February 9th, 2012
11:38 AM GMT
Varanasi, India (CNN) – The sari is a symbol of Indian style known around the world, but the makers of India’s most coveted saris are losing out to Chinese competition.
Banarasi saris are considered perhaps the finest of all saris. Originating from India's holiest city, Varanasi, they are traditionally worn by brides on their wedding day.
For centuries the silk saris have been made by hand in villages. The government has even given them a geographical identifier to indicate authenticity. But these enclaves of creativity are threatened by cheaper goods made in China.
Rajni Kant, of Varanasi’s Human Welfare Association, told CNN’s Sara Sidner: “Due to the effect of these Chinese attacks in the trade sector, right now 50% of the market has collapsed."
Bhayia is one of the few weavers left in his village still doing this intensive work. It’s a skill passed down to him from the generations who came before him, but he worries that it’s a dying art.
"The product that is coming from outside, it has resulted in the shutting down of looms here in the village,” he said. “Everyone is taking up other jobs."
The villagers say that making saris with handlooms was the main source of income for generations. There were once more than 150 people making saris - now there are about eight.
Kant says the problem is that local traders are cheating people by selling Chinese machine-made sari fabric as authentic Banarasi saris. The price for the knock-offs is a fraction of what the real thing sells for, and weavers complain the government does nothing about it.
"If no agency nor the government will enforce the law, definitely the whole sector will collapse and maybe in the future the generations will see the handloom in the museums," said Kant.
At a local sari shop they admitted to that some of the sellers are dishonest. Shop owners also pointed out that saris made in China sell well due to simply being cheaper - normal competition.
But there was also the issue of the import tax. For years the Indian government placed only a 10% tax on silk fabric from China. That fabric was simply cut and turned into saris. But the silk thread from China that the local weavers use to make the real thing was taxed at 30%.
Last year the government changed the import duty. Now silk thread from China is taxed at just 5% and demand for authentic Banarasi saris is increasing - a welcome relief to local weavers.
Now there is another problem: because so many weavers were forced to find other work there is a shortage of those who have the ability to weave this coveted piece of Indian art.
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