Though sales at Dhaka's Mirpur Benarasi Palli rev up every year during Ramadan, this is not happening this Ramadan in an unprecedented turn of events.
The outlets usually see extra demand for sarees in winter with more weddings than at other times. Traders said their sales also go up during Ramadan before Eid.
According to the Benarasi Palli Shop Owners Association, the traditional Palli at Mirpur has at least 140 shops which provide a livelihood to 15,000 people including weavers, artisans, salesmen and entrepreneurs.
The coronavirus pandemic has made matters even worse for people who have been totally jobless during the nearly two-month long shutdown. Entrepreneurs with a huge sales slump are also in trouble. Their concern is overshadowed by the prospect of bank loan repayments.
Mohsin Hossain, managing partner of Maisha Benarasi House, said the fashion house was launched five years ago with a Tk60 lakh investment. They are yet to repay Tk20 lakh to the bank.
"I could not pay the installment in April and the bank requested me to pay by June. But the prolonged crisis has worsened the situation for us," he added.
On a visit to the outlet on Thursday, this correspondent saw only a single customer who came to buy a three-piece from the fashion house.
Like Maisha Benarasi House, most of the houses rely on bank loans for working capital – to pay rent, salaries and raw material purchase. They repay the banks after the winter and Eid sales, and have enough saved to carry on business the next season.
"It is a frequent and continuous process. Businessmen take loans and repay continuously. But shop owners with more loans are in a tight spot this time," said Asir Ahmed, proprietor of Mahmuda Saree House.
Benarasi Palli has become widely known for its wedding saree collection over the years, especially in winter. Eid is another peak season of business here.
It is a place where people can find a variety of Katan sarees at a wide price range.
Besides, various types of silk sarees, jamdani, georgette, cotton sarees and three pieces are also available at the outlets in the area ranging in price from Tk500 to Tk30,000.
"Winter and Eid are our two peak seasons of business. Winter is the season of weddings when demand of sarees goes high," said Md Hanif, owner of Hanif Silk and, also the convener of the Mirpur Benarasi Primary Weavers Association.
"Our annual turnover is more than Tk250 crore here while Eid and winter sales cover 50 percent of the business," he added.
Showroom owners at the Palli said Eid sales amount to Tk35-40 crore. But the businessmen are bracing for a complete loss this Ramadan in an extraordinary turn of events due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mohsin of Maisha House said they alone had sales worth around Tk15 lakh last Eid.
"But this year the sales will not even be 10 percent of that in the previous year. We opened the shop only to manage the staff salary," he added.
Saiful Islam, managing partner of Great Benarasi, said, "The virus has even started eating up our capital."
Saiful said the entire Palli had been witnessing a slump in sales as more and more people are going to India for Eid shopping. The virus situation may be the final nail in the coffin.
Salesmen at the Palli normally get Tk5,000-20,000 monthly salaries, but the outlets have been able to pay them only partially amid the pandemic. Some said they were yet to get April salaries, let alone Eid bonus.
Mirpur weavers, artisans in stress
Muslims who migrated from Banaras, or Varanasi, to Bangladesh during the partition in 1947 have been making Benarasi Katan saris in the Mirpur area of Dhaka since the 1950s.
Today the Katan industry is still being carried on by the camp-based Urdu speaking people of Dhaka.
According to the Mirpur Benarasi Primary Weavers Association, there are 1,500 weavers who have 6,000 handlooms at the camp areas. Around 12,000 artisans are involved in designing those products made with handlooms.
The sarees available at the Palli are not only made by local weavers, but also come from Narsingdi, Tangail, Bogura and Pabna.
Local people claim that the number of the weavers is gradually declining as cheap and machine-made products from India flood the Bangladeshi market. The pandemic-induced shutdown has worsened the situation for weavers and artisans.
Abdur Razzak, an artisan of the area, said he has had no work for the last three months. "One month prior to the shutdown, the order for sarees stopped. Now I am in trouble with my six family members."
Another weaver Md Rafique claimed they did not get any relief during the shutdown. He said that even the state-owned Bangladesh Handloom Board did not help them.
When contacted, the chairman of the board, Shah Alam, said, "We have informed the higher authorities about the problems of the weavers. As we do not have any mechanism of relief operation, we have sent the list of weavers to the concerned authorities."