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The Tradition of Textiles in India

 

India has a diverse and rich textile tradition. The origin of Indian textiles can be traced to the Indus valley civilization. The people of that civilization used homespun cotton for weaving their garments. Excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, have unearthed household items like needles made of bone and wooden spindles, suggesting that the people would spin cotton at home to make yarn and finally garments. Fragments of woven cotton have also been found at these sites.

The first literary information about textiles in India is available in the RigVeda, which refers to weaving. The ancient Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata mention a variety of fabrics in vogue during those times. The Ramayana refers to the rich garments worn by the aristocracy, and the simple clothes worn by the commoners and ascetics.

Information about ancient textiles of India can also be garnered from the various sculptures belonging to the Mauryan and the Gupta ages as well as from ancient Buddhist scripts and murals. Legends say that when Amrapali, a courtesan who lived in the kingdom of Vaishali (in present day Bihar), went to meet Gautama the Buddha, she was attired in a richly woven sari, which testifies to the technical achievements of the ancient Indian weaver.

India had numerous trade links with the outside world and Indian textiles were popular in other countries of the ancient world. Indian silk was popular in Rome in the early centuries of the Christian era. Several fragments of cotton fabrics from Gujarat have been found in the tombs at Fostat (older areas of Cairo city, the country’s capital). Cotton textiles were also exported to China during the heydays of the silk route.

Silk fabrics from south India were exported to Indonesia during the 13th century. India also exported printed cotton fabrics / chintz to Europe and the Asian countries like China, Java and the Philippines, long before the arrival of the Europeans.

In the 13th century, Indian silk was used as barter for precious commodities from the western countries. Towards the end of the 17th century, the British East India Company traded in Indian cotton and silk fabrics which included the famous Dacca (Bengal) muslin besides substantial quantities of the same fabric made in Bihar and Orissa. The past traditions of the textile and handlooms is still discernible in the motifs, patterns, designs, and weaving techniques, employed by the weavers even today.

Surat in Gujarat was one of the oldest centres of trade in cotton textiles. This textile reached Surat from different parts of India which would be sent back after processing (refining, dyeing, stain removing etc).

Manufacturing of cotton and silk fabrics was the main industry in Surat, which attracted the Dutch as well as the English in the 17th century. During the 16th century, there was a vast market for textiles of Surat in South-East Asia, the Gulf countries and East Africa. During the Mughal period, products like pagdi (turban/headgear) made with golden thread, cloth for sashes and veils, were very well-known.


 
Chintz was a painted or stained calico cloth (Calico is a fabric made from unbleached, often not fully processed, cotton) printed with flowers and other devices in different colours. It was a popular choice for bed covers, quilts and draperies. During the 17th and 18th centuries it was imported to Europe and later produced there. Initially Europeans reproduced Indian designs, gradually adding original patterns.
 
   
Long-cloth was also painted in a similar fashion. With the help of wooden blocks, beautiful designs and motifs were printed on cloth. Owing to its ideal location on the river bank, bleaching of cloth was developed as a specialized occupation in Surat.
 
   
The crowning glory of Indian textiles was Kinkhab or 'Brocade'. This is a fabric woven out of silver threads, which makes it very expensive. The thread is drawn out of silver and then plated with gold. Therefore, the expensive dresses made with brocade are meant only for special occasions – weddings, religious rituals and ceremonies, attending of durbars or royal courts and such like. For the Mughals this fabric epitomized the refined taste and the high level of indulgence.
 
   
The literal meaning of Kinkhab is ‘less dream'. Owing to the high content of silver and gold threads, the texture becomes abrasive to the skin which makes one almost sleepless and hence few or less dreams. The brocade became a rage among the early European settlers in India.

An interesting but little-known fact about brocade is that it is woven keeping its reverse side on the loom. To ensure the accuracy of design, a mirror is placed below it. Despite its cost, a large variety of colour combinations, designs and motifs, has made brocade a fairly popular fabric.
 
   
The textile known as Patola forms the traditional garb of a Gujarati bride. The term 'Patola' is derived from the Sanskrit word pattal (a spindle shaped gourd). Patan in Gujarat is famous for the manufacture of Patola. Its technique is also complicated. The weft and the warp are dyed separately, before weaving, according to the selected design.

