The legendary weaves of Bengal

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Bengal has always been famous for its fine muslins and silks. Some of the lost weaves are now being revived, thanks to the efforts of designers and local craftsmen who are blending the traditional with the modern to create innovative fabrics, saris and stoles to cater to modern taste.

Colonial wars have been waged over silks and chintz in addition to spices and gems from India, and undivided Bengal was known particularly for its textiles.

Records prove that the fine muslin and silks of the region were so famed that these were big items of trade among foreign merchants. From William Dalrymple’s latest book ‘The Anarchy’, we learn that “with its myriad weavers – 25, 000 in Dhaka alone – and unrivalled luxury textile production of silks and woven muslins of fabulous delicacy, it was by the end of the seventeenth century Europe’s single most important supplier of goods in Asia and much the wealthiest region of the Mughal Empire.”

Bengal was particularly known for its muslin, which was said to be so fine that it could pass through a ring! And the jamdani work – Persian in origin – on muslin was much sought after. Even today super fine handloom saris or Taant, in addition to Dhakai jamdani saris, with its geometric patterns, is what the state is known for, even if the name Dhakai is today a bit of a misnomer.

Kantha embroidery on sari;

Cotton is the most preferred fabric for hand-woven saris because of the state’s sultry weather. Then there are the Baluchari and the Swarnachuri silk saris. Silks are reserved for special occasions such as weddings and festivities and the fleeting winters. However, in keeping with modern tastes and requirements, Bengal saris today have gone through various blends of threads, design innovations, colour combinations and are embellished with block prints, batik, zari work, hand-painted (Madhubani motifs), and even embroidery, the most famed being the Kantha. This fusion is so popular that we now have combinations of Taant Benarasi or matka muslin or silk saris with jute which is further combined with cotton or silks threads.

The matka silk is today another favoured fabric. This is the rough fabric made from the waste of the mulberry silk, without removing it sericin. Usually obtained from outside the state, the spinning is mostly done in the two districts of Malda and Murshidabad in West Bengal. Giccha silk, again is a yarn that is obtained from cocoons of silkworms which do not get included in the process of spinning of the tussar.

Abstract jamdani work on tussar

Tussar is another much in demand fabric, for its understated elegance. If fabrics are blended with silk, cotton or even viscose, it is sometimes difficult to gauge the absolute purity of a sari, but the overall design and look of the sari win over anything else. Like in its neighbouring state Bihar and more importantly in Bhagalpur, where we also have a variety of tussar, obtained from the larvae of various kinds of silk worms, Bengal too now makes use of these yarns to mix and match. For the present generation of weavers, the Internet has opened up newer designs and for those sari designers working in Bengal, any yarn is good enough for their creativity. So khadi, linen – obtained from flax plants, is another sought after fabric.

Today, muslin weaving has been revived thanks to the individual efforts of those connected with the promotion of art and craft in the state. So where does it leave the other traditional weaves of Bengal such as Taant, Baluchari, Dhakai (known here as Tangail jamdani) , Bishnupuri and Murshidabadi silks? To understand Bengal handloom, we must travel back in time to the once undivided state.

Tangail saris of Phulia

The district of Tangail, near about Dhaka in undivided Bengal, was known for what is broadly categorised as Tangail saris, woven by talented weavers. The very soft cotton weaves had borders and butis all over the body that were woven with silk thread and sometimes, with zari. Various indigenous motifs such as conch shells, birds, fish, flowers, and stars and moon, were common. After partition, Nadia district saw large influx of refugee Hindu weavers, settling down in Phulia or Fulia, to weave the same type of saris. Another area within this same district, Shantipur, already had a great tradition of sari weaving under Mughal patronage. The Neelambari sari with its special navy blue and silver zari borders spun here were much sought after by the aristocratic women. Bethuadahari is another place within Nadia district that today is synonymous with tussar weaving.

In the Hooghly district of Dhanekhali, the cotton weaves are thick in nature and of solid colours with ‘ansh paar’ resembling fish scale and wider borders. Another village in the same district of Hooghly, Begumpur, is a well-known weaving centre also known for its particular type of warp and weft weaving.

Traditional design in batik silk

Jamdani work

The finely woven lightweight muslin, mostly cotton, however, is what legends were made of, its reputation travelling beyond the shores of the country.

The muslin has received a revival of sorts in West Bengal. Daccai muslin jamdani which are products of Bangladesh have been re-invented in this state as saris, which combine three features: a blend of muslin and sometimes matka threads, and hand-woven or hand-embroidered jamdani motifs. These have resulted in some ethereal looking saris in soft pastel shades. Depending on the amount of work and time taken, a sari is priced. However, it must be mentioned here that well-known designers of the country have their own set of dedicated weavers who are adept at jamdani weaving anywhere in the country, to produce specially designed high-end saris or other items of fashion accessories like scarves and stoles.

Taant or cotton tangail sari

Baluchari and Swarnachuri

More to the north of the state, Murshidabad was once the capital of the three states of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries under the patronage of Muslim rulers. But even before that it was a great centre of weaving under the Malla kings. Later the centre of weaving moved to Bishnupur in Bankura district, known for its terracotta temples. Baluchar was a village in Murshidabad on the banks of River Bhagirathi. But shifting sands and flooding of the village displaced the weavers. The art of weaving such saris then shifted to Bishnupur.

