The Silver Lining

Old moth-eaten saris, valuable only for their zari borders, find their way into shops of old Pune

Forty six-year-old Sushma Shelar*, originally from Satara, squints her eyes as she goes around looking for a particular address in Bohri Ali in an older part of Pune. After some effort she finds a small black-and-white signboard, hidden behind numerous festoons and

Republic Day decorations, announcing "Juni zar ghenar (We'll buy old zari)". Clutching the bundle of old, tattered saris that belonged to her great grandmother, she walks into the shop to find Manoj Laxmichand Bafna chatting with a young couple. Shelar waits patiently till they leave and then produces her bundle of saris, which includes a resplendent pink Paithani and a dull green one.

Bafna carefully opens the saris, measures them and takes out a rounded, shiny stone that he rubs vigorously on the old zari. He smiles at the dull silver mark on the stone and quotes his price

Rs 2,000 for the two. Shelar looks slightly taken aback, but accepts the money. "They were rotting at our ancestral home in Satara. Nobody knew about them," she rues.

Bafna's shop is one of the several tiny shops in Bohri Ali and Budhwar Peth that buy tattered and moth-eaten saris. "We only buy saris that are more than 30 years old. Their condition does not matter. What matters is the sari's border, which contains silver or sometimes gold. For customers, these saris are heirlooms that are of no use now," says Bafna, whose family has been in the business for 60 years.

Old saris, uparnas and shelas (used to decorate shrines at home) are all welcome at these shops. Their only test, or "kasauti" as the shopkeepers call it, is the dull silver or gold mark left on a piece of slate that is rubbed on the intricate borders. "Most of the work on saris in the olden days was in silver. They used to mix threads with molten metal and hence the garments looked so grand," explains Bafna. He gets almost 17-20 saris a month. "On an average, a zari sari weighing about 400 grams contains about 40 grams of silver. We extract the silver and sell it to jewellers," he says. With the rate of silver increasing every day, the business has been profitable so far.

How do they separate precious metal from the garment? Following shopkeeper Ganesh Yellapa More to his house in Balajinagar near Katraj answers the question. Sitting behind a four-feet-high pile of saris in their drawing room, his family rips off the zari borders from the plain cloth. More says he collects the saris at his shop and transports them home every month. Pointing to a framed picture of his parents, he adds, "My father did this for almost 50 years. He came across some of the greatest finds in his time and even donated a couple of garments to the Raja Kelkar Museum."

After the borders are separated, More heads to his "workshop" in Hadapsar, in the outskirts of the city, for the actual work. "I put the bundle of sari borders in a pot and heat it. The cloth turns into ash and the silver is left behind. We then re-heat the silver and make small chunks and sell it to jewellers. The silver from those days was 99.9 per cent pure, unlike what is sold today," says More.

Back in Bohri Ali, Bafna admits to the fear that his business might eventually take a hit. "No one makes these kinds of saris anymore... it is a dying business. I don't think my children will join it," says Bafna with a sigh.

(*Names changed on request)

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