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Bunkar (2018) Review: Heartwarming Attempt To Rekindle Past Glory

Bunkar: The Last of the Varanasi Weavers (2018) aims to narrate the travails of a dying industry and skill. An industry that once put Banaras and India on the world map and a profession that was once a status symbol. Bunkari (weaving), back in the day, was a profession of dignity and pride.

Director Satyaprakash Upadhyay attempts to document the plight of the weavers and the handloom industry in India today to trigger a conversation and encourage the younger generation to preserve this dying art. ‘Famous for weaving clothes for the Pope in Rome and for Dalai Lama,’ it has had rich historical significance.

It’s worth noting here that the handloom weaving and handicrafts is the second largest sector in the Indian economy. Sadly, most of this demand now is being catered to by profit-driven businesses. Thanks to mechanisation, which has eaten into the weavers’ salaries and spirit, the numbers have spiralled down drastically. Where there were 2,00,000 weavers in the city of Varanasi alone, there are barely 50,000 left now.

The art requires weavers to invest their personal savings and the entire supply chain works on credit, unlike earlier days when the weavers were paid an advance. It takes an entire family of a weaver and three months of work and sweat to churn out one banarasi saree. A power loom churns out one within a day!

Cheap imitations produced with meager effort and resources are flooding the markets and most buyers remain uninformed of quality. The power loom products command the same price as hand-made sarees, to boot.

It’s heartbreaking to see a mass exodus of these skilled workers into unskilled jobs. It pays more to be a rickshaw-puller in our country than an artist. (That actually isn’t much of a shocker for a country which sees well-qualified individuals, postgraduates and PhD holders included, apply for sweeper and peon jobs. So much for talent and merit!).

Recently, the weaver community has benefited from government’s support and policies, but this is only the beginning. Upadhyay’s documentary is a heart-warming attempt, a personal urge to revive and preserve an art that holds a glorious, centuries-old history and was once a thing of pride.

Cinematographer Vijay Mishra has deftly captured the warm hues of Banaras, suffusing the narrative with rich, vivid visuals of the city as beautifully as the intricate detail of the art and art form. Ankit Shah’s composition Jheeni Chadariya is melodious and haunting, beautifully embellished by Vidhi Sharma’s rendition.

Update: Bunkar won the Best Arts and Cultural Film at the 2019 National Awards announced this week. A well-deserved honor!

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