by Benedetta Ubertazzi
Banarasi Sari is a centuries old artisanal form of embroidered, hand-woven silk fabrics originating in Banaras, India. The community of weavers is divided into several categories, including own-workers, loomless weavers, job-work weavers and master-weavers. The Banarasi community has faced competition from weaving centres in India and China, as well as those who have been passing off machine fabrics as handmade. In order to compete, master weavers and traders resorted to unethical strategies such as reducing wages, lowering the quality of designs and passing off synthetic fibres as silk. A campaign for a GI started in 2006, and a GI was awarded in India in 2009.
Problems with the Banarasi Sari GI
The first problem is the lack of a broad-based community-wide support for the GI. The GI application was made by nine registered proprietors. These registered proprietors consisted of: two NGOs, two government agencies, two traders’ organisations and three producer cooperative societies. None of these groups represented the ‘ordinary weavers’, the NGOs worked with rural Hindu weavers, not the majority Muslim weavers, the government agencies were external to the artisan community, the traders’ organisations represented wholesale merchants not the job-work weavers, and the producer cooperative societies were under the control of large master weavers.
This first problem has two major consequences. One of these consequences is that because the GI applicants were not representative of the community of weavers, those controlling access to the GI were also not representatives of the community. Many artisans do not have the time or money to apply to have their work authorised and therefore could not access the GI. Those artisans would therefore legally infringe the GI if they call their work Banarasi. Another consequence is that the applicants designed the GI to protect handloom weavers from powerloom weavers. The impulse to protect handlooms comes from the applicants, not the weavers. This protective paradigm has had a freezing effect on the culture and does not change any of the structures that keep weavers poor.
A second problem is that the GI application is written in English and Hindi, not the local dialect spoken within the communities. This had an isolating effect on the community.
A third problem concerns the way the artisanal knowledge was described in the GI. Banarasi is a dynamic tradition made from a collective heritage and fluid traditions. The GI catalogues the method of production in great detail and consequently hurts the evolution of the product because it does not capture the true fluidity of designs.
Lessons from the Banarasi Sari GI
The key lesson from the Banarasi Sari GI is as follows: for GI to be effective, it must be designed through a participatory process with the close involvement of ordinary artisans and must be sensitive to the dynamic nature of artisanal knowledge. Even well designed GIs cannot address problems that arise out of the political economy of artisanal industries.
Other lessons include the importance of wide consultations among the community of artisans. This is important not only for the future controlling of access to the GI but also for developing the criteria of authenticity. Further, there may be space for a flexible approach to protecting the crafts. For example, a dual system could be used to protect Banarasi Sari: those using handloom technique could use a certification mark to distinguish their production method, while the GI could be expanded to include powerloom weaving from within Banaras. Finally, the GI needs to be coupled with a good trade policy to ensure that artisans can access raw materials affordably and are protected from those seeking to pass of their products.
Patachitra is an ancient form of painting done on paper and manifested by rich colourful application, creative motifs and portrayal of simple themes. It is practised in several regions of India, with specific Patachitra styles originating in West Bengal and Odisha. An Indian GI for Bengal Patachitra was awarded on 28 March 2018 and is valid until 16 August 2026. Another GI for Orissa Pattachitra was awarded on 7 July 2008 and is valid until 8 April 2027.
Similarities to Banarasi Sari
The Bengal Patachitra GI and Orissa Pattachitra GI are also quite specific in their description of the materials and methods of the tradition. It clearly states that the colours used in the paintings are natural colours and describes the dimensions of the paintings. The technical specifications have quite a high level of detail, for example the Bengal Patachitra GI states that there are no eyelashes, nails or open mouths. This could be seen as restricting the development of the craft. However, the lesson learned from Banarasi is not that all technical criteria should be removed, but that the technical criteria should be based on broad community consultation and reflect the actual practices of the artists. Some degree of definition of the craft is needed, however it must be approached carefully so as to not risk freezing a dynamic tradition. Furthermore, there is some recognition of changing practices. For example, the section on production processes notes that traditionally, rat hairs were used for paint brushes but that in the present day, artists use brushes that are available in the market.
Both the Bengal Patachitra GI and Orissa Pattachitra are written in English. Presumably, this has the same potential isolating effect on the communities as the Banarasi Sari GI. A solution may be to ensure that the documentation is translated into the local dialect and distributed among the community.
Differences to Banarasi Sari
Unlike Banarasi Sari, there was just one applicant for the Bengal Patachitra GI. The applicant is Chitrataru, a group comprising 230 artisans. All Patachitra artists in Pingla are members of the collective Chitrataru. The main objective of Chitrataru is the preservation and promotion and capacity building of Patachitra artists. Chitrataru works closely with West Bengal Khadi and Village Industries Board to provide support for rural craft hubs. Similarly, the applicant for the Orissa Pattachitra GI is the Orissa State Cooperative Handicrafts Corporation Limited. This Corporation aims to effect co-ordination between handicrafts and other industries by suitable method such as enabling the artisans to manufacture articles required by other industries. This suggests that both GIs were the product of more widespread community consultation than the Banarasi Sari.
The inspection body for controlling access to the Bengal Patachitra GI is made of government officials, a representative of West Bengal Khadi and Village Industries Board and a representative of Banglanatak dot com. This may mean that that the criteria for assessing access to the GI is more reflective of the practices of the Patachitra community of painters.The Orissa Pattachitra is even more flexible. The inspection body for the Orissa Pattachitra is comprised of customers and retailers as there are no standard parameters set for the artwork.
For more information on the Banarasi Sari see Basole, Amit. (2015). Authenticity, Innovation, and the Geographical Indication in an Artisanal Industry: The Case of the Banarasi Sari. The Journal of World Intellectual Property. 18. 127-149.