A CAMEO OF INDIAN HANDLOOMS
Indian hand woven fabrics have been known since time immemorial. Poets of the Mughal durbar likened our muslins to baft hawa (woven air), abe rawan (running water) and shabnam (morning dew). A tale runs that Emperor Aurangzeb had a fit of rage when he one day saw his daughter princess Zeb-un-Nissa clad in almost nothing. On being severely rebuked, the princess explained that she had not one but seven jamahs (dresses) on her body. Such was the fineness of the hand woven fabrics.
Though India was famous even in ancient times as an exporter of textiles to most parts of the civilized world, few actual fabrics of the early dyed or printed cottons have survived. This, it is explained is due to a hot, moist climate and the existence of the monsoons in India. It is not surprising therefore, that Egypt which has an exceptionally dry climate would provide evidence which India lacks. The earliest Indian fragment of cloth (before the Christian era) with a hansa (swan) design was excavated from a site near Cairo where the hot dry sand of the desert acted as a preservative.
Later, fragments of finely woven and madder-dyed cotton fabrics and shuttles were found at some of the excavated sites of Mohenjodaro (Indus valley civilization). Indian floral prints, dating back to the 18th century A.D were discovered by Sir Aurel Stein in the icy waters of Central Asia. The evidence shows that of all the arts and crafts of India, traditional handloom textiles are probably the oldest.
HANDLOOMS THE LARGEST COTTAGE INDUSTRY
Handlooms are an important craft product and comprise the largest cottage industry of the country. Millions of looms across the country are engaged in weaving cotton, silk and other natural fibers. There is hardly a village where weavers do not exist, each weaving out the traditional beauty of India’s own precious heritage.
THE INDIAN HERITAGE
In the world of handlooms, there are Madras checks from Tamil Nadu, ikats from Andhra and Orissa, tie and dye from Gujarat and Rajasthan, brocades from Banaras, jacquards form Uttar Pradesh. Daccai from West Bengal, and phulkari from Punjab. Yet, despite this regional distinction there has been a great deal of technical and stylistic exchange.
The famed Coimbatore saris have developed while imitating the Chanderi pattern of Madhya Pradesh. Daccai saris are now woven in Bengal, no Dhaka. The Surat tanchoi based on a technique of satin weaving with the extra weft floats that are absorbed in the fabric itself has been reproduced in Varanasi. Besides its own traditional weaves, there is hardly any style of weaving that Varanasi cannot reproduce. The Baluchar technique of plain woven fabric brocaded with untwisted silk thread, which began in Murshidabad district of West Bengal, has taken root in Varanasi. Their craftsmen have also borrowed the jamdani technique.
Woolen weaves are no less subtle. The Kashmiri weaver is known the world over for his Pashmina and Shahtoosh shawls. The shawls are unbelievably light and warm.
The states of Kashmir and Karnataka are known for their mulberry silk. India is the only country in the world producing all four commercially known silks – mulberry, tasser (tussore), eri and muga. Now gaining popularity in the U.S.A. and Europe tasser is found in the remote forests of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Another kind of raw silk is eri. Eri is soft, dull and has wool like finish.
Assam is the home of eri and muga silk. Muga is durable and its natural tones of golden yellow and rare sheen becomes more lustrous with every wash. The designs used in Assam, Tripura and Manipur are mostly stylized symbols, cross borders and the galaxy of stars. Assamese weavers produce beautiful designs on the borders of their mekhla, chaddar, riha (traditional garments used by the women) and gamosa (towel). It is customary in Assamese society for a young woman to weave a silk bihuan (cloth draped over the chest) for her beloved as a token of love on Bohag Bihu (new year’s eve).
From Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Gujarat come the ikats. The ikat technique in India is commonly known as patola in Gujarat, bandha in Orissa, pagdu bandhu, buddavasi and chitki in Andhra Pradesh. In the ikat tie and dye process, the designs in various colors are formed on the fabric either by the warp threads or the weft threads or by both. The threads forming the design are tied and dyed separately to bring in the desired color and the simple interlacement of the threads produces, the most intricate designs, that appear only in the finished weaving. The Orissa ikat is a much older tradition that Andhra Pradesh or Gujarat, and their more popular motifs as such are a stylized fish and the rudraksh bead. Here the color is built up thread by thread. In fact, Orissa ikat is known now as yarn tie and dye. In Andhra Pradesh, they bunch some threads together and tie and dye and they also have total freedom of design.
Some say that ikat was an innovative technique, first created in India, which wast later carried to Indonesia, the only other place in the world with a strong ikat tradition.
The process of resist-dyeing, tie-dyeing and yarns tie-dyed to a pattern before weaving were the basic techniques of indigenous dyeing of village cloth. Shellac was used for reds, iron shavings and vinegar for blacks, turmeric for yellow and pomegranate rinds for green.
Before the artificial synthesis of indigo and alizarin as dye stuffs, blues and reds were traditionally extracted from the plants indigofera, anil and rubia tintorum (madder-root). These were the main sources for traditional Indian dyes.
Even today, the Kalmkari cloth of Andhra Pradesh is printed with local vegetable dyes. The colors being shades of ochre, deep blue and a soft rose derived from local earths, indigo and madder roots.
Andhra Pradesh has made a significant contribution to the history of hand-printed textiles in India. Printing is native to the land, its pigments being obtained from the flowers, leaves and barks of local trees and it chemicals obtained from clay, dung and river sands.
A new technique has been developed in the northern sectors where warp threads are lined, measured and tied to the loom and then printed. The warp-printed material is a specialty of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
The ideal seasons for block printing are the dry months. Excellence is achieved only if the block is freshly and perfectly chiseled. The designs are produced by artists and the designing is kept within the discipline imposed, the type of yarn, the dyes used and the weaving techniques, by the nakshabandhas (graph-paper designers).
India also produces a range of home furnishings, household linen, curtain tapestry and yardage of interesting textures and varying thickness, which have been devised by using blended yarn.
Muslims were forbidden the use of pure silk, and the half cotton half silk, fabrics known, as mashru and himru were a response to this taboo.
Given the wide and exciting range of handloom it is not surprising that the rich and beautiful products of the weavers of India have been called “exquisite poetry in colorful fabrics.”