saris, shawls and handkerchiefs, this textile is probably the only woven
narrative in India. Every piece holds an interesting story in its folds — the
lavish lifestyles of Nawabs and European sahibs and bibis. Though
much is not known about its origins and also why the tradition stopped, over
the years an effort has been made to revisit and revive Baluchari. The
Baluchari saree was one of the National Award winners among the main weaving
styles in the years 2009 and 2010 presented by the then President of India. Through
time, the visual language of textiles has offered up vital clues to the
prevailing social contexts, to ideas of what was desirable and fashionable, to
the economy and the body politic that was significant at their time of
production and use. Examples abound from the late-16th-century woven Vrindavan
Vastra with its images inspired from the Hindu text of the Bhagavata Purana,
and on to today’s graphic t-shirts, this widespread means of communication
continues to endure. The late-19th-century pictorial Baluchari weave can be viewed
through this prism of history and context with its enduring continuum echoing
Baluchari sarees are known for their intricate designs and handwork on them. No
other saree uses as many mythological designs as the Baluchari sarees. They are
dominated by stories and characters from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata.
These characters give a royal look to the Baluchari sari. Saris depicting the
story of Lord Krishna explaining the Bhagavad Gita to Arjun is one of the most
popular design of Baluchari Saree. The mythological designs make a Baluchari
saree perfect for ceremonial and festive occasions which have a religious touch
to it. They are distinguished for their elaborate borders and fabulous pallu.
The borders are ornamental and surround Kalka motifs within it. A series of
figures are designed in rows and motifs, which are woven diagonally. Mostly the
motif designs are in four alternative colours on a shaded background.
on the complex structured naqsha/draw-loom using natural-dyed high twist silk for the warp combined with untwisted silk-floss, the patterning was a
combination of butis/small florals, geometric motifs and differently sized
intricately patterned kalka/paisleys. But what made the saris unique was the
patterning developments that took place during the cosmopolitan cultural
efflorescence presided over by the ruler Murshid Quli Khan.
soil from which the Baluchari emerged in Bengal had its roots in the social,
political and commercial transformations being wrought in its environs. The
Bengal of this time was a space of bustling mercantile activity with advances
in surface transport that included the introduction of passenger trains that
moved goods, people and ideas. This ecumenical blend of culturally diverse
influences was cross-pollinated across the intellectual traditions of Bengal
and found reflection across diverse creative fields. The ideas penetrating
cultural milieus that cut through economic and social cross-sections of society
to create an aesthetic that branched out from the confines of the mythological
and religious to build creative practices that reflected these inspiring times.
scroll-paintings of the itinerant Patuas that were unfurled before their
rural audiences to the accompaniment of a story-song, portrayed not just
religious narratives but contemporary themes, current mores of Bengal society
alongside the colloquially termed angrez or sahib pat that
depicted the goings-on of their English colonial masters. In parallel, the
early years of the 19th century witnessed the development of the Kalighat pats
sold to pilgrims visiting religious sites. While wood-cuts and metal-engraved
prints led to mass-produced reproductions that were circulated widely, their
images reflecting the same engagement with society and the polity. The quilted
embroideries of the Nakshi Kanthas of the 19th to the mid-20th century
juxtaposed traditional motifs with images from the world around are just some
such examples. This imagery was akin in nature of the imaginings on the
Baluchari weaves that were interpreted on the draw-loom by the great master
Dubraj Das and his fellow weavers.
