I remember a particular faint sound of the loom , a rhythmic pattern like that of nature . It was meditative . It echoed in the room, along with jubilant music that varied from traditional Bengali to Bollywood.
I was surfing the internet for some exquisite Kalamkari sarees . There were motifs of characters from Indian mythology and some flowers on the Sari . In the video they were being painted by hand intricately , like canvas painting . The precision with which the painting was being done was engaging and I was getting deeply pulled into the creation .
Suddenly I noticed that Nandini , my house help , was diving into my screen . I looked at her and smiled . I told her I had plans to visit the very village where this kind of art actually came to life . And instantly her eyes sparkled . It looked like I hit a cord deep inside .
Nandini came from a small town in Murshidabad , Kolkatta.She mentioned that her family had a legacy of saree weavers .
The first image that got created in my mind was that of a beautiful white Garad silk saree with a bold red and gold border, a poised young bride , draped in it elegantly with a big dark red bindi on her forehead ,big kohl lined eyes, and dark red lipstick .
Nandini continued to talk . She was very excited . She started telling me in details about the painstakingly beautiful process that goes into making a single silk hand-loom saree .
And the next thing I knew , I was in her Bengali riverside village in Murshidabad . Situated on the banks of the Bhagirathi, I was in the capital of silk production and saree weaving .
Nandini had lived all her life in the village . Swinging on trees , plucking fruits , getting muddy on this very river bank , she was free-spirited tomboyish girl . She loved her freedom and for the better part of her life , her parents respected that idea .
Her mother soon got her married into a family who lived in the same village . Her husband and her in-laws were weavers . As tradition prevailed , all family members were naturally expected to take up this family ritual as their way of life . She learnt to weave as an adolescent bride .
As we continued to walk and talk , a white sheet of fog was hanging just over the fields in the evening marking the setting of the day .
Her house was a little more than about half a kilometer walk . It was bare , four brick and concrete walls , some sleeping cots , a fire place , an outside enclosure where cooking happened on a mud choolha . But I would soon find out that it was nothing less than finding treasure in a cave . Besides , I was a ‘nobody’ here . I had no borders or expectations . I enjoyed the idea anonymity .
I could barely sleep that night out of curiosity and excitement .
Next morning I was strolling around outisde the house and I noticed that the activities of the day had already begun . Inside a room that looked like an empty small go down was a man standing by a huge boiling pot of water . Nandini came to me with tea . She took me inside and introduced me to the man . It was her father in law .
The man was humble . He gave me a soft smile in the middle of his busy schedule . He said he started working since he was 11 . He was taught by his father . This is all he knew . What they knew was not written down in scientific terms . It was only acquired over years of doing the same thing . Their livelihood centered around it .
He started adding a dark red colour powder to the boiling water . I thought I will leave him to it and come back after I’ve freshened up .
Soon enough the day began to unwind . Nandini was on a mission to take me through the whole process of saree weaving . I could sense the excitement and enthusiasm in her voice . I was going to spend the morning observing the the processes that turn the yarn into the thread, thread to fabric, and fabric to the final product.
We went back to the place where the colour was being prepared . The man was still there . He spoke broken Hindi with a heavy Bengali accent and so the story goes .
They acquired the yarn form the market . To make the yarn soft, it had to be boiled in a solution of soda and soap and then dried it.The next thing they had to do was dye the yarn according to the colour requirement of the sari . The dyes used were extracted from fruits, flowers, leaves, and vegetables like pomegranate, jamun, neem fruits and leaves, basil leaves, turmeric, marigold flowers, mangoes, and others.
After adding the colour , the water had to come to a boil . The yarn was mounted on a sort of a long rod and then submerged in the water . Due care had to be taken to ensure that the color is spread uniformly throughout the yarn .
After coloring they had to put them for drying in shade at room temperature for one or 2 days . Sun could harm the colour .
This is where I heard the faint sound that has stayed with me . The tapping mixed with the sound of Bengali music . The rhythm and the sound was so uniform that it made me get into a trance of sorts . As I followed the sound I entered a small room where I saw the art of Indian handloom weaving unfold before me.
Two weavers were very engrossed in the process of weaving at their machines . There was a vibrant pink saree in the making, solid colour with an intricate golden border .
A handloom is a simple machine used for weaving manually.
The weaving process is divided into several interlinked processes.
The weft winding machine is Gandhiji’s charkha to be specific . Weft winding is usually carried out by the women of the family . A woman sits by the weft and passes each thread into the machine, thereby giving the fabric its structure.
Numerous designs are imprinted on punch cards, which are set on the loom, to create the ground and pallu designs of the sarees.Besides being a physical activity, weaving requires a significant amount of concentration and mental effort . It is a work of great patience and creativity.
Each saree weaving takes between 2 days to a week depending upon the intricacy of the design and quality of the saree .
This family’s entire life revolved around the hand-loom business. They had created a myriad of saris and along with it , they had woven dreams for the family and their children. The profit made from this business contributed to their livelihoods , their children’s education , and everything else .
The Nandini I knew was nowhere close to the person she told me about . She was now a responsible young woman .She always draped herself in six yards and it suddenly had special significance — something that meant to her really deep within.. something that represented her journey to becoming powerful yet free-spirited.
Sarees are woven all over Bengal
A number of traditional weaving villages are still in existence in West Bengal such as Shantipur in Nadia district, Begumpur in Hooghly district, Kenje-Kura in Bankura district. Centuries back these villages were known as Weavers Heaven of Bengal.
Bengal brings to life , the values and traditions of ancient India in a very artistic manner . The Sari , woven by hand , considering every fine point that can impact its quality has become the unspoken symbol of the its unique craftsmanship and dexterity of rural artisans . The era of modern fashion has come to identify and bring to light this very fact .
It is a hand-woven saree using richly dyed silk, with intricate motifs depicting Indian mythology woven onto its large ‘pallu’. Baluchari takes a week to be woven, and the craftsmen are largely centred in Murshidabad.
An interesting feature of earlier Baluchari sarees was the stylised bird and animal motifs that were incorporated in paisley and other floral decorations.
Gradually, hunters mounted on horses and elephants appeared, followed by scenes of the Nawab’s court. When the British took over Bengal, ‘sahibs’ and ‘memsahibs’ appeared a ‘sahib’ smoking and the ‘mem’ fanning herself.
The silk yarn used at Baluchar was not twisted and therefore had a soft, heavy texture.
Dhakai Jamdani Saree:
The muslin was the most transparent and delicate cotton cloth intricately woven ever by human hand .
Traditionally Jamdani weavers were muslim men revered by their mogul rulers who were patrons of handwoven fabric . During the reign of Emperor Jahangir in the 16th century the plain muslin was decorated with a wide range of floral designs . The emperor wore a Jamdani sash around his waist which then became very popular among the Bengali women who often draped themselves in Jamdani weave saree .
Garad means white, the natural colour of mulberry or tussar which keeps the purity factor of the fabric intact . These sarees are distinguished by red borders and small motifs. It is again Murshidabad which is associated with this type of saree.
Back in time , kings and zamindars used to drape themselves in this fabric to perform religious ceremonies and rituals.
A more ornamental and richer version of the Bengali Garad silk saree is the Korial silk saree . Korial silks are rich and intricately woven, making them perfect for weddings and similar occasions.
The earliest record of handloom saree weaving in Bengal can be traced back to the 15th century in Shantipur . While the fine muslins adorned the royal class, cotton sarees or Tant sarees were used for draping by the common folks.
The term “tant” refers to the handlooms in Bengal that are used to weave cotton sarees along with dhotis and other garments. Tant saree are woven from cotton threads and distinguished by its lightness and transparency .
Every Tant saree is characterized by the design on its border, pallav and body. These designs are drawn by an artist and transcribed onto soft cardboards by perforating them which are then suspended from the loom.