This special craft of weaving mythical figures on its borders and pallus on traditional looms received a death blow under the British, who in a bid to encourage mill-made textiles from England, squeezed the weavers out. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that the weaving of Baluchari saris was revived, with the introduction of jacquard looms. These looms make the production of a sari less laborious and quicker.

The Baluchari sari is known for their resham or silk motifs of entire stories out of Hindu mythologies woven on its borders and pallu. Chapters from Ramayan and Mahabharat are the most popular. For those not preferring these motifs, the paisley is the most common motif.

The making of motifs for the borders and pallu is an elaborate process. The design is first drawn on a graph paper and then coloured and punched onto the cards. After punching they are sewn in order and fixed into the jacquard loom.
The Swarnachuri saris are woven with silver and gold threads, especially the mythological motifs and if a meenakari effect is desired, coloured thread are interspersed to give that definitive enamelled look. Depending on the work and quality of the silk threads, the price is fixed, usually on the higher side.

Manjira Majumdar in a handloom sari

Bishnupuri silk is another of Bengal’s handloom specialities. Again patronised by ancient rulers, The East India Company at one time, sourced its silk dress materials and scarves from here. The super fine silk thread is not produced here but procured from Malda and Murshidabad. These saris as woven here are extremely light-weight and comfortable to wear. Earlier floral designs were common. But newer and smarter designs, mostly in block prints, in beautiful colour combinations are in vogue in place of older designs.

Block Print

Block printed saris are always liked for their summery feel and it is an ancient craft, whereby there are various kinds block printing techniques typical of various regions within the country. Stretching from ajrakh to bagru to bandhni and kalamkari, every region in the country has its own designs, which are carved into wooded blocks and then dipped into colour to be pressed onto the fabric.

Baluchari sari border with Ramayan motif

In Bengal too, there have been a great tradition of block printing, especially in Bardhaman and Serampore; the latter which saw the first printing press set up by an Englishman William Carey, a Baptist reformer. His mission was to print the Bible into Bengali among other things. At that time, Serampore, then known as Fredriksnagar, was under the Danes. Alongside paper printing, textile printing was first introduced here. The printed fabrics commanded a great market all over the world in the nineteenth century. Today, contemporary designs are block printed on all kinds of saris, both silk and cottons, in traditional and modern motifs.

Batik

Batik printing which is derived from Indonesia is a very ancient technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to handloom fabric. In Viswa Bharati Shantiniketan, a two-year certification course is imparted to learn the history, and several of the students work as textile designers later to bring newer batik designs into batik silks. Therefore, Shantiniketan has emerged as an important hub of batik printing like some other parts of India, namely Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. Batik silk saris, once prized, have also made a comeback in Bengal in newer designs. But what Shatiniketan has of late captured the imagination is with the hand-embroidered Kantha saris. The simple stitch of kantha has been elevated to an exalted status through exquisite designs.

Batik with fine kantha stitch

Though Kantha saris can be made by women anywhere, Murshidabad being another important hub, the Shantiniketani Kantha has acquired a different status through some beautiful colour, thread combinations and effects. From its humble origin of stitching light quilts of castaway cotton, with naksha or patterns, the Kantha sari has evolved into a high fashion statement today. The making of Kantha sari has become a cottage industry of sorts in and around Shantiniketan and Bardhaman district.

The beauty of kantha is that the women sometimes just embroider without pencil drawing or tracing the designs. Embroidered on tussar or Karnataka silk, the designs can be bright or understated in keeping with ancient motifs of flowers, leaves and birds.

Block printed saris are liked for their summery feel

A hand-crafted sari is much in demand today though mill-made saris have flooded the market for its competitive pricing, durability and easy to wear and maintain, by working women. In the process a number of Indian weaves are getting lost until revived by modern textile designers.

On August 7, way back in 1905, several prominent freedom fighters initiated the Swadeshi movement advocating the boycotting of mill made yarns and favour indigenous products. Keeping this in mind, in 2015, the same day was declared as National Handloom Day to encourage handloom products.

In Bengal as elsewhere, however, the new generation of weavers are unwilling to continue with the laborious process of hand weaving a sari and rue the price of raw materials. Yet the silver lining is that several young designers and women entrepreneurs are dipping into our rich legacy of reviving our old designs and in trying to replicate them in some way or the other. Women co-operatives with the aid of government funds have seen the rise of Self Help Groups. The story of middlemen eating away at profits often prompt weavers to move to other means of livelihood but in most cases, a greater majority cling on as weaving is the only skill they have. With demands from e-commerce portals, there is a demand of Bengal saris today.

Do rookha, where both sides can be worn, Ganga Jamuna meaning borders of two contrasting colours, the half and half patterns, patli pallu are a fascinating tale of rich heritages and fine craftsmanship in sari weaving. From Chanderi to Paithani to Kanjeevaram and hundreds of others in-between, such as Benarasi, Mooga, Gadwal, Ikat, it would take more than this space to cover the entire range of regional weaves, divided into further smaller towns and villages.

Tussar with print and zari border

With revivals and experimentations going on, and with the hope that more private capital will be pumped in, Bengal weaves are an important addition to the list of Indian weaves; to be showcased and preserved.


Manjira Majumdar

Having worked as a full-time journalist, Manjira Majumdar today is an independent journalist combining writing with part-time college teaching and media advocacy. She is also the author of 3 children’s books: Ten of Us, The Story of Anjana and Ghost Stories from Bengal & Beyond.

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