Thereafter, as the weaving takes place, exact intended designs emerge. Because of its complicated manufacturing process, very few designs are available and the Patola are classified according to the designs like Wadi Bhaff which has a flowering creeper motif or 'Nari-Kunjar' in which motifs of female figures and elephants appear. The colours used in the Patola of Patan are so fast that a Patola may get torn or worn out but its design would never fade. It indeed takes a very long time to manufacture a Patola, which makes it very expensive.

A specimen of Patola art
   
The double Ikat Patola originated in Gujarat, Orissa and Pochampalli in Andhra Pradesh. The double Ikat Patola from Orissa and Patan in Gujarat require very intricate weaving. Prices can be astronomical, because a Patola is valued for the purity of its silk.
 
   
Tanchoi was brought to India from China by the three (Parsi) brothers named Choi, who settled down in Surat to evolve a unique fabric - a harmonious blend of Indian and Chinese styles. According to a connoisseur, “The tanchoi is a densely patterned heavy fabric with no floats on the reverse; the unused threads are woven into the foundation at the back.

Traditionally the face of the fabric has a satin weave ground (warp threads) with small patterns made by the weft threads, repeated over the entire surface.” The designs are usually found interspersed with bands usually on grounds shaded bright blue, purple, green or red. Flying birds, paired cocks and floral sprays between these from the usual uncluttered patterns, while the pallu is filled with the design from edge to edge, usually figuring peacocks, and baskets of flowers, sometimes even hunting scenes.

Tanchoi,a precious fabric
   
The Baluchari saree is native to the town of Baluchar in Bengal. It was way back in 1704 A.D that the first Baluchar weaving took place. At one stage no gold or silver thread was used in the making of the fabric. The important feature is the white outlining of the motifs like animals, vegetation, miniscule images of human beings, vignettes from the Ramayana, marriage processions, brides in palanquins, horse riders ethnic musicians to name a few. Nowadays Baluchari style sarees are woven using highly mercerised cotton thread and silky threadwork ornament in bold colors. The cloth is very fine with a soft drape.

Shantipuri saris are named after the village of Shantipur in Nadia District of West Bengal, which is inextricably linked with the “Vaishnava” culture propagated by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. These saris have an exceedingly smooth texture and lend at touch of sophistication to the wearer.

The origin of the word Jamdani is uncertain. According to a popular version, it came from the Persian words jama (cloth) and dana (diapering). In other words Jamdani basically denotes diapered cloth. Another version holds that in Persian the word jam meaning flower and dani a vase or container.


A typical Baluchari saree

   
The earliest mention of Jamdani and its development as an industry is to be found in Kautilya's Arthashashtra (book of economics) wherein it is stated that this fine cloth used to be made in Bengal and Pundra (parts of modern Bangladesh). Jamdani is also mentioned in the book of Periplus of the Eritrean Sea and in the accounts of Arab, Chinese and Italian travelers and traders.

The base fabric for Jamdani is unbleached cotton yarn and the design is woven using bleached cotton yarns so that a light-and-dark effect is created. Alexander the Great in 327 B.C mentions “beautiful printed cottons” in India. It is believed that the erstwhile Roman emperors paid fabulous sums for the prized Indian cotton.

The dominant feature of the jamdani is its magnificent design which is essentially Persian in spirit. The method of weaving resembles tapestry work in which small shuttles of coloured, gold or silver threads, are passed through the weft. The jamdani dexterously combines intricate surface designs with delicate floral sprays. When the surface is covered with superb diagonally striped floral sprays, the sari is called terchha. The anchal (the portion that goes over and beyond the shoulder) is often decorated with dangling, tassel like corner motifs, known as jhalar.


Jamdani- the dream fabric

   
The most coveted design is known as the panna hazaar (literally: a thousand emeralds) in which the floral pattern is highlighted with flowers interlaced like jewels by means of gold and silver thread. The kalka (paisley), whose origin may be traced to the painted manuscripts of the Mughal period, has emerged as a highly popular pattern. Yet another popular pattern in jamdani is the phulwar, usually worked on pure black, blue black, grey or off-white background colours.

The traditional nilambari, dyed with indigo, or designs such as toradar (literally: a bunch or bouquet) preserved in weaving families over generations are now being reproduced. Other jamdani patterns are known as phulwar, usually worked on pure black, blue black, grey or off-white background colours.

