The other day, while airing out and refolding my sarees, I realized I hadn’t bought a saree in many years! A few days before Deepawali and my birthday, I knew I had nowhere to go but that was no excuse – after almost a year into the pandemic, I wanted to look and feel good.
I am a bit wary when it comes to buying sarees. An experience I had a few years ago changed how I shopped for sarees. A smart and savvy salesperson at a store was pressuring me into buying a saree. Through casual conversation, she told me weavers spend 12-14 hours each day weaving the saree and dyeing it. Each saree, she said, takes 20-25 days to complete and many times weavers forgo their meals just to fulfill the suppliers’ demand, and they get paid Rs 100-150 ($1.50-2.00) a day depending on the type and design of the saree. The silk saree I had selected was priced at Rs 5,600 ($80) but the weavers had only gotten paid about Rs 2,000 ($30) for all the hard grueling work they put in. I walked out of the store feeling terribly sad for the weavers. I decided then, if ever I bought a saree from a store or online, it would be from someone who valued the hard work of the weavers and compensated them rightfully.
Many of these weavers and artisans are daily wage workers who work in extremely poor conditions and are not treated well. Their hands and body take a beating because of the long hours they put in. Added to this are the corrupt middlemen who stand to make a profit by paying these workers just a measly amount. If this is their plight in ordinary days, one cannot begin to imagine what they must be going through during these times when Covid has literally snatched their livelihood away. Also, weavers don’t get their jobs back until the existing stocks are all sold. With business affected, weddings, and festive gatherings postponed, these artisans are literally left to fend for themselves! With nowhere to turn they are forced to look for an alternate livelihood. Though tremendously skilled in their art many of them lack the technological skills to sell their weaves directly and hence are exploited by the middlemen.
Sarees are a symbol of our culture and heritage, and they are associated not only with our stories and sentiments but every saree also has the weaver’s emotions, identity, and voice woven into it. We simply cannot let their looms go silent and their voices die.
Hence, while shopping for sarees online, I look for organizations and vendors who work directly with the weavers and give them their rightful dues. That was when I stumbled upon Shobitam (meaning Grace in Sanskrit) started by two enterprising sisters Ambika and Aparna, right here in the US. What drew me to them was not just their beautiful, unique, and aesthetic sarees but their generous philanthropic work.
The sisters are not just your regular entrepreneurs on a mission “to help women look good, feel good, and do good” but also believe in giving back to their weavers and artisans. They consider the weavers their backbone “and it is their work behind the beautiful sarees.”
Shobitam “wants to be evangelists for them and give back, their goal is to make a difference and popularise lesser-known weavers.” Seldom do we come across a small business that has incorporated this philosophy in its infancy.
Shobitam launched a program Shobitam Cares at the onset of the Covid-19 lockdown in India. More than 50% of the proceeds from summer were used to provide grains and other edible essentials to 800+ families across our weaving communities in India. Shobitam Cares also empowers rural women, encourages kids in these families to go to school, and adopts ethical and sustainable environmental best practices. After the lockdown restrictions were eased, “we continued our efforts to give back to the community with our initiative called Shobitam GIVE”, which helps non-profit community organizations in the USA who are doing good work and helps with food and education for children.
Shobitam’s other mission is to popularize lesser-known weaves, art, and educate customers about handlooms and the work that happens behind the scenes. They have been promoting Madurai Sungudi cotton sarees making customers and weavers happy. Similarly, due to the penetration of synthetics and unnatural methods of production, oftentimes, customers are unaware of what goes into the making of Handloom silk or a Kalamkari art or a Vegan silk saree, so Shobitam has taken upon this to give these artisans a much-deserved boost.
Ambika and Aparna are not only making women of the Indian subcontinent look and feel good but are also crusaders to the weavers and their families they work with. And yes, I ended up buying more than one saree from them!
Anita R Mohan is a poet and a freelance contributor who loves to write on various themes. She mainly writes about women, India, Indian life, and culture.