Banarasi Brocade, Mirzapur Carpets, Fantastic Samosas and some Soul-searching (Part I)

Carpet on the Loom

Carpet on the Loom

Mirzapur Weaving Centre

Mirzapur Weaving Centre

Back from Mumbai and off to Varanasi (also known as Banaras and Kashi). I do love my job, well some parts of it. Dealing with octroi, (still waiting for the February refund) breakages and insurance has to be my least favourite part and so I left the mess TCI Express made of my return shipment to Binaifer and off I went. The main reason was the Indian Carpet Expo in Varanasi. There were over 300 Indian carpet vendors showing off their wares and I thought it was time to do a deep dive into the carpet industry in India. To understand the entire supply chain better, I went off to Mirzapur which, along with Bhadohi, is one of the main weaving centres in this part of India. What I found was both enlightening and disturbing.

Mirzapur Tufting Centre

Mirzapur Tufting Centre

My understanding of what I see is that Indian and Pakistani handmade carpet manufacturers have flooded their main market, the United States. This has meant that prices cannot move up even though input costs have risen e.g. cost of importing wool from New Zealand. The result is lower margins which are now leading to finding ways to make carpets more cheaply or make customised carpets that can be charged at a premium.

Tufted carpets are one such popular lower priced product. They are hand made but done using a little hooking gun that pulls the wool through but does not knot it. The back is pasted with glue and a backing stuck on. These carpets cannot come in contact with water and are not as lasting as a knotted or flat woven rug.  There are also rugs being made with banana fibre, bamboo or viscose as cheaper alternatives to wool.

Weavers Behind the Carpet

Weavers Behind the Carpet

What I do now know is that carpet weavers earn an average wage of Rs.150/- per day. This is less than a mason earns in the same village and certainly much less than the Rs.450/- a migrant labourer makes in Goa. Is there any surprise that there are fewer people entering this profession? Why does the supply side have to shrink before there is an understanding that there is a need to nurture these skills and not abuse them? Jaipur Rugs is working to remove middleman and train unskilled labour but others need to do their bit too. One company got a mention over and over again during my trip and that was Ikea. Ikea has mandated all its suppliers that the weavers doing their work must earn a minimum of Rs.300/- per day and be given medical and pension benefits. Suppliers have opened separate factories for this and ensure they conform. Good all around.

Some statistics to put all this into perspective: A 5′ x 7′ typical living room sized carpet in India takes two weavers two days to make when tufted and 40 days when done in 10/14 (average) knotting. The training for tufting takes 10-15 days and one can be an expert in two years. The training for a weaver doing knotted carpets takes 3 years and it takes someone 20 years to become an expert.

Varanasi Lassi

Varanasi Lassi

On my way out of Mirzapur, we stopped at Puthlighar for a quick samosa. These have to be the best samosas I have ever eaten and I can see why people come from 20kms to get some! For us city dwellers, they come at an unbelievably reasonable price of Rs.10/- for six samosas. When I asked the owner why he doesn’t double the quantity as he sells out within a couple of hours (10-15 people were turned away while I was there), he says he won’t be able to manage it i.e. for him the increase in quantity implies a decrease in quality. This man understands his USP and is not messing with it! My driver did not want Mirzapur to get the better of Varanasi and pointed me to Pal’s Lassi Place. The only time I had was 9:30 at night but I made it there. Fantastic sweet lassi served in a khullar with a big dollop of thickened dahi. Stay tuned for part two…

 

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