamata Banerjee swept the West Bengal elections, among the thousands who rejoiced were the weavers of Hooghly. The politician for whom they had been weaving sarees for the last two years was going to become the chief minister of their state.
The simple white handloom sarees with a thin border are completely in sync with Banerjee’s image. Which is why since 2009 she has made it a point to wear only these Dhaniakhali sarees. Or so these weavers claim. “Didi’s colleague at Trinamool Congress and mayor of Kolkata, Shovan Chatterjee, had once come to our cooperative to order sarees for her,” says Pratap Chandra Dutta, the chairman of Dhaniakhali Union Tant Silpi Samabaya Samity, a weavers’ cooperative which is an assimilation of about eight villages in Dhaniakhali sub-division. Ever since, Dutta says, Banerjee has chosen to wear Dhaniakhali sarees manufactured by them.
Priced at Rs 350, “Mamata Sarees”, as these have come to be called, have become quite famous. “Didi’s sarees are specially ordered with thin stripes all over on a white body and with a narrow border,” says Haradhan Dutta, a weaver from Dhaniakhali. Banerjee, he says, prefers either a green border or other pastel shades. Crimson and maroon are a big “no”. “Didi’s sarees are tero hath unlike the usual baro hath sarees, a typical measure from the fingers to the elbow,” says Haradhan Dutta whose family has woven many such sarees for the Chief Minister. What this means is that Banerjee prefers longer than usual sarees. When Banerjee visited Congress president Sonia Gandhi after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, she had presented her a Dhaniakhali saree. She chose the same gift for Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Unlike Banerjee, the weavers don’t have a success story to tell. Faced with competition from machine-made cheaper cotton sarees, most of the weavers are barely making ends meet. “The manufacturing of handloom sarees has gone down considerably,” says Pratap Chandra Dutta.
It takes two to three days to weave a saree. The weaver gets a mere Rs 80 per saree. “In a month, a weaver’s family earns around Rs 1,200,” says Pratap Chandra Dutta. Though weavers are entitled to a government pension of Rs 750 per month, the number of applicants is far greater than the designated quota.
Pratap Chandra Dutta’s cooperative caters to the local market in Kolkata, Asansol and Bihar and has also tied up with the state government’s handloom outlet, Manjusha. Though last year the cooperative had a turnover of Rs 1.07 crore, it was hardly enough to help the hundreds of weavers under it.
“The skill that we have acquired over generations will soon face extinction,” laments Haradhan Dutta. “I wouldn’t marry my daughter into a weaver’s family.” Several weavers are now looking for more paying opportunities, often under the NREGA scheme.
“The plight of weavers is an example of the general condition of the state’s handloom and textile industry,” says fashion designer Soumitra Mondal who showcased Bengal's handloom at Lakmé Fashion Week. “Compare this to the Gujarat government which has a strong marketing model for the handloom industry with a specialised department for designing, marketing and packaging. No wonder, its textile industry is booming,” he says.
Weavers are hopeful that with Banerjee at the helm of affairs, the state’s handloom industry will improve. After all it is directly linked to her wardrobe.