Jun 4,2020

Weaving sums up India in once classical skill

If India has to be described by one great and classical skill of the hands, weaving is the most evocative symbol. Texture, colour, pattern, motif come together and represent the individual cultural strains of different parts of the subcontinent, enhancing and establishing the plurality that makes India truly special. Here, textiles are the fabric of life, with all the social complexities interwoven on a vast variety of looms the warp and the weft merging, creating light and shade, emphasising the infinite subtle nuances of this fine and robust civilisation.

Much has been said about the sari and there is no ‘dress’ that can compete with it in the realm of elegance. The drape, the pleats, the pallav, whether in a four-yard or six-yard or nine-yard sari, spell tactile, sensuous femininity. As ‘modern’, 62 year-old ‘independent’ India matures as a fledgling democracy, the urban and semi-urban woman seems to be shedding her traditional form of dress, opting for a westernised, unisex mode of clothing in an effort to hide social insecurities in a globalising world. This has been the singularly most absurd and unwarranted development in the cultural meta morphosis happening in the country.

Women wearing hot pants, short skirts, long ugly gowns and other such comic garb, have made a caricature of themselves at the cost of wearing the versatile sari, the appropriate two piece munda vastra, the sparse sarong, or the ghagra odhni. Young women look awkward and strange in their new fashions-features, build and gait, skin colour, all come stand in sharp contrast to the alien costume. Not so with the sari.

Weaving styles and techniques vary, as do motifs and colour, weights and lengths of the sari. The most complicated is the nine-yard sari, worn predominantly in Maharashtra on the western coast of India. It is draped in such a way that it balloons around the legs like harem pants with the end tucked into the waist at the back. Fisherwomen wear it high, leaving their legs, knee down, exposed as they have to wade through water; the women of the court cover their legs till the ankle. The finest images of women wearing splendid nine-yarders are seen in portraits by Raja Ravi Varma. He had the ability to depict all the movement and texture of the different fabrics with their shimmering flat gold worked borders-amazing renderings of the style at its best. Here, a warp in one dark hue usually had a light contrasting colour as the weft that created the dhoop-chaun (sun and shade) effect. 

From sheer, see-through muslin to heavy, brocaded silks, India has an unmatched directory of textiles. The colour palette of natural dyes too is like no other. From very simple to immensely intricate and complicated weaving techniques, the variety boggles the mind. Khadi, the purest and finest, is when the yarn is hand-spun and then hand-woven. The counts determine how fine and translucent the end result will be. Mahatma Gandhi made khadi the symbol of liberty and freedom from alien domination. Today, a truly special khadi sari with an asli (real) zari plain border is an expensive ‘heirloom!

When the Mughals ruled ‘Hindoostan’ they introduced new motifs, external embellishments and added to the colour palette. From Persia came the very unusual hue of aqua contrasted with the yellow of turmeric and the clear shades of pyaazi and phalsa. Textile styles evolved with the many influences that entered the culture but the techniques withstood the test of time. Colonial rule saw a stagnation and decline in the traditional handloom sector and it is because of the continuing use of the sari that the industry was not completely crippled.

After 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru and TT Krishnamachari believed that the sector needed to be restored and revived and put Pupul Jayakar to the task of identifying the various techniques and getting the looms working once again. She travelled through India and set up weaver service centres in every region that had a unique process of weaving and dyeing. She and Kamaladevi Chattopadyay with many other committed people who assisted them, put traditional Indian looms back in business. For her part, by wearing only traditional saris from across the many regions of India, Indira Gandhi show-cased the best and made the wearing of handlooms fashionable and stylish

State-sponsored initiatives like the Vishvakarma exhibitions and the Pudu Pavi experiment enhance the quality and design of saris and set a fresh benchmark. From Patola and Andhra Pradesh along the coastline going up to Orissa, and on to Southeast Asia, you see the best examples of tie-dye ikat in the world, binding the many cultural linkages of the larger region. 

The diversity of style is indeed extraordinary: mangalgiri, pochampalli, chanderi,  baluchari, paithani, maheshwari, venkatagiri upada, jamdani gadwal, tangail, kota doria, sambhalpuri, bomkai, the bold patterned saris from Chettinad, silk kanjivaram in contrasting colours, tanchoi and kinkhab from Varanasi the list goes on.

Despite many bemoaning the demise of the sari, there has been a huge revival and rejuvenation of handloom textiles over the last decade in particular. Saris coloured with vegetable dyes and where the warp and weft create a wonderful soft patina, with real  zari threads used both in the body as well as in the borders and pallav, are new treasures for those collectors’ who live by the sari, who drape it upon their person, women who are intrinsically feminine and sensuous.

 As India aims to become an economic giant, the bhandar of design, motif and colour linked to the tested techniques operated by the skill of hands must be conserved and brought into the mainstream. These extraordinary, multiple skills, our traditional infor mation technologies (IT), are India’s legacy industries that we must hold in trust for the generations that follow. 

Our many identities that define our plural culture allow us to stand apart  as a modern civilisation that survives on a strong foundation of sustainable structures. To corrode and destruct them as we ape economically rich but younger civilisations and some, less mature ‘nation states is inappropriate Our planners must see the importance of respecting inherent strengths when they structure models of development, if only to keep India and Bharat buoy- ant in the period of change. Like the tiger at the top of the food chain, the sari, representing the textile tradition, is the crown of the cultural chain. Natural environment and tangible heritage are both essential for our future and need pro- active conservation, renewal, revival and restoration.

This article originally appeared in Harmony Magazine Sept 2009 Volume 6 issue 4. The text belongs to Harmony Magazine.