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The silk exchange for a silver lining

People who can extract silver from the zari border of a kancheepuram silk saree  do a good business in Chennai 

In the streets of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu in India, often one can hear vendors crying out on a mike-borne vehicle about exchange of old silk sarees for a good sum of money. They call out to women to exchange their old silk saree for a good sum in return. Every area in the metropolis of Chennai is approached by a team in a van or by just a man on a bicycle.

Is it not strange that these vendors are ready to give a good amount for just six yards of a cloth? Definitely, there must be something special about it. What is it? The zari work in this cloth has silver in it. It is woven by artisans who have been in this profession for generations. Read on to know what is special about it.

These sarees are ubiquitous in South Indian weddings. Women love the rustle of this pure silk. While the bride wears a heavyweight pure silk saree, all women who grace the occasion too are seen only in this attire.

These sarees are woven using pure silk and Kancheepuram, the town near by Chennai has a 500-year-old hoary tradition of producing pure silk. It stands foremost in producing heavyweight silk sarees. More than a lakh weavers are still involved in the silk industry and some of the households boast of even three to five looms. Some are owned by them and others are loaned by master weavers or manufacturers.

Weavers from many sylvan villages in Tamil Nadu such as Arani, Tirubuvanam, Puliampatti and Panjukalipatti are key suppliers to the big retailers all over the State. The sarees woven in many of these places are made of pure silk and the zari in it is made of pure silver. But this was the practice even a decade ago but now nothing is pure about these sarees. If one has to go for the pure stuff a heavyweight grand silk saree costs nearly Rs 30, 000 to 40, 000.

As the old sarees are rare to find, small-time vendors buy them, extract silver from them and earn a livelihood. I have always been fascinated by the unrelenting nature of these men. Of late, they are there on streets in every locale every day. I wanted to try my hand with at least one saree. My younger one, a 18-year-old daughter always thought that they do not do a fair job. But I was persistent.

One fine morning, when a heard a vendor calling out to bring an old silk saree, I ran out with the one I had always kept ready. When I reached the entrance of the apartment my daughter stood barring my way. She said, “I knew you were at it. These people cheat. Why do you want to encourage them?”

I turned back determined to sell the piece the very next day when she would be in college. And I did.

When I heard his cycle bell, the next morning, I rushed down before he could even call out. The man gave one look at the saree and took out a thousand rupee note from his pocket. He knew he had picked up a good piece. For a mere Rs 1,000 I sold a torn Kancheepuram silk saree, which I had purchased for Rs 5, 000 10 years ago, in a jiffy. But, I told him that I am not bargaining for more provided he showed me the silver that he would take out from the zari. He readily agreed and set up a petite machine. He cut out the zari borders and burnt it in an iron basin. He showed me the silver settling down in a powder form at the bottom. This is then further sold to jewellers and help us eke out a living, he explained.  

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Working journalist. Has been in the print media for nearly 25 years

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