paisleys and floral motifs were mingled with a vocabulary of images from
trains, European officers on horse-back, women puffing the huqqa/smoking pipes,
the double-decker steamboats peopled with passengers and crew, processions,
court scenes, the royal hunt, amorous couples to zamindars in repose and
Europeans — men and women in horse-drawn coaches. Further Dubraj's signature, woven into the
pallu/end-piece of the sari, was itself a rare, if not a unique conceit —
something that we rarely see even today. This mark of creativity and virtuoso
craftsmanship has continued to distinguish and identify his creations for times
to come. These remarkable images were woven onto textiles that were meant to
be draped by women as a personal statement of style. However, this hybridised
nature of the Baluchari patterning perhaps made it more difficult to
appreciate. The fickle nature of fashion was apparent even in the late 19th
century when arbiters of taste in this period of time critiqued the patterning,
and in N G Mukerji's writings on the silk fabrics of Bengal he stated: "The
figured saris etc of Baluchar were at one time very fashionable, but now they
are rather despised as being ugly and unsuitable for personal wear....".
than a century after Dubraj Das's passing his influence, directly or otherwise,
and the power of his iconic textiles continues its hold on current textile
aesthetics. In Bengal, the patterning of the Baluchari continues to respond to
contemporary narratives while paradoxically having moved further afield, both
literally and figuratively, from its historic forbearers. Working now on the
jacquard unlike the draw-looms of the past, the weavers themselves are now
located mainly in Bishnupur and no longer in the Murshidabad district where the
Baluchari was woven in the past.
Thakur, a noted artist and the then director of the Regional Design Centre,
Calcutta (Kolkata) worked towards the revival of the weaving tradition as early
as the first half of the 20th century CE. He introduced Akshay Kumar Das, a
master weaver from Bishnupur to the technique of the Jacquard weaving machine.
However, the Bengal famine of 1943 proved to be a major setback for the silk
industry and the weavers.Major steps are being taken today to revive the once
lost tradition of Baluchari sari weaving around West Bengal and a big thrust is
on making this a high fashion fabric relevant to younger generations.
offer are the two-shaded Minakari, the kaleidoscopic-hued varieties and the
Swarnachari — literally the golden Baluchari that is suffused with gold and
silver metallic zari yarn. Unlike the mulberry silk weaves of the past that had
no element of zari, the Swarnachari is giving stiff competition to the brocaded
Banarasi sari as a must-have in the trousseau of a Bengali bride. This use of
zari seems to be an almost intuitive response by the weavers as N G Mukerji's
1903 analysis of the reasons for the declining sales graph of Baluchari sari
where he stated "...at one time very highly prized by the upper-middle-class people of Bengal. Now the ladies of that class go for the more costly
fabrics of Banaras," elaborating "...the competition with the Banaras
gold embroidered saris, shawls etc is too strong even for Dubraj's goods."
changes include the wide and vivid colour palette with catchy shade names like
Victorian wisp, truffle talk, toffee tease, tinker-bell, Swiss coffee, scarlet
whisper, ginger pop and more, all appealing to current consumption patterns.
Though increasingly characterised by a capricious contemporary, the issues and
influences of our age are expressed in myriad ways from simple figuration to
the composite and complex with borrowings from both popular and contemporary
art, the folk and tribal to those from digital media. The vitality of
expressions in the Baluchari continues to respond and thrive to be taken forward
from its historical versions as the influence of its visual language continues
a single Baluchari is a time-consuming process and requires extremely good
craftsmanship. It takes around a week to weave one saree using the purest of yarns
depending on the material. Originally, Baluchari was woven only using the purest of
silk threads. However, these days cotton fabric is also used. The colors are
bright and cheerful. A lot of environment-friendly items such as banana plant
stems, bamboo trees and natural products like flower dye, fruits dye, neem
leaves, turmeric leaves and dried twigs are used in the weaving process.
are sarees, there are beautiful sarees, and then there are sarees that tell a
story. These pieces are not just garments, but an artwork. Baluchari Sarees,
unfortunately, never got the status of a Benarasi piece, but have enough potential to excel even a world-famous Dhakai Muslin. Wearing a Baluchari saree is a sure bet to turn heads as its intricate design and weave is truly unique, that many have never seen before.
‘The Woven Narrative Silks of
Bengal’, edited by Jasleen Dhamija. Niyogi Publications.
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