For traditional jamdani weaving, a very elementary pit loom is used and the work is carried on by the weaver and his apprentice. The latter works under instruction for each pick, weaving his needle made from, buffalo horn or tamarind wood to embroider the floral sequence. With a remarkable deftness, the weft yarn is woven into the warp in the background colour from one weaver to the other.

The butis (motifs) across the warp, the paar (border) and anchal (the portion that goes over and beyond the shoulder) are woven by using separate bobbins of yarn for each colour. The fine bobbins are made from tamarind wood or bamboo. After completion the cloth is washed and starched.

Jamdani, because of its intricate patterns, has always been a highly expensive product. According to historical accounts, Jamdanis custom made for the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century cost over thirty pounds; evidently the jamdani fabric was essentially meant only for the affluent nobility, in those days.

The region in and around Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) became synonymous with this wonder fabric. Trading accounts reveal how the Jamdani travelled to the courts of the Mughals in the 15th - 16th century period. For the Mughals it was fashioned into elaborate angarkhas (upper garment/shirt) worn by both men and women; it also travelled from Dhaka through Agra, to Bukhara, Samarkand and other parts of West Asia. In the centuries that followed Jamdani was procured European export companies which retailed it in cites like Hamburg, London, Madrid, Copenhagen and so forth.

There is historical evidence that Himroo style of shawl weaving was brought to Aurangabad (in Maharashtra) by the monarch Mohmmad Bin Tughlak when he shifted his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad. The designs for Himroo involved pull the design threads and master weaver has to weave with two - three coloured threads. Aurangabad's Himroo was used by royal families, and it is said that Himroo was sent to royal families in Delhi also. Popular motifs and designs elephant, peacock, parrot, are used abundantly used on these shawls.

 
   
The first Kanjeevaram sari is believed to have been woven around 400 years ago. The origin of this saree can be traced back to the ancient temple town of Kanjeevaram (a.k.a Kanchipuram) in modern Tamil Nadu.

The Kanjeevaram saree is characterised by gold - dipped silver/ pure gold threads that are woven onto rich, beautiful, brilliant silk The borders and the pallus carry ornate zari work. The designs involve vertical and horizontal lines as well as checks. The colours range from vibrant orange to mauve to purple, green, maroon, blue and rust.The heavier the silk, the better the quality of the saree. Peacocks and parrots, swans, mangoes and leaves are the commonest motifs. Another important character of these sarees are the vertical sets of caret (triangular) signs/marks lining the borders; they resemble pinnacles of temples and hence probably the name.

A gorgeous
Kanjeevaram saree
   
Dhonekhali sarees are woven in near opaque white surfaces with contrasting borders in red, black, purple, and orange, emphasized by a serrated edge motif. Gradually the border was broadened to six or even eight inches, and adorned with a variety of stripes in muga (a kind of raw silk, native of Assam) or zari (fine glittery thread of gold or silver and the embroidery made using them). Known as ‘Maatha Paar’ or ‘Beluaari paar’, these borders are often woven in two colours e.g. black and red. Having a tighter weave than the tangail or shantipuri, it is more hardy and durable.

Dhanekhali, a native of Bengal
   
Tangail is a village in Bangladesh. This saree has an unusually fine and smooth texture. There is invariably a pattern running through every alternate weft thread. The borders of traditional tangail sarees displayed motifs such as padma (lotus) pradeep (earthen lamp) and the famous “aansh paar’ (fish scales look). Starting with a single colour on the border, the weavers have begun to use two to three colours to render it a ‘meenakari’ effect. The emphasis is on rich warm colours, both vibrant and muted. The focus is on the anchal (the part that goes over and beyond the shoulder) and the border, which may have alternate lines of contrasting shades with an interplay of small paisley, rosette and geometric designs. Tangail sarees are often highlighted with gold or silver thread, which heightens their elegance.

A pretty tangail saree
   
Tussar (a.k.a Kosa silk), is valued for its purity and texture. It is drawn from cocoons especially grown on arjun, saja or sal trees. Available in natural shades of gold-pale, dark, honey, tawny, beige and cream, Tussar is considered an ideal as well as auspicious wear for marriages, religious ceremonies and other important social functions. (The original rich gold shade Tussar is sometimes dyed, producing colours of a very special hue and depth.)

Earlier only natural dyes were used which included yellow from the palash (flame of the forest) and kusum flowers, red pollen dust of the rora flower and the deep rose red from lac. But with time the range of colour and motifs have increased dramatically. The commonly available shades are Dhaniya (light green), Mas (deep blue), Kariya (black), Anchi (deep purple), Jamalla (purple), Darra (deep rose red), Katha (maroon), Narangi (orange), Rani (deep Indian pink), Phiroza (turquoise) among others.


The resplendent Tussar
   
The Garad is a type of silk traditionally woven in Bengal. It comprises plain red borders set against a smooth natural ground, with widely spaced motifs (generally paisleys) etched diagonally from the lower border to the waist. This is also regarded as one of the most pure fabrics, hence suited for wearing for special occasions and religious ceremonies. Garad is also very expensive, which makes it a highly coveted item.

The Bomkai threadwork from Orissa features ornate borders and heavily embroidered drapes with touches of Ikat work in some instances and are popular with tourists and locals for their ethnic feel and tribal look. With motifs drawn from the Shakti cult predominant in Orissa's tribal and rural culture for centuries, these sarees are coloured in the subtle hues which are present in nature.

The word kontha in Sanskrit means rags. In Bengal Kantha evolved out of necessity to drape or protect oneself against the cold. It is a brilliant example of the art of recycling. When the silks, muslins and cotton sarees became worn-out, the housewives and other womenfolk, instead of throwing them away, gathered them up in layers and stitched simple but pretty little patterns all over the square/rectangular pieces. These became light blankets which could be used throughout the year.

Another legend relates the origin of kantha to Lord Buddha and his disciples. It is believed that they used to cover themselves with thrown away rags patched and stitched together, in tune with their vows of austere lifestyle. In recent years Kantha embroidery has become so popular and so widely acclaimed, that the medium shifted from useless rags to expensive silks and cottons.


The Bomkai, Orissa's pride



Kantha - from waste
to wealth
   
Textiles of Assam

Handloom weaving is Assam's largest and oldest industry. Weaving has been a way of life in Assam since time immemorial. Handlooms of Assam are not confined to a particular group of people or to a particular region. Assam was one of the first places where the practice of rearing silk-worms and culling the silken thread from the cocoons began to be practiced.

Assam’s weavers bring forth diverse varieties of silk namely endi, muga and pala. The most outstanding of the three is muga - royal and exotic. This beautiful fabric combines beauty (owing to its scintillating golden colour) with strength and durability. Unlike other silk fabrics, muga is washable at home. However due to low porosity of the threads Muga can neither be bleached nor dyed. This fabric is extensively used in making Mekhala Chador - the traditional dress of the Assamese women.

Endi derives its name from the castor leaves on which the silkworm feeds. This silk has a yellowish tinge and is available in both rough as well as smooth varieties. It is extensively used in winter for warmth. Pala is obtained from the silk worms that feed on the leaves of the mulberry trees.





A saree made of Muga silk


   
Textiles of Nagaland

The Nagas attach great importance to their costume, worn on ceremonial or festive occasions, besides those for daily use. The designs and colours vary not only from one tribe to another but also from village to village. The designs portray the wearer’s position in society. Simple straight lines, stripes, squares and bands, varying in width, colour and arrangement are the most traditional design and motifs of this region. Naga womenfolk are masters in their choice and combination of colours.

Tsungkotepsu, the decorative warrior shawl is typical of the Ao tribe. Exclusively for men, this shawl may be worn only by someone who has taken heads in war or offered a mithun (local bison) as sacrifice. In Naga society, this ritual can be performed only by rich men). The cloth has a median white band on a dark base; on either side of it are horizontal bands of contrasting black, red and white. The median band is black in colour and includes figures of mithun (symbolizing wealth), elephant and tiger (symbolizing valour), human head (representing success in head-hunting) and other motifs like the spear, dao (sickle/scythe like instrument),the rooster,etc.

There are several varieties of woven cloths worn by the Angami tribe. The predominant pattern comprising white, red and black bands is called loramhoushu, while black with red and yellow bands called lohe. The Angami priests don the phichu-pfe, which portrays their distinct social status. A kind of black shawl, ideal for rough wear (used by both sexes) is known as ratapfe.

Among the Sangtam tribals, the sangtam rongsu shawl is meant exclusively for the valiant warriors. The cloth on a black base has four grey bands at the top and another four bands of the same colour at the bottom. Another decorative shawl woven by this tribe is called supong which is commonly used by the affluent menfolk.




A colourful Naga shawl



Another variety of
Naga shawl
   
Textiles of Bastsar/Chhattisgarh

(The tribal textiles of Bastar region are woven manually. The commonest motifs include animals, birds, huts, bows and arrows flora and vegetation, pitchers, temples and so forth. These textiles are worn by the tribals on important occasions like dances, weddings and religious ceremonies).

Cotton Fabrics are one of the famous and attractive handicrafts made by the Bastar tribesmen. The tribals also churn out a fabric made of kosa silk threads obtained from a kind of worm found on trees in the forest, which are hand woven and hand printed by the tribals themselves, who incidentally trace their antecedents to the medieval, secular saint-poet Kabir, who was a weaver by profession. The hand printing is generally done with the natural vegetable dye extracted from maddaer (aal) trees, found in the forest of Bastar.These fabrics includes cotton saris, dress materials and drapes.

 
   
The weaving is done in heavy cotton, with a count between 10 and 20.The pallu and borders are generally tinged with natural hues of brown or terracotta obtained from Indian madder besides black obtained from rusted iron. The dramatic designs are highly attractive and appealing.

The central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is renowned for its Chanderi and Maheshwari sarees. The Chanderi cotton sarees are ideal summer wear. Usually in subtle hues, they possess an air of unmatched sophistication. On the other hand the Chanderi silk sarees generally have a rich gold border and two gold bands on the pallav (the part that goes over and beyond the shoulders). The more expensive sarees have gold checks with lotus roundels all over which are known as butis. The hallmark of Chanderis lies in its reference to nature. The typical motifs are earth and sky, hunting scenes, the tree of life, men and women, birds, fruits, flowers, heavenly bodies.

A Chanderi saree
   
Maheshwari sarees, from the town of Maheshwar, on the banks of the Narmada, available in both cotton and silk are the last words in simplicity. The entire surface of such a saree is either chequered or plain or has stripes, combined with complementary colours. A speciality of this sarees it is reversible border, which makes it wearable on both the sides. of the saree which can be worn either side, is a speciality. Interestingly, the pallav (the portion that goes over and beyond the shoulders) of Maheshwari saree is characterised by three coloured and two white alternating stripes. Maheshwari sarees are rendered in silk also, which are of course more expensive than their cotton counterparts.

Among the most breathtakingly beautiful sarees made in India figures the Paithani sarees, woven exclusively in the Paithan region of the western state of Maharashtra.The gold embroidered Paithani sarees with their exquisitely beautiful designs depict the blend of the aesthetic with the symbolic. The Rig Veda mentions a golden, woven fabric and the Greek records mention gorgeous Paithani fabrics from the well-known, ancient trading centre, Pratisthan or Paithan (in Maharashtra).

The typical, traditional paithani used to be a plain sari with a heavy zari border and ornamental pallav (the portion that goes over and beyond the shoulder). However, today motifs abound in these sarees: stars, parrots circles, peacocks, flowers asavali (flower and vine), narli (coconut) and paisleys. In the bygone centuries, the zari used in making Paithanis was drawn from pure gold. However, nowadays silver is substituted for gold, in order to make these sarees ore affordable to many people.

The Peshwas (political rulers of Maharashtra) in the 18th century had a special love for Paithani textiles and it is believed that Madhavrao Peshwa is believed to have asked for a huge supply of dupattas dotted with asavali prints, in shades of red, green, saffron, pomegranate and pink.

Interestingly, the Nizam of erstwhile princely state of Hyderabad too is believed to have nurtured a penchant for the Paithanis, which made him undertake several trips to the obscure town of Paithan to secure the fabric for personal use. His daughter-in-law, Niloufer, was instrumental in introducing new motifs to the designs on the borders as well as the pallav (the part that goes over and beyond the shoulders) designs.


Paithani-the pride of
Maharashtra



A beautiful Maheshwari saree

 

 

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