Invoking the magic of a lost weave: A Baluchari sari exhibition in Mumbai

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Invoking the magic of a lost weave: A Baluchari sari exhibition in Mumbai
1. Baluchari saris, renowned for their intricacy, are rare collectibles today2. A Baluchari sari draped in the style worn by women in the 19th century


Elegant women smoke hookahs, nawabs relax with pet falcons, soldiers stand by cannons, sahibs and memsahibs enjoy the comforts of steam-powered trains and boats… These are neither sepia-toned photographs of yore, nor paintings evoking a bygone era, but intricate motifs of life in 18th and 19th century Bengal woven into the pallus of Baluchari silk saris.

The magic of these exquisite weaves comes to Mumbai with a month-long exhibition at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya from December 12. The woven archives, from 23 masterpieces, display the rare Baluchari style from TAPI collection, Surat.

"TAPI, an acronym for Textiles and Art of the People of India, is a tribute to river Tapi, the life force of the textile town of Surat, Gujarat," explains Shilpa Shah, who along with Praful Shah (owners of Garden Vareli) runs this resource centre for design, one of the foremost collections of Indian historic textiles in the country.

Encompassing a wide range of techniques, materials and motifs, the collection houses 14th century styles of cloth, woven, dyed or printed in Gujarat for southeast Asia, painted cottons and embroideries favoured by the western market and pictorial pichhwais. The collection is also particularly rich in rare Kashmiri shawls, 18th and 19th century articles for urban use — floor spreads, sashes and hangings — and Mochi embroidery. Besides, there is a wide range of beautifully-woven cotton jamdanis, silk balucharis, brocades and patolas.

"This was our way of saluting India's ancient textile legacy, which represents the millennia-old ingenuity of our textile processes and artisanal mastery. Even today, the creativity and adaptability of our textile artists make India a treasure house of hand-woven textiles," says Shah, who has herself been collecting rare Balucharis for over two decades.

But aren't Balucharis part of Bengali textile tradition? There was a time when every self-respecting Bengali bride had a Baluchari sari tucked away in her cupboard. Created through a special two-part warp and weft weaving, these silk saris seamlessly meshed each family's heirloom folklore with traditional motifs — borrowed from the epics, religious texts and even local legends. "These luxury textiles are unique in that they employ no zari, achieving their glowing effects through use of indigenous mulberry silk. Unlike any other Indian textile genre, Baluchar designs go beyond the purely decorative."

"They capture a period of political, economic and social transformation, drawing inspiration from the lifestyles (real or imagined) of the native and European elite," Shah, whose exhibition is aptly titled Sahib, Bibi, Nawab: Baluchar Silks of Bengal 1750-1900, adds.

The exhibition will be accompanied by the first major fully-researched publication on Baluchar — Silks of Bengal, authored by Eva-Marie Rakob, Shilpa Shah and Tulsi Vatsal. The richly illustrated catalogue describes how these rare works of art were created, who wove them, who wore them, and why the tradition died. In fact, handloom cognoscenti across the country are awaiting the Baluchar butedar silks exhibition excitedly, considering it is a first of its kind since Lady Ranu Mukherji's exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata way back in 1961.

Nearly 2,000 km away in Kolkata, Professor Nihar Hazra, who has done much research on the issue, explains how Baluchari was woven in a small village called Baluchar in Murshidabad district over two centuries ago. "This is how it got its name. Located in the floodplains where both the Ganges and the topography around her banks keep changing by the year, it fell on bad times. If not for the patronage of Nawab Murshidkuli Khan of Bengal in the 18th century, the craft would have been lost in that bygone era."

"Approached by some weavers in distress, he brought the craft along with them from the region around Dhaka (in what was still undivided Bengal) to Baluchar in Muksusabad (which he later renamed as Murshidabad after himself)," says Hazra.

"The Ganges seemed to be in hot pursuit though. When the angry river once submerged the village, the weavers were forced to move to Bishnupur village in Bankura district," Hazra adds, explaining how Baluchari tradition prospered till the arrival of the British.

"They took back samples to England and tried their best to replicate designs there, but failed. Angered, they began breaking the back of the weaving tradition by preventing access to credit to buy raw materials and looms. The twin blows of the withdrawal of political patronage and mounting financial losses left the craft choking as most weavers were compelled to give up a profession they saw little future in."

It took the intervention of famous weaving artiste Subho Thakur, who wanted to re-cultivate the rich Baluchari tradition in the first half of 20th century, to start a revival. "Though Bishnupur was always famous for its silk, he invited master weavers like Akshay Kumar Das of Bishnupur to his centre to re-learn the technique of jacquard weaving and bring back the magic of the Baluchari sari on their looms," Hazra says.

Bishnupur was the capital of the Malla dynasty and various crafts flourished under the patronage of Malla kings. Terracotta temples which were first built these rulers became a significant influence on the revived Baluchari saris which borrow a lot from the mythology depictions on temple walls.

Yet the Balucharis' travails were from finished. Faced with stiff competition from its comparatively cheaper rival, the Benarasi silk, and changing tastes, the craft finds itself in a bind.

"Increasing Wahhabisation of this region in Bengal has meant fewer Muslim women want or are allowed to wear saris with Hindu text-inspired designs," laments Hazra. "Also, the very socio-economic fabric of the Baluchari weavers is turning threadbare. A few mahajans control over 80 per cent of the trade, having rights to coveted designs. They provide weavers with the loom, yarn, designs and call the shots."

According to the Kolkata resident professor, a Baluchari loom can cost more than Rs1.7 lakh. This makes it impossible for weavers to own one, pushing them into the clutches of cartels of moneylenders. "What's worse, though over Rs50 lakh per month is earned by the middlemen on the finished saris, the weavers who spend 8-10 days weaving each of them get only Rs50-60 a day," he laments. "This is when a decent Baluchari retails between Rs2,800-45,000 in today's times."

What's worse, mill-spun stuff is flooding markets. Bishnupur and Panchmura near it are home to over 550 mills. Over 200 of these manufacture swarnachuris (golden-hued). Meena balucharis are comparatively even cheaper and often make do with artificial silk or a mix with natural silk.

Can Baluchari sarees woven on traditional jala looms compete with that?
"Haath ka kaam haath ka kaam hota hai," insists Naseem Ahmad of Benares, who won the 2011 national award for excellence in textile skills. He should know. His great grandfather Ali Hassan alias Kallu Hafeez revived the tradition of using jala looms to weave Baluchari saris. Naseem only uses Bangalore mulberry on the warp and weft of his works. For extra weft decoration or motifs, he uses Malda yellow silk or Assam dupion silk, which has its own sheen. "It has no twist and is difficult to weave but is sturdy and has wonderful colouration," says Naseem, who has also woven a panel displayed at the INA Metro Gallery in New Delhi.

Both Naseem and Hazra are happy at the prospect of the upcoming exhibition of the hand-crafted Baluchari. "We need more such efforts," says Hazra.

On the itinerary
Eminent historian John Keay will address the gathering in an inaugural lecture titled 'Indo-warp, Anglo-weft: The Weaver as Chronicler' at the Chhatrapti Shivaji Vastu Sagrahalaya at 5.30 pm on December 11.

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