Monday, November 30, 2009

A thought to the weavers of dreams

Shantaram’s eyes were weary. But he couldn't’t suppress the proud smile on his face. A masterpiece all the way, he thought to himself giving the six-yard wrap one last look. A brush of colour, a touch of tradition and an entire year of laborious craftsmanship... the meticulous weaves had finally taken shape. And it had been worth all the days of working round the clock for Shantaram’s family. After tying the knots on warp and weft threads, dyeing, colouring, weaving and finishing, the beautiful Benarasi Saree was ready. Thus starts an epic novel on the hand loom weavers of the most sought after Saree in the world - The Benarasi..

Often referred to as Benares, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together".Benaras or Varanasi has the pride of being the one of the most famous Hand loom centers in the entire world. In fact it is among the few centers in the world that has painstakingly preserved the ancient tradition of hand weaving. The silk used for the saris was historically imported from China. Several first-millennium Buddhist texts mention Benaras fabrics, giving the indication that Benaras has been the center of fine textile weaving for at least two millennia. The earliest mention of the brocade and zari textiles of Banaras is found in the 19th century. With the migration of silk weavers from Gujarat during the famine of 1603, it is likely that silk brocade weaving started in Banaras in the seventeenth century and developed in excellence during the 18th and 19th century. During the Mughal period, around 14th century, weaving of brocades with intricate designs using gold and silver threads became the specialty of Benaras.

Benarasi silk saris are traditionally made in four varieties:
Katan (pure silk)
organza (Kora)
Georgette sari
Shatir sari.

Traditional designs of the brocade include jasmine (chameli), thousand emeralds (panna hazar), marigolds (gendabuti), betel nut leaves (paan buti), diagonal stripes (tircha) and the corner motif with a mango flower (konia). Originally the saris were embellished with threads made from real gold and silver for use by the royal family. In modern times, this has been replaced by gold- and silver-colored thread, making the saris affordable for the general population.

Making it affordable for the masses has also led to cheap imitations flooding the market, the power loom capturing the weaver's hand loom, rendering the rich traditional obsolete and endangered.
In a bare village work shed a man sits quietly working on a loom. Look closer and you notice that he is actually sitting in a pit dug into the earthen floor. Hari Ram is middle-aged, non-descript but his fingers weave magic as he works the traditional l pit-loom. A length of pink silk slowly emerges, shimmering with gold threads worked in elaborate mango motifs. He is weaving the traditional Benarasi saree for a bride to wear at her wedding. This silk is the stuff of dreams, of dowries, of rituals and sacred traditions. today thousands of Benaras weavers like Ram have little work and it fetches a pittance. Kumaoli village, where Ram lives, once had 70 looms. Today, there are four left. In dozens of villages around the holy city hand looms lie dismantled, broken, decaying. The women and men who worked the looms have now been forced into manual work to survive.
How did things come to such a pass? A fatal combination of mechanisation, computerisation and globalisation has ruined the hand loom work of Benaras. Traditionally, people here wove only silk. Mulberry silk yarn was sourced from distant Karnataka and processed by weaver families in and around Benaras who used it to weave silk, brocade, tissue, crepe, organza and other fine materials on their hand looms. Traders from the city would come to the weaver families to buy their products. The weaver could command a decent price for his labour.
Then came the power loom. Many rich traders set up power looms and copied the traditional Benarasi designs. A power loom can churn out in one day a saree that may take a weaver 10 days to make on a hand loom. Power loom sarees are light weight and cheaper and most customers cannot tell the difference between power loom and hand loom fabric.

A dying art, an incomplete trousseau! There are organizations in support of this art, a movement that has started to protect and cultivate this rich heritage of India. This is a tribute to the craftsman, to the wonder of an age old tradition, to a movement that is forming to bring back a dying art. Let's not blindly buy imitations when the originals are not only priceless for our wardrobes but also ensuring that a weaver's family gets his due!!

The current scernario has the Human Welfare Association (HWA) demanding a separate ministry for the handloom sector. Arguing for the aggressive promotion of the Handloom Cluster Development and Handloom Mark and Silkmark schemes as well as Geographical Indicator protection for Benaras handlooms. HWA has organised public protest by weavers, burning Chinese silk and demanding a ban on dumping.

HWA also started the Taana Baana cooperative which provides livelihood to over a thousand weaver families, helping them with credit, design development and marketing support, as well as alternative income generating opportunities. It has a small retail outlet in Sarnath and a turnover of Rs. 70 lakh. But, given the scale of distress among the weavers, Taana Baana is at best a demonstration of what needs to be done for the industry as a whole.

Posted by Sujata

Monday, November 23, 2009

Paithani Weave Of Maharashtra

56 kms south of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, on the banks of river Godavari, there is a small town called Paithan.

The town was the capital of the Satavahana empire that ruled the Southern and Central India more than 2000 years ago. And here, during that time, some weavers started creating poetry on silk which came to be known as Paithani.

The artisans would draw threads from pure gold and silver and intricately weave them with gossamer silk threads. The fabric thus created would be so dazzling that it inspired awe in everyone. The Greeks mentioned the silk of Paithan in their records. This precious fabric used to be imported to many countries in exchange of gold and other precious metals and stones by Ancient Indian rulers. Originally meant for the women of the royal household, the Paithani silk sari was the most coveted garment of those times.

2000 years later, sheer dedication of the weavers has kept the Paithani weave still alive in India. Though not drawn from real gold anymore, expensive zari (gold or silver yarn wrapped over polyester yarn) threads, procured from Gujarat and the best quality silk from South India are intricately woven together to create the magical Paithani saris that continue to mesmerize Indian women.

The weavers use the traditional wooden looms. Multiple spindles are used to produce a linear design. The weavers count the threads of the wrap for each part of the pattern and using tiny pins, interlock the silk or gold threads on the weft. The borders have creeper or floral designs. The pallav (the end of the sari) is woven in gold and the patterns are created in silk. Distinctive motifs such as stars, peacocks, mangoes, flowers, petals and coconuts are woven on the pallav.

Weaving Paithani is time consuming. The simplest of the saris take at least a month to complete. The more ornate ones take around three months. The skill has been passed on from father to son for generations. The weaving involves minute detailing and is stressful to the eyes. But the weavers are extremely dedicated to their craft and they toil for months to create exquisite patterns and designs.

A Paithani is expensive and why not...a Paithani is almost like an heirloom. It gets passed on to the daughter from the mother in most Marathi families. The sari is precious not only for the intricate weave of pure silk and gold but also for it's significant role in the culture of Maharashtra. Wearing the Paithani, is almost like wearing a 2000 year old heritage of this glorious country.

Pictures Courtesy: Mangalam Sarees
                             Palavi Handcrafts
                             Google Images


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Xewali / Shewali : Edible flower in Assamese cuisine (Night Flowering Jasmine)

Xewali phool or the Night-flowering Jasmine (scientific name:Nyctanthes arbor-tristis) is used widely in Assamese cuisine not only because of it's availability but also because of it's various medicinal properties. Assamese cuisine is fascinating to me because of it's inclusion of various herbs and greens-some of which are unique in characteristic.

In this post i am focusing the use of this flower which highlights the folk medicine culture in our food habits ....if somebody is interested an expert advice is suggested.Like many traditional Assamese household we too have this small tree or shrub right in front of our house.
The flower contains five to eight petals and a bright reddish orange centre,it is highly fragrant,if you pick the flowers your hands smell good for a very long time.One interesting fact about them is that they bloom only at night time as you can see here in these pictures.I took two shots one at day time where you can see many buds and another at night when you can clearly see the blooms.As soon as the first rays of sunlight hit them they fall ,it is a beautiful sight when you see a lovely and sweet smelling white carpet of Khewali-phool first thing in the is always rush hour for me at that time so could not manage one picture of the same.My mom-in-law and my kids collect the fallen flowers in a plate , some of which are offered to God later and most of it goes straight to the kitchen.Unlike other flowers this flower can be offered to God even if they are collected from the earth(or are fallen ).
One very interesting mythological story is attached to it...Lord Krishna brought this heavenly flower to earth ,now both of his wives Rukmini and Satyabhama wanted it to be planted at their own courtyard.Krishna solved the tiff between the two by strategically planting it at Satyabhama's courtyard so that the flowers always fell on Rukmini's courtyard.Now coming to its medicinal properties... many believe that it is a very safe de toxifying agent ,we also use decotation of its leaves for low grade fevers and body aches,many use the paste of leaves to the skin as it is believed to help in certain skin conditions.Pramathesh informed me that it is consumed empty stomach in the morning as an anti malarial agent.It is also used as a very safe purgative for kids and helps in relieving dry cough,faintness .I love it because of its unique flavour and can compare it very little to the flavor of Jasmine tea.
I admit that when for the very first time it was served to me i was scared to try it out but others assured me that i need not fear and must try it...and i did.I love it for its unique flavour and is prepared in various ways as i am a vegetarian i like this RICE-VERSION...where flowers are added to pre-cooked rice and fried together ,very less oil and no other spices except for turmeric and salt is used here to preserve its aroma and flavor.Assamese food is served in courses,so it is always served first because of its slight bitter taste,it is also termed as TEETA-BHAAT(bitter-rice) .Another very popular variation is FISH CURRY by adding these flowers ...loved by my kids and other family members.

A special thanks to Pramathesh and his friends from the office who helped me know the scientific name of this flower.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Indian Saree

The Sari, it is said, was born on the loom of a fanciful weaver. He dreamt of a woman. The shimmer of her tears, the drape of her tumbling hair, the colors of her many moods, the softness of her touch. All these he wove together. He couldn't stop. He wove for many yards. And when he was done, the story goes, he sat back and smiled and smiled and smiled".

Friends, let me tell you the tale of the Indian Sari, the 9 yards of unstiched cloth that graces the feminine figure with ardour across our country and even at times on the international ramps.The etymology of the word sari is from the Sanskrit word 'sati', which means strip of cloth. This evolved into the Prakrit 'sadi' and was later anglicised into sari. There is ample evidence of the sari in the earliest examples of Indian art. Sculptures from the Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta schools (1st- 6th century AD), suggest that the sari in its earlier form was a briefer garment, with a veil, and usually no discernable bodice.
There are also several references to the fact that in Southern part of India the sari had been for a long time one piece of material that served as both skirt and veil, leaving the bosom bare.
In North Indian miniature paintings, (particularly Jain, Rajasthani and Pahari schools from the 13th to the 19th centuries) the sari consisted of the diaphanous skirt and an equally diaphanous veil draped over a tiny bodice.

Gradually this skirt and veil were amalgamated into one garment, but when and how this happened is not precisely clear. One theory, not fully substantiated, is that the style was created by Noor Jahan (d. 1645) wife of the Mughal emperor Jehangir (reigned. 1605-27). Perhaps it would be more accurate to speculate that the confrontation between the two cultures, Islamic and Hindu, led the comparatively relaxed Hindus to develop a style that robed the person more discreetly and less precariously.Indian civilization has always placed a tremendous importance on unstitched fabrics like the sari and dhoti, which are given sacred overtones. The belief was that such a fabric was pure; perhaps because in the distant past needles of bone were used for stitching. Hence even to the present day, while attending pujas or other sacred ceremonies, the men dress up in dhotis while women wear the sari. Thus even though the different waves of Islamic expansion (13th - 19th century AD) resulted in new versions of stitched garments, the primacy of the sari and its gently changing form couldn't be changed. Even today, when the Islam influenced Salwar-kameez (loose trousers with a tunic) is an increasingly popular garment, the Sari continues to hold its sway. The flow it confers to the natural contours of the female form enhances the gracefulness of the fairer sex, as no other apparel can.
In the following posts on this page we shall continue to bring forth the various weaves, textiles and drape forms of the saree as is worn in the different parts of our country.

The images used in this post are courtesy Paintings of Raja Ravi Varma and also copies of folklore paintings from India.

Posted by Sujata

Monday, November 2, 2009

Phulkari - the embroidery of Punjab

Folk embroidery is one of the most enriching part of the craft heritage of India. Some time back I had written about Kantha, the needle craft of Bengal. This post, I will show case the Phulkari, which literally means the flower craft, of Punjab, one of our most vibrant states.

The origin of Phulkari can be traced to 15th century A.D. The women of Punjab, stitched beautiful dupattas or head scarves for their daughters or the brides of their sons. The cloth primarily used for these shawls or head scarves was home-spun and dyed locally. This strong and long lasting material was cheap and also kept the wearer warm during the bitter cold winters. As the embroidery required counting of threads while doing the straight darn stitches, the coarse weave of the fabric made the task easier.

As these scarves were meant for brides, the base material was generally maroon, scarlet and other red toned   bright colours. The thread, which was silk, were yellow, golden or green.These threads, also called pat were brought from Bengal or Kashmir. Motifs were taken from every day life. Flowers were  the most common pattern. But so were stars, birds, specially peacocks, animals, and scenes from everyday  village life. Intricate geometric patterns were also rather popular.

The Phulkari embroidery is done by straight darn stitches. The stitches are actually worked on the wrong side of the cloth. The pattern takes shape on the right side. The main surface of the stitches are about a quarter or half centimetre long while they are very minute on the reverse. Using long and short darn stitches, women create innumerable designs. Shading and variation are achieved by expertly using horizontal, vertical or diagonal stitches. This gives the illusion of more than one shade when viewed from different angles.

Earlier, the women never traced any patterns on the cloth. They just carefully counted the stitches to create a design. In the absence of a traced pattern, the designs generally passed on from mothers to daughters. Along with the daily chores, a daughter learned phulkari from her mother and contributed to her wedding trousseau.This embroidery was such an integral part of the women of Punjab that one reads or hears of many folklores and songs describe the joys, dreams and yearnings of young girls while embroidering Phulkari.

This craft was never meant for commercial purpose. A Phulkari embroidered shawl was considered to be a gift for young brides. But now this art thrives as cottage industry. There is a decline in Phulkaris embroidered at home. Now, many men have learned this craft and sell Phulkari embroidered bedspreads and curtains, cushion covers and wall hangings. Now Phulkaris are also done on sarees and kurtas and machine embroidered Phulkari dupattas are readily available in the markets at cheaper prices. This obviously has harmed the skilled Phulkari workers. But most importantly, a mother's love for her daughter, which was so painstakingly expressed in the hand crafted designs, has gone completely.

Bride Photograph courtesy:

Posted By